Monday, February 12, 2007

No 10 road pricing petition - beware what you wish for...

A new system for citizens' petitions on the Prime Minister's web site has attracted well over 1 million signatures for a motion to: "Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy". Extensive news coverage [BBC] and ministerial response [BBC] have followed. Despite a recent speech on Winning the debate on road pricing, Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander looks as though he may in danger of losing it.

The idea of the petition is great in some ways, but flawed in others - it allows propositions that are incomplete or misleading, or leading questions in a way that polling companies would never permit. For example, the proposition doesn't encapsulate the problem or choice of how to deal with rising traffic - see chart above [data from DfT]. In this case, the effort for a petitioner to find a counter-proposition is much greater because the home-page for the petitions lists the most popular, whereas a search is required to find counter proposals - creating an amplifying advantage for popular petitions. There are in fact several counter petitions to anti road pricing one, but with tiny numbers of signatories:

...and there are others, if you look hard enough for them. Perhaps the system could be improved by linking counter-petitions from the main petition (at least those that have the home page advantage - so a that a minority can more easily find its voice. There are well over 1,000 live petitions now - a search on 'road' reveals a really nasty set of angry motorist petitions.
But what is the right thing to do?

1. Recognise the powerful underlying drivers of demand
The government's policy on road pricing and the recent Eddington Review [Exec summary - 64 pages! / index / BBC coverage] favour road pricing - and are grounded in some difficult realities. As the chart shows, real incomes have risen rapidly, the cost of motoring has been relatively flat, costs of alternatives have risen - so motoring has become far more affordable see chart [data from DfT]....

Economic growth, falling motoring costs and the convenience of the private car mean that motoring will continue to be Britain's transport of choice for many of the trips we need to make. But if road traffic levels continue to rise in our urban areas and on our national road network, traffic congestion will become an increasing problem. [Road pricing background]

2. Understand the consequences for infrastructure - and accept that road capacity is limited by other things we want land for
At the same time, the road network has not and cannot expand to keep pace with this growth. The statistics are quite hard to follow as definitions have been repeatedly changed, and road length is not the same as road capacity, but it seems unlikely that the development of roads could ever keep pace - see chart [data]. It would itself generate more traffic by effectively reducing the time cost of travel (this being a prime objective of roads policy) - an 'induced demand'. Even where there is space to expand road capacity, it funnels traffic into places where there isn't - shifting congestion to 'pinch points'. The last time we had a road building programme that was attempting to do build out of congestion, it ended in huge protests [see history of Reclaim the Streets] as people concluded they also didn't like to have everything concreted over.

3. Recognise that some sort of instrument is needed to control demand and congestion
The map of congestion (left - click for larger version)) cannot easily be redrawn by physical extensions, but it can be managed with prices asn other interventions that manage demand at the poinst of greatest stress. Road space is a scarce and valuable asset, its suboptimal (ie. excessive) use imposes costs on its users - and time penalties do not discriminate between high value and low value uses iof the same road. Placing a price on its use at the margin where it is used excessively has to be the right way to allocate the scarce resource. The best outcome will only be achieved if the prices faced by motorists reflect external costs - including congestion. This does means pricing some people off the roads, promoting cost saving measures like car-sharing, and redistributing demand by time of day and year. This is necessary but not sufficient for dealing with the pressure on the road system. A proper transport pricing strategy is needed...

4. Introduce a new transport pricing strategy
Introduce a package of pricing measures that more accurately reflect costs for different aspect of motoring:
  1. Road tolling to pay for infrastructure and maintenance
  2. Congestion charging to ration scarce road space
  3. Fuel duty and regulatory standards to address pollution (not justCO2, but NOx, particulates, noise etc)
  4. Higher rates of Insurance Premium Tax on motor insurance to reflect accident costs and burden on the NHS
  5. As a revenue base that is less distorting and damaging to the economy than taxing income or investment
These measures should be seen as a package, and not traded off amongst each other – for example, fuel duty should not be reduced to accommodate a congestion charge as these are pricing different aspects of the impacts of transport.

5. Embed it in a wider behaviour change strategy
However, this cannot be enough - as the No 10 petition shows. In line with the Sustainable Development Strategy approach to behaviour change [see chapter 2], as well as 'encourage' through pricing incentives, ministers need to also 'enable' people to make better choices, and (above all) 'engage' the public in a big discussion about how these problems will be faced and solved. See posting on Soft paternalism: changing behaviour for the greater good without giving orders. Ken Livingstone pulled it of with the congestion charge because he did a deal with Londoners: control the traffic for those that need to use the roads, provide better buses and make the city a better place to live in.

Whilst an attractive idea in theory, I'm not sure the provision of a petition facility by No 10 helps that much - creating a sort national bar room for incubating mass opinions into mob opposition. Perhaps it's useful to remind ministers that they have a lot of work to do to take people with their rhetoric on climate change and the environment without getting booted out of office.


Anonymous said...

