Tuesday, November 23, 2010

London c-charge changes miss big picture

The London congestion charge is set for a welcome New Year shake-up.

New rules due to come into force on 4th January will finally scrap the westward extension of the c-charge zone, freeing residents, businesses and travellers in Bayswater, Notting Hill, Kensington and Chelsea from the grips of the scheme.

The shrunken zone will stretch only from an Edware Road - Park Lane - Vauxhall Bridge Road boundary in the west
to the current eastern boundary.

The change will fufill at last the election promise to scrap the western enlargement of the zone made by London mayor Boris Johnson, which was thought to be a major factor in his success over his repressive, money-grasping predecessor Ken Livingstone.

Economic boost

Thousands of people who enter the western zone, or who were forced to travel through it to access work,
will save a fortune. This will very likely be spent instead on goods and services that both improve their lives and provide much-needed support for the businesses on which Britain's economic recovery depends.

For example, those who travel into or through the western zone three times a week at £8 a shot will enjoy an incredible saving of £1,248 per year.

Given that surveys estimate 60% of all journeys through the western extension originate outside the zone, that a third of western zone users admits to finding the c-charge hard to afford, and that a majority of local businesses blamed the c-charge for reduced profitability, the move will provide a welcome increase in income for particularly low- and average-waged households for whom public transport cannot meet their needs - as well as for local businesses.

Oppressive time limit tackled

A further beneficial development is the launch of a new 'Auto Pay' service, which records each visit into the zone made by cars that are registered for the service and takes a monthly payment.

This helps alleviate the outrageous situation in which, if you forgot to pay on the day of travel or the day after, you were hit with a massive £60 fine.

Quite how Ken Livingstone felt it reasonable or appropriate to put such a short time limit on payment of his 'toll tax' is beyond imagination, but reveals a great deal that's unappealing about that man's mindset.

I wonder how many people have already been grossly ripped off - and how much hard-earned cash has been robbed by officialdom as a result of brief distraction or forgetfulness - due to that particularly oppressive element of the scheme.

There are also changes to the exemption rules to link free access to the zone to a car's emissions rather than its alternative fuel technology. What Car magazine has published a handy list of winners and losers as a result of this change.

Charge to rise

But the news isn't all good.

While many people stand to be released from the impositions and costs of the scheme, those who still need to drive in the original central zone face charges that are being increased from a level that is already beyond reasonable or acceptable.

The daily charge to enter the zone will be hiked by £2, from £8 to £10 if you pay on the day you enter the zone and from £10 to £12 if you pay the day after - although you'll get away with £9 if you're registered for 'Auto Pay'.

Reality check

But all this discussion of tweaks to the c-charge overlooks the elephant in the room. It has not cut congestion.

Livingstone's scheme has been failing almost since the start. All at vast expense to the public, £340m of which - up to November 2009 - has been pocketed by the 'public administration' plc Capita for creating and running the system.

As far back as late 2007 and again in April 2008 there were warnings that the scheme was not reducing congestion in the c-charge zone.

Today, even
TfL continues to admit that "sadly, congestion has risen back to pre-charging levels".

Though TfL goes on to claim, dubiously, that the situation would be worse without the charge and blames this outcome on "widespread water and gas main replacement works, which have greatly reduced the road capacity" and "Traffic management measures to help pedestrians and other road users".

Problems that clearly remain since April 2008, the second of which has been very much in TfL's gift to resolve.

Isn't it somewhat outrageous to charge people large sums for the benefit of driving in a supposedly reduced congestion area, just to make changes to other aspects of "traffic management" that have made congestion just as bad as it was before any charge was levied at all? How does TfL justify this behaviour and its continued right to charge car users anything at all?

Bus problem

Or perhaps those excuses are not the real problems contributing to the failure of the scheme at all.

The more likely reason, as we've previously blogged, is that Ken Livingstone wasted the c-charge income on a vast increase in bus numbers.

Anyone who has followed a bus through London will know the congestion and tailbacks even one causes while it negotiates London's crowded streets, spewing health-endangering diesel fumes, often with only a handful of people on board.

There are far too many, being subsidised at excessive public cost.

Congrats, but ...

So, Boris - congratulations for scrapping the western zone as you promised. A politician who keeps his promises is certainly not to be sniffed at!

But now its time to face facts. The c-charge isn't cutting congestion. It's just a massive extra tax on Londoners and a gift for paper-shuffling, public-harassing, penalty-charging officialdom.

