Was red Ken's idea truly capital?

Urban Road Pricing
April 16, 2004

Road pricing is the subject of intense debate around the world and we need to know how key players react to the idea, how the political decision-making process copes with the proposal and how attitudes change over time. None of these issues is addressed in this book and the reader is left wondering why the term "political acceptability" is included in the title.

The book is based on the author's PhD thesis, which does not translate well into the current format. It is right that a PhD student should mull over "grounded theorising" and discourse analysis, but this detailed methodological introspection is unlikely to be of interest to those who want a solid text on road pricing and political acceptability. We are told that the PhD is based on 15 interviews in Cambridge and ten in Edinburgh, but later the sample has increased to 60 interviews "with interest groups and individuals". More worryingly, the interviewees were "met through acquaintances". If anyone presented a case for (or against) road pricing to Birmingham or Manchester city councils based on 25 interviews with friends of friends, they would be shown the door.

The title of the book is incorrect, for the text does not tell us anything useful about public or political acceptability. After reading it, I still do not know what politicians think about road pricing and how this varies by geography, by party, by gender or by age. This is the least one should expect. Also, we are dealing here with a dynamic entity. We know from the London congestion charge that at one stage many politicians did not like road pricing. Then the mayor pushed it through and many others came on board when it started delivering good results. Is this normal for politicians? What role do journalists have in this? London's newspaper, the Evening Standard , certainly did not like the congestion charge and said as much. Did this influence politicians?

We are also left in the dark about the public. The sample size is too small to do justice to this complex subject. The views of a small newsagent will be different from those of a cyclist or a parent who enjoys walking to school on roads that have experienced a 20 per cent traffic reduction. This level of analysis is absent from the book. Geography also matters. Living within a charging zone might well produce benefits, but living on a road just outside the zone might produce an increase in traffic. Again the author is unable to help us understand these important dimensions.

This book is grossly over-priced, offers little by way of new insight and explanation to the road pricing debate, and is overly concerned with sociological methodology and debate.

John Whitelegg is leader of the implementing sustainability group, Stockholm Environment Institute, York University.

Urban Road Pricing: Public and Political Acceptability

Author - Martin J. Whittles
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 2
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 7546 3449 3

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