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World-class public transport for Cambridge will require road charging'

Traffic congestion in Cambridge
Traffic congestion in Cambridge

Cllr Tim Bick, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cambridge City Council, suggests a congestion charge must be considered by the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

Tim Bick. Picture: Phli Mynott
Tim Bick. Picture: Phli Mynott

Nearly two years ago, I went to the board of the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) to ask them why they were refusing to consider the kind of measure that might give our area the first-class public transport system that it so badly needs.

It was the aftermath of their U-turn from the notorious “road closures scheme”, which had brought people onto the streets to point up its absurdity. Then, bold thinking had hit the buffers: I got a non-committal answer. But I am hoping for something better from the GCP in the coming weeks. A new page needs to be turned.

My challenge to them was a vision of bus services increased by at least 50 per cent, plus an improvement in the frequency and operating hours of existing services. New services to neighbourhoods and villages inside and outside the city, enabling people who struggle to share the area’s prosperity and benefit from its assets, are required.

The challenge was also about halving all current bus fares or making them completely free for some groups, like young people.

And the vision was for all this to occur with reduced usage of private vehicles on the same roads, allowing the reliability of these services to be radically improved.

A vision based on public transport services had been missing from the start of the City Deal in 2015. It had got too focused on infrastructure. Asking the question this way round would have enabled a different line of thinking, won more confidence and arrived at the strategic centrepiece of the GCP mission much sooner.

This had been dismissed because the most effective means of achieving it – some form of peak hour road pricing or congestion charging – had been dismissed out of hand: not rejected after rational consideration. Just treated as a taboo.

The point remains that a truly first-class public transport system requires a subsidy, like it does everywhere else in the world. Here, it also requires roads that are clear enough of other traffic for buses to get through. A road charging scheme responds to both of these needs with an incentive to leave your car at home and a revenue source to subsidise public transport.

Buses are the local public transport we’ve got today. We are still some way off replacing them with an underground metro system, though I hope that eventually happens. If and when it does, the same need for public subsidy and deterrence of car use will exist.

We must go deeper than the reaction that road charging is ‘just another tax’! It’s a deterrent to car use, which some will respond to by changing their behaviour, using improved alternatives funded by others who don’t. It offers to the common good the chance of cleaner air and healthier and safer conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. Unlike road closures, it preserves choice.

The next step should be to consult the public, sharing evidence and illustrations. Getting a scheme right requires lots of public input. Of course, the community may decide the costs are too high or the benefits aren’t enough. But the shame would be on politicians who continued to tell everyone what’s best for us, without giving us the chance to look at it ourselves.

We know that our congestion crisis is going to grow. We could now get ahead of the curve and stop relying on makeshift reactive responses, which condemn us constantly to live on the edge of gridlock, with the harm to our economy and people’s quality of life that means.

:: Cllr Tim Bick is Liberal Democrat group leader on Cambridge City Council and is a member of the Assembly of the Greater Cambridge Partnership. As council leader he negotiated the City Deal with the government.

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