Here’s a thought that has always tickled the Head of State in the car-free People’s Republic. I was reminded of it this morning by an exchange of Twitter fire between James Graham and Guido Fawkes.

guidofawkes: 15 minute journey takes hour. Not like this in Wexford.

jamesgraham: A truly free market road system would charge a fortune at peak. Presume would agree and want to scrap Stalinist ‘planning’?

guidofawkes: Privatising the roads it isn’t that high on agenda. Like Mandlsons said this morning “it is an aspiration”.

This is standard stuff, if I may characterise: lefty on the side of state-run roads, libertarian on the side of privatised roads as a matter of low priority. I’d tend to the latter position for the predictable classical liberal reasons. But I think roads are actually a little different from the things lefties and libertarians usually argue about. Follow up the implications of privatisation and you may get some surprising results.

Roads started out in the modern period as a set of self-funding enterprises. I refer you to the website of some bloke who seems to know a lot about it:

This road system was not planning [sic] centrally but resulted from local enterprise, regulated through Acts of Parliament. Bodies of local trustees were given powers to levy tolls on the users of a specified stretch of road, generally around 20 miles in length. Using money secured against this toll income, a trust arranged to improve and maintain a particular stretch of turnpike road. Although the powers under an Act were limited to a period of 21 years, in practise, Acts for continuation of the trusts meant that they remained responsible for most English trunk roads until the 1870s.

I know one should question the internet and all that, but I think we’re on safe ground trusting in the knowledge of someone who owns the domain name “turnpikes.org.uk”.

Interestingly (to a given definition), I find that a smaller scale system along the same lines operated in the medieval era, when communities could be granted the right to collect a tax specially aimed at maintaining a road. And when medieval people said community (“commonalty”), they meant community, i.e. people who were important in the town and lived there, as opposed to the Community Regeneration and Urban Envisioning Agency.

But that’s another rant. The point is that roads started out as self-supporting private initiatives. It was not considered feasible or useful for government to maintain road networks. I presume that the reasons it became considered feasible and useful post-1870s are (a) that the combustion engine has been invented, so roads are actually useful, (b) the population has exploded and (c) it has become enriched, thereby generating enough tax revenue to fling at things like a road network. So far this is market evolution; the state took over a private area because it could afford to and it looked like a goer. The trouble is that that’s where the market stops because the state won’t naturally let go of anything, even if it is no longer economically viable.

So what would happen if we did wrest the road network from the state’s grasp and return to the Turnpike model? I suggest three consequences:

(a) many little-used rural road networks would quickly become unviably expensive.
(b) big arteries like motorways would be fine, and would be able to charge a premium for their speed and efficiency.
(c) most roads would fall between those two extremes – and we would see a tendency towards higher charges for the convenience of driving cars for the simple reason that roads have no natural competitors in their class.

The outcome of all this would be that more people would use the railways wherever possible. Fareboxes would get heavier, more money would be available for investment, and critically, new lines would be created (I’m assuming here that all other manner of liberal goods would be effected by this point, including reform to the planning laws).

Now, I could be making all kinds of errors of both assumption and fact here, but surely railways are going to turn out to be more efficient than road travel, aren’t they? Rail travel is efficient because everyone suffers a minor inconvenience (having to get to a station, having their travel times set in stone) which adds up to a substantial efficiency advantage, substantial enough to offset the cost of both rail network and rolling stock. The enormous, unwieldy road network stands no chance. Once the whole lot is privatised and railways start feeling the benefit of the customers who can’t afford the roads, it’s very, very hard to see how that balance can be tipped back the other way without some truly drastic price-cutting on the roads.

The innate efficiency of railways was brought home to me in conversation with my mother (like so many things) when we were inventing a new on-demand super-transport system to replace cars, which was based on the idea of roads being turned into conveyor belts you hopped on and off (I don’t know how many sherries we’d had at this point). We acknowledged that the belt system would have to be limited to certain routes and couldn’t be universal, and you’d have to walk to your nearest belt… then we realised old people and people with buggies wouldn’t be able to step on to a moving belt easily, so the belts would have to stop… but only that particular section of the belt… and there’d have to be pre-arranged stopping times… and then of course, we realised we’d invented railways. It really is one of those systems that, if you designed it from scratch, would look pretty much like it does now.

All this is exactly what a lefty should want. A communitarian effort to get people from A to B which by dint of its communal status is demonstrably more efficient than scattergun individualistic methods. Roads and the cars that run on them are entirely individualistic and allow total freedom of choice. That’s probably why many libertarians love them. Why the left wants to keep subsidising libertarians’ personal choices is anybody’s guess. I, on the other hand, don’t have a car, I hate cars, I pay to go on trains, that’s a choice. Unfortunately I don’t get a choice about the portion of my tax bill that goes towards supporting the road network.  Seems to me that a privatised road network used by people who are prepared to pay for the privilege and a massively well-subscribed public transport system is win all round.

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