It's time to rid London of Ken Livingstone's ridiculous and repressive congestion charging scam altogether.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

MG cars reborn in surprise six model line-up

One of the most exciting pieces of automotive news in 2010 has been the looming spectacular relaunch of the historic MG car brand.

To date the company's only offering since its takeover by Chinese motor group SAIC has been the TF roadster, production of which has been distinctly intermittent.

While the mid-engined sportcar was respected for its handling, its 1990s heritage has left it severely lagging rivals.

But the company's new bosses have confirmed that MG is about to burst back onto the motoring scene with a range of surprising new models.

Showing the company is preparing to mix it in the most competitive sectors of the car market, the first new generation MG to hit the road will be the MG6 family model in both saloon and hatchback guise.

The Ford Mondeo and VW Jetta rival will be the first all-new MG to emerge from the company's historic Longbridge, West Midlands, home for 15 years when UK production starts by the end of 2010 and cars go on sale in early 2011.

Designed and engineered in Britain for sale internationally, the car is set to be powered by a 1.8 litre petrol engine with a 1.9 litre turbodiesel to follow.

Dubbed a 'fastback', early pictures of the production-ready MG6 show a coupe-like profile and, in keeping with the brand's history, the car is expected to have a distinctly sporting personality.

Featuring dramatic front lights, the car's angular face has a VW Golf style thin front grill dominated by a large MG badge with a deep black mesh grill below.

But while it's hard to judge from promotional photos alone, first impressions of the styling suggest that the MG6 may suffer from the clashing hints of Asian, European and American design tastes that come with attempting to build a 'world car'.

Designing an appealing car for all markets is a quest with which even the world's largest car makers have struggled, as the typically ungainly results have tended to underwhelm all markets.

MG, even with the resources of its new Chinese backers, would be very brave to attempt such a feat with its new range.

The '6' will be followed by a smaller Ford Fiesta and VW Polo sized model set to be called the MG3, which will go on sale in China before production moves to the UK by 2012.

Technical details are sketchy but the car is likely to be powered by 1.3 and 1.5 litre four-cylinder engines, with the possibility of a 1.5 litre turbo sports model.

Altogether, the new MG family is likely to comprise six models when production at Longbridge is up to full speed.

Other additions to the line-up over the coming five years are rumoured to be a mid-range 'MG4' to rival the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra, a large four-door model in the mould of the former MG ZT, plus a small electric city car.

A replacement for the dated TF roadster is also in the pipeline for a 2013 launch, with a number of development options being considered from a re-design of the current mid-engined format to an all-new front-engined sportscar. Powertrain options will include a hybrid as well as a potentially exciting V6 unit.

In the meantime the long-lived current TF will be finally phased out at the end of 2010.

Pricing of the MG3 in China shows SAIC's strategy for the marque may be to undercut major rivals while providing distinctive design and high levels of equipment as standard.

A premium sporting brand at a value price is an exciting prospect.

Under Chinese ownership, many false dawns and slipped re-launch timetables have surrounded the iconic British sporting brand. According to SAIC, the launch of the MG6 represents "the start of one of the most exciting periods in the 85-year history of the MG brand".

The latest news certainly shows that the company's new Chinese owners are serious about the marque's future.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Flawed 'green' parking permit scheme

A recent move to Clapham has led to scrutiny of the local regime for resident parking permits, and the news isn't good.

It turns out that Lambeth Borough Council is one of the absurd London authorities that, purportedly in the name of helping the environment, actually charges you more if you wish to leave higher emissions cars parked at home.

Their bizarre idea towards cutting car emissions is to encourage the daytime use of 'gas guzzlers' while making it cheaper to leave the 'green' ones at home allowing people to travel on public transport instead.

Even when introduced, back in 2007, the idea was far from new.

That's not to say Lambeth Council is doing those who have what they deem to be a 'green' car any favours.

Perhaps, historically, the price for a resident's parking permit in the borough has been much higher. But today the lowest price band for a permit for anything other than only a handful of ultra-low emissions, brand new hybrid or diesel-engined city cars still comes in at £90 a year - compared to the blanket £99 for a resident's permit up in Hammersmith.

That's for the charging band below the one in which basic level superminis like the Ford Fiesta and Renault Clio sit. Up another band, a range of very average family cars like the Ford Mondeo and Peugeot 407 face charges of £135 and the owner of a hardly 'gas guzzling' 2.0 litre Ford C-Max (basically, a slightly enlarged Ford Fiesta) would be hit with a charge of £180 to park outside their own house. That's only £20 cheaper than the £200 that the owner of a V8 Range Rover or Aston Martin would be hit with.

