By Andy Chivers

Despite current political distractions, we are all aware of global heating. Climate and weather are different things, but most of us over the age of 30 have noticed that winters are milder than when we were children, and the evidence is that summers are hotter too.

We are encouraged to reduce our carbon footprint to avoid a 1.5⁰C increase in average global temperature. Economists see the problem of influencing human behaviour in terms of prices and markets. They call harmful things like CO2 production an ‘externality’ because it’s not explicitly paid for. So the question they ask is: what charge – based on the distance travelled – would stop someone driving their car?

So far, charges have only been applied in urban areas, initially to reduce congestion, but more recently, they have been aimed at reducing air pollution too. Economists argue that, properly applied, no-one is worse off: people who choose to stop driving save more money, and those who continue driving, pay more for quieter roads. Everyone is free to make their choice depending on the value they put on driving their car. Reducing other taxation could avoid people being worse off on average, or it could be targeted towards those dependent on a vehicle for work, or because of disability.

It is obvious that people will need significant financial encouragement to change behaviour and curb driving, and some drivers just don’t have a choice, particularly small traders. But most commuters surely do have a choice: they are taking a regular journey, which many others are also doing. This makes public transport a viable alternative for at least part of the journey, and in general they don’t have to carry a van load of stuff.

Oxford has a rush hour congestion problem on historic streets that really deserve to be more pleasant for residents and visitors. Everyone would benefit from less polluted air. London saw a 30% increase in cycle commuting when the congestion charge was introduced, so people can switch given the right incentive.

How could Oxford achieve this sort of shift from car driving? A high proportion of car journeys in Oxford originate from outside the city, which is the reason why Park and Ride was such an early winner.

It makes changing travel modes more complicated, but not impossible.

Oxfordshire Liveable Streets (OLS) recently handed each person cycling over Magdalen Bridge a 20p piece as a reward for not polluting, or causing congestion (although OLS estimated the true value would be closer to £2 per bike). Handing cash to non-drivers is clearly impractical, but applying the reverse – charging people to drive through the city at peak times – seems eminently sensible.

The double bonus is that riding a bike and walking would be more enjoyable if there was less traffic.

This was made evident in Broad Street on World Car Free Day and, similarly, Walton St has seen a renaissance in recent weeks with the road closed to through traffic.

It’s a little foretaste of how Oxford will feel in the future.