Doing the right thing is not always popular. If Ken Livingstone had asked the people of London to vote for congestion charging before it was introduced, he would have got a resounding 'no'. Too often politics is about playing it safe - trying to keep everyone happy and in doing achieving little. Douglas Alexander wants to sound green; he wants to sound concerned about climate change. Yet on the other hand he wants to keep the motorist happy; he wants to keep the costs of motoring low. You cannot do both. Being a real leader in politics is about making tough decisions and taking risks. Douglas Alexander is not thinking about rising traffic pollution and congestion and the findings emerging from the Eddington Review but how he can stay in office long enough to move onto his next Cabinet job.

ear1grey said...

A pleasure to read an article with some consideration and information on the subject given the kneejerk reaction of a million road warriors.

I'm not so certain about this whole petitions-backfiring thing though.

This is a system brought in by the government to encourage democratic involvement, and it's working. A million people have gone online and pressed a button.

They're wrong, in my opinion, and that's great, because now they're interested in the debate. The petition system gives the man in the street the opportunity to speak up, but the responsibility to listen to the whole debate, or suffer the consequences of ill-conceived policy.

Clive Bates said...

Hello aar1gray,

Of course you are right - any voice is better than none, it's an exercise in participative democracy and it creates valuable information and feedback.

On the other hand, a petition didn't get off the ground spontaneously (compare with the Countryside Alliance movement against the fox hunting bill), it is on a government web-site but does nothing to engage people in the real choices (are they really interested in a debate?), and through its design it mitigates against of expression of support for the counter proposal in favour of road pricing. Even if that view is a minority, it is not a minority of 377 to 1.2 million.

I guess my unease is that as a deliberative forum or exercise in participative democracy, it doesn't work that well.

But I feel uneasy even saying this like I don't suppose I'd be making these points if there was a mass movement in favour of the things I like!

Clive Bates said...

Anon - I think Douglas Alexander did pretty well on the radio... he is taking the line that 'we wont do it if the benefits don't justify it'... isn't that fair enough? The politics of this will be tough (and made tougher by this petition), but let's hope he does want to be a leader in politics by making tough decisions and taking risks. It's too soon to assume he doesn't.

Ken Livingstone was successful with the congestion charge because he constructed a deal with Londoners - that's yet to happen for national road pricing.

Tom Steinberg said...

Hi Clive,

Have just been pointed to your blog by a friend, and I've just spotted this post on the petitions site we run.

I agree that this isn't really a deliberative system, it is about putting something that happens already online, and making it economically feasible for signers to get responses on the issues they care about.

My question to you, since you're obviously a bright chap, is how would you take what's happened so far and make it more deliberative? A word of warning - some people said we should just simply have a discussion forum for each petition when the system launched. I think the vast number of petitions and the huge size of some of them probably suggests that holding back on that facility wasn't a bad idea, at least from a moderation perspective :)

all the best,


Clive Bates said...

Tom - greetings and congratulations on all the innovations of mySociety including, it seems, the engine in the No 10 petition site.

I agree that a massive discussion board would be impractical and pointless. But I do think the system has some amplifying biases that could be at least attenuated and misses opportunities for more deliberation.

Here's some suggestions:

1. Allow users to define 'counter petitions' or 'variant petitions' and make these accessible from the original petition to which they refer. This would create a cluster of proposals around an issue - and reduce search and transactions costs for those wishing to express a different view. Perhaps some threshold of signatures might need to be reached before that system cuts in - with an editorial judgement about what can be added as counter petitions or variant petitions to a popular petition.

2. Without having a free-for-all discussion board, you could allow the petition originators to elaborate and update their case as the petition goes on - or this is too much trouble for the 'long tale' of small petitions, allow more editing rights when a petition reaches a threshold of signatures (1,000, 10,000 - depending on the distribution). Editing rights could include posting updates and responding to arguments made in the media or by critics. If it was a sufficiently small number, you could allow the right to make external URL links - I would welcome the opportunity to make a case on road pricing (or many other things) as I have here on the barely read "Bacon Butty" using links to quality assure and add credibility to the and argument.

3. Create an 'oppose' option for any petition. I've seen the rationale for not doing this on the No 10 web site, but I don't think stacks up - in fact, the asymmetry in effort required to oppose a popular petition is huge and the experience disempowering and frustrating. Why should saying 'no' be made more difficult and saying 'yes'? I think there is a risk of too much analogy with paper petitions - but that breaks down when the transaction cost of signing and collecting signatures is so low.

4. Have ministerial or PM responses added to the petition while the petition is open, but triggered by passing thresholds of signatures (eg. 1000, 10,000 - whatever would keep these to an acceptable number)... what a pity that the PM didn't set out the case he eventually e-mailed at an earlier point in the development of the road pricing petition.

5. Not so sure about this one, but should there be a bit more quality control, so that petitioners reflect real world choices and don't embed falsehoods or misleading statement in their petition? Supposing an editorial standard about equal to the letters page of a local newspaper was applied? The guidelines don't seem to allow for misleading propositions as long as they are clearly expressed! Would you allow a petition that tells the government to "stop giving free mobile phones to asylum seekers"? So what about the implication in the road pricing petition that the govt would be tracking our every move?

Hope this is useful!