Reasonable? Hardly.


No doubt the Lambeth councillors responsible for this ill considered 'green' scheme would defend themselves by saying it's designed to encourage people to switch to lower emissions cars, or even to do away with their car altogether.

But who do they think they're kidding? That's clearly so much 'greenwash', because neither justification remotely stacks up as a realistic option for most people.

Firstly, the idea that car users are all self-indulgently choosing their cars as some kind of luxury and will be persuaded to ditch them altogether when faced with a more expensive parking permit is mind-numbingly ignorant.

Cars are already extremely expensive in many, many ways. No-one would choose to flush the vast cost of purchasing, financing, servicing, insuring, fueling, MOTing and taxing a car unless they absolutely needed one.

Beyond the wealthy, for whom a hundred quid here or there matters little, those still using cars in London are very likely far more hard-pressed financially and actually need a car because they simply can't get everywhere they need to be, carrying everything they need to carry, on public transport.

Hitting these people with extra charges is highly oppressive. Or perhaps we should say, using one of today's buzzwords, 'regressive'. Such people are not the ultra wealthy and have no choice but to pay higher charges if they wish to continue to meet all the needs of their work and family.

Secondly, do these councillors have any idea how much it costs to switch cars? In their fantasy world (and I wonder how many councillors who voted to introduce this scheme actually own and run a car) they presumably expect someone moving into Lambeth, seeing an elevated charge for a parking permit, to decide to go car-shopping.

Yet, even at the lower end of the price spectrum, you'd need to throw at least £1,000 into the budget on top of the value of your old car to get something that'll be fit for, typically, three years ahead.

A lot more if you wish to get something modern and sufficiently environmentally friendly to qualify for the lowest permit charges.

Seriously, how many people do these councillors think are going to choose to drop at least a grand on buying a new car rather than just pay up the extra for a permit?

Cash grab

The scheme quite obviously will not meet the objectives councillors use to justify it. But what it clearly does do is raise large wads of extra cash for the council.

According to
local newspaper reports, it seems an extra £1m was ripped off from Lambeth residents for permits to park outside their own homes in 2007/8 alone - an outrageous 50% increase in income over the year before the 'green' scheme was introduced.

And the scheme does this by - highly regressively - targetting the less well off. It disproportionately affects the middle and lower-income car users who either can't afford the extra charges or don't have a driveway or front garden they can concrete over to escape the council's oppressive financial demands.

Council choice

With this scheme, Lambeth council is basically offering residents the choice of thinking they're either hopelessly ignorant of people's real-world options - or blatantly money-grabbing because they're aware people have no sensible choice other than to pay whatever extra charges they demand.

Having fired an email off to the council about the scheme, I wonder if we'll shortly find out which one it is.

In the meantime, with the prospect of an unacceptably high charge for a residents parking permit in order to leave my very average 2.0 litre Peugeot parked at home, I'm going to be driving it up to Hammersmith every day instead of using public transport.

Well done Lambeth. How to make your residents very green!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Jaguar's stunning X-Type replacement breaks cover

The revival clearly continues apace at Jaguar - one of Britain's most historic and industrially important car manufacturers.

Far from resting on their laurels following the recent launch of the new flagship XJ, Jaguar has given the go-ahead to production of a stunning new BMW 3-series rival.

In an exclusive report, British car magazine Auto Express reveals this week that Jag bosses have confirmed that an X-Type replacement is already under development and due to appear in 2012.

According to the magazine's images, the all-new smallest car in the Jaguar range looks set to follow eye-catching design cues set down by the ground-breaking new XF and XJ models.

At the front end will be a subtly re-worked version of the company's new rectangular mesh grille and XF-style swept-back twin headlights.

At the back, trademark curved rear haunches will lead to the marque's new-style smooth rear, complemented by sleek rear lights.

The effect will create a significantly more modern, sporty and muscular stance than that of the existing X-Type.

But it's what will be under the skin that may spell the biggest trouble for BMW, as Jaguar appears to be targeting the German company's reputation for handling prowess.

The magazine reveals that Jaguar is working on an all-new aluminium rear-drive chassis for its new baby model, with the aim of making it the lightest and best handling car in its class.

Under the bonnet, the company may continue to offer a 3.0 litre V6 diesel engine to power the next X-Type. But with ever greater focus on cutting emissions, the mainstays of the engine range will be a pair of four-cylinder petrol and diesel units.

