Austen Baker Strikes Back

Oh dear, I seem to have upset Mr Austen Baker after I reported on his letter to Private Eye bemoaning public transport and bus lanes (he gets a right pasting in the current edition from other readers, so it would appear I wasn’t the only person he annoyed with his ‘rich must come first’ inferences of the published version of his correspondence to Brtiain’s best-known satirical magazine.

Given that his Private Eye letter was of local interest I posted a story about it on Virtual-Lancaster too, provoking a quick response from the gentleman which I am only too happy to publish here for ‘balance’

Dear Sir,

You have given prominence to a rant from someone who turns out to be one John Freeman, who appears to be a local public transport obsessive, relating to a letter from me published in the current issue of Private Eye. I’m afraid I would have to give him an F for English Comprehension, on the strength of this item, which also appears on his blog.

I did not say the rich should be given priority over the poor in transport matters, nor did I evince a belief that lower earners are second class citizens. I made two points – in rather direct manner, as befits Private Eye (this is not the Spectator or the Economist) – both of which have to be understood in the context of arguments over transport that have been going on for decades now.

One concern has always been that congestion, because it delays the arrival of goods and workers, carries with it an economic cost. My point was that bus lanes are not the solution to this. Bus users are likely to be on average lower earners than car users (subject to lots of qualifications and exceptions one cannot make in a short letter to the press). Economically (not morally) speaking, higher earners’ time is more important – their greater earnings reflect a greater economic value placed on their time. A low earner delayed for 30 minutes represents a smaller loss to the economy as a whole than a higher earner delayed for the same time. This is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a moment or two. And I did not even argue that higher paid car users should be given priority over buses; merely that buses, with their lower earning passengers should not be given priority over cars (which is a quite different argument). Bus lanes narrow the available space available to cars and goods vehicles, thus exacerbating the delays they suffer in order to minimize delays for bus users. There is a cost to the economy of such a policy, and it does not seem to me that it necessarily makes good economic sense. That is all.

The second argument, which represented the bulk of my letter, and which he does not actually refute, is that transport policy ought not to be made against the background of a public debate distorted by misrepresentations.

I pointed out that buses not only emit quite a bit of pollution themselves, but, by forcing queues of traffic behind them to slow down/stop and then accelerate away again each time the bus stops to pick up or set down passengers, create additional pollution not usually counted in calculating environmental impacts (just set your car’s trip computer to display current fuel consumption, and compare consumption – which equals emissions – at a steady 30 with the consumption as you pull away and get up to speed: the latter is phenomenally higher).

I also offered a recent example from a recent BBC TV news broadcast. Viewers were told that a journey from London to Edinburgh by car put out 100kg of emissions per person, by plane 50kg and by train 25kg. What they were not told was that this assumes one person in the car but a full to capacity train. Outside peak hours, though, we all know perfectly well that trains are far from full. I have made literally hundreds of journeys on trains little more than a quarter full. In that case, the train works out at 100kg per person, and if two people are making the car trip, the car works out at 50kg per person. You will see how misleading some of the statistics used can be.

I also pointed out the logical fallacy of using such figures to justify a proposal to charge large sums per mile to use busy roads at peak times (as the BBC was doing): at peak times on popular routes the trains are full, so penalising drivers to induce them onto the trains at those times on those routes would have a devastating effect on the rail infrastructure (and I pointed out that the BBC regional news for the West Midlands immediately following the news programme in question, carried an item about how through rail routes were to be cut because New Street Station in Birmingham was already operating at double the capacity it was designed for – highlighting the illogicality of the Government/BBC argument).

Finally, Mr Freeman takes a swipe at the University. I wrote to Private Eye expressing my own views, not those of the University, and it is inappropriate for him to suggest that what I write reflects University transport policy. While I do not speak for the University, I would point out that it does in fact have a coherent transport plan, agreed with the local authority, and makes great efforts to promote cycling, bus use and car sharing amongst its staff (and, with certain exceptions in special circumstances, prohibits students from obtaining parking permits). The University is, however, one of the city’s largest employers and a major contributor to the local economy, so it naturally attracts a lot of traffic carrying both staff and visitors – all the transport plans in the world won’t change that.

I realise that this is a local community website, but it is Nonetheless important that people are not misrepresented in this cavalier fashion. I would ask that you give my rebuttal equal prominence with Mr Freeman’s assertions.

Yours faithfully,
Dr Richard Austen-Baker
Lecturer in Law
Lancaster University Law School

So there you have it – just for balance.

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