Will London grind to a halt on the 4th January 2011 ?

On the 4th Jan 2011, London will turn off the Western Extension Zone (WEZ) of the London Congestion Charging Zone. Will London grind to a halt ?

It was mostly a political decision and an electoral campaign pledge but Boris has consulted widely and the result was that the central congestion charging zone should stay, but the western extension zone should go. London joins an elite band of cities who have actually implemented road pricing and then decided to turn it off. In the rest of the country, many cities have struggled to even get on the band wagon: Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge all had negative referenda and voted against road pricing (or, in Manchester’s case, against a £1.6bn investment in the transport infrastructure of the City). However, London is now prepared to jump off the band wagon, or at least within one foot anyway. So what happens when you jump off the wagon ?

On hearing a talk from TfL about the forthcoming changes to the zone, I was reminded of some great behavioural science about a nursery in Israel which decided to fine parents who turned up late to pick up their children. What’s interesting in that case is what happened when they decided to take the fine away.

Professor Dan Ariely describes it really eloquently in his book: “Predictably Irrational”. We live in one of two worlds. One world is characterised by social exchanges, the other is characterised by monetary transactions. Unfortunately, these two worlds cannot co-exist. Imagine that you’ve been invited around to your first Christmas meal with your new girlfriend and her family. Her mum cooks up a sumptuous feast and there is everything there that makes the meal special: sausages in blankets, your favourite stuffing, both turkey and ham interlaced together … You get the idea. But, imagine the sound of the “scratching of the record”, as you get up and stretch and proclaim what an amazing dinner that was. However, instead of offering to wash the dishes, instead you break open your wallet and offer to pay for your share of the meal. This approach just doesn’t sit well within the social world. It jars and it grates and it destroys any social relationships. The world of social exchanges, where people amicably take it in turns, return favours and think of each other; and the world of monetary exchanges where we expect hard-nosed contractual arrangements just cannot co-exist. And, the policy-maker who tries to combines these two worlds in his policies does so at his peril.

Unwittingly, the nursery in Israel broke the social norms by introducing the fining system in the first place, and then when it didn’t work for them, they ended up with the perception of a fine that just happened to be set at zero. Social relationships are not that easy to re-establish. As Professor Ariely puts it “once the bloom is off the rose, or once the social norm is trumped by a market norm, it will rarely return.” The owners of the Israeli nursery found that they then had a double whammy working against them and the parents became even more tardy at picking up their children. After all, there was now no social contract and the economic contract had also been taken away.

So the question is: Will London’s road system grind to a halt on 4th January 2011 ?

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