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M6 Toll unease


Matt Webb.

Some notes/a clarification of my first post about the M6 Toll on Interconnected in response to some email comments.

So, two motorways with common origin and endpoint, and the same length: one is pay-for and 45 minutes faster to drive.

I've had a few comments about this, I'll try and address some of those here. Phil Gyford and Clay Shirky both pointed me to the Paris Metro Pricing model [as PDF] as a good comparison: first class and standard class have identical features but different prices, which reduces the passenger number and hence introduces the benefit. I'll come back to this minimally differentiated service in a bit.

Roads don't just benefit the people who drive on them. The locations they bring closer benefit also from trade and the movement of people; consumers benefit from cheaper freight. Good roads have regional and nations effects. So in the first instance I think roads fall into that category of shared investments - like health, education, defence - where the individual and societal outcomes are highly meshed, and so funding should come from those usual sources (how progressive, regional or whatever these taxes are is another story).

But if there's going to be a toll, what then? If there was just one road and everyone was charged and that paid back the investment -- that's okay so long as the amount isn't so much so to cause people to choose not to drive. I don't want to impact choice. If it's low enough, it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor: the money-cost is negligible next to the time-cost of driving; rich people aren't going to spend all their money driving up and down the road all day. (But if the cost was significant, that would be a different story. In that case I'd ask that the rich paid more, as they do when funding comes from taxes, and as they do already when travel is part-paid in time and opportunity cost.)

But two roads, one of which is toll? Surely if some people want to pay and have a quicker trip and thereby fund this extra road - which as I've said benefits everyone whether they drive it or not - why shouldn't they? This is a really hard question for me; it's not an instance of a general case. It's something to do very particularly with the nature of roads, of value and money, of funding (and how it extends to, eg, internet pricing policy or as a general mechanism for resolving distribution of rivalrous goods -- I'll have to think about that.) So, some points.

I'm going too far maybe. Would the road have been built without the toll? Well is it worth it or not? The toll-funded road ignores a lot of the cost the state incurs, but the state takes on those costs for a reason.

The M6 Toll moves the people who can afford to off the free M6 and provides capacity: the free M6 will end up just as busy as before, but with different people, and the democratic franchise will indeed have expanded, and there will all the good consequences of freer movement as before.

Well, then it's down to preference. Where would you prefer the franchise to be? I'd prefer we didn't have tiers of education or of health, but given we do we do our best -- but that's no reason to introduce more systems like that. Note I wouldn't apply the same arguments to restaurants, say, but would to public seating, and this is because the benefits of public seating are to a large part social - having people sitting in public benefits the public space - and so individuals shouldn't be allowed to pay a significant amount for priority treatment. What they're actually getting is empty capacity at all time, which is an unmeasurable social ill, and like all unmeasurable properties isn't properly charged for (think of environmental pollution in less recent times).

I don't like the message that social infrastructure can be owned, and I don't like it that the payment can start a cascade which concentrates on one quality of the infrastructure (the travel time) to the detriment of others: rival routes, local noise and so on.

The Paris Metro Pricing worked on the Paris Metro because it was a self-contained system: having people travel on the less empty carriages didn't adversely affect group processes on the fuller ones (because they were full enough), and because of mass production there was a disincentive to make the first class carriages any different to standard class. The benefits were confined to the journey itself (more comfortable, but not quicker) and the environmental side-effects weren't possible.

The M6s, on the other hand - and it is a very specific set of circumstances - cause me unease.

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