While the old X-Type had a strong band of followers - attracted by the Jaguar brand image and the car's competent, Mondeo-based handling - the model was never a sales success.

Yet for Jaguar to continue the fight back against its key German competitors it must make greater headway in the higher volume market for smaller executive cars.

If the production version comes anywhere close to the images revealed this week, this important new model for the British car industry will look fantastic and ensure the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes will soon have a real fight on their hands!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Flawed case for 20mph urban speed limits

Much has been written recently about the proposal to introduce 20mph urban speed limits.

Numerous articles have popped up in both the mainstream and motoring media to say what a good idea it would be to reduce limits on residential roads from 30mph down to 20mph.

The focus of most of the articles has been statistics showing the number of lives that can purportedly be saved by such a 10mph reduction.

Typical of the genre was Andrew Neather writing not so long ago in the Evening Standard.

He points to accident statistics contained in the mysterious "One study". Who it was conducted by and what their agenda and methodology may be isn't stated.

But who cares, right? Because it somehow offers the claim that "20mph limits reduce road injuries by more than 40 per cent" and it appears that bit is just too juicy not to quote.

Yet when you think about this stat for a moment, it cannot possibly bear any relation to reality.

A car hitting someone at virtually any speed will cause something as vaguely defined as "road injuries". So what this study appears to suggest is that a mere 10mph cut in speed means almost half of pedestrians or cyclists who unfortunately wander into the path of moving vehicles won't be hit at all.

Almost half? As a result of 10mph? That seems extraordinarily unlikely. One big question mark against the accuracy of that particular study, for starters. Or maybe just how Mr Neather has represented its conclusions.

Piled on this failing, I'm willing to bet, is the fault of omission. Did this study also factor in the likelihood of additional accidents due to driver inattention? Being limited to 20mph is so ridiculously low that, while crawling along, people will very likely spend their time looking out of the window or fiddling with their stereo.

The result may just be more accidents.

In any case, following the argument that saving lives must always trump traffic speed, without looking at the bigger picture, will inevitably bring all traffic to a total halt.

Unless, at some point, you come to terms with the fact that things that move will inevitably be involved in accidents; that pedestrians must also carry some responsibilty for avoiding vehicles and it's not always the driver's fault; and that our economy depends fundamentally on people and goods moving around, so they must be allowed to do so at a reasonable speed.

The line of compromise must be drawn somewhere and, beyond their use in certain limited areas, such as outside schools, it seems to me 20mph limits clearly cross it.

Stats distraction

But even flinging potential numbers of lives lost or saved back and forth, accurate or otherwise, misses the point. Due to one crucial detail.

The plan is to police these new limits with a comprehensive (and no doubt extremely expensive) network of mass surveillance cameras recording every vehicle movement within an area and measuring average speed.

And that's why the proposal won't, in fact, cut speeding at all.

First, virtually all residential roads on which a driver might technically be capable of reaching 30mph will already have been road-humped to stop-start oblivion.

It's already impossible to reach even 20mph consistently, particularly in London, without regurgitating your spleen and smashing your car's suspension into tiny pieces.

Second, even if your wallet will stand bouncing and crashing your pride and joy over humps at 20mph, or you even find a rare, hump-free road, the time any driver will spend travelling at the maximum permitted speed relative to negotiating junctions, dodging other cars and sitting at traffic lights will be tiny.

All the times they simply cannot avoid going slower and stopping altogether between one camera and the next is why limits measured by average speed won't remotely curb anyone who gets the opportunity to rocket briefly, but no less dangerously, down residential streets.

Real agenda

So if the plan so blatantly won't work to curb speeding, why is it being proposed at all?

The answer can only be that these new limits are not really about speed, but about justifying the installation of the auto-recording camera network required to police them.

That is the real goal. Mass surveillance.

Such a plan has to go hand-in-hand with reduced limits, because the idea of anyone being able to travel through a network of residential roads at an average of 30mph is just plain laughable.

Can it really be a coincidence that this 20mph proposal has emerged so soon after it has become clear - thanks particularly to the election of Boris Johnson as London mayor and a big 'No' vote in Manchester - that congestion charging, and the similar mass-recording camera network required to police it, will be spreading no further for the foreseeable future?

As if by magic, a new justification for the excessive, automatic monitoring by camera of our every movement is being whipped up.

So what a shame it is that some commentators - even those writing for respected car magazines that really should know better - appear to take such a shallow view of the issue as to have fallen for the spin and lame statistics being put about by those who are, in truth, seeking only to expand our already over-developed surveillance state.