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It takes its toll


Martin Vermeer


The origin of the current mess can be traced back to a short spell of ultra-liberalism, when the government caved in to the pressure to cut taxes and eliminate the national debt by selling off the road network. Politicaly, it has been a success; taxes are consistently lower than they have been for long, and the man in the street seems to be satisfied.

Of course in the beginning, the situation was quite messy; highway segments were auctioned off, and the result was toll booths everywhere, so you had to stop many times and have a lot of petty cash handy if you wanted to get anywhere.

But then, gradually, a market leader appeared. Federal Transport Corp. bought strategically placed road segments, connected them into a countrywide network, made it impossible for anyone else to do the same, and slowly took over the rest.

By the motorists, it was felt to be a blessing. Sure, prices went up; but you could get by with getting a yearly license and putting the barcode sticker on the roof of your car; you didn't even have to brake anymore when passing the toll station. And the more roads FT acquired, the better the offer they could make their customers; such are the ways of "network externalities".

Obviously as many of us now realise, the net effect was no tax drop at all. The yearly fee to FT is just another tax, if you want to use your car to go anywhere at all; and what's worse, it is paid to an authority we didn't elect ourselves. There has been a groundswell of resistance, such as the freetown (or "open roads") movement, and I sympathise fully with this.

I live in a freetown now; a small one, at the foot of the mountains. Others are on the coast, or around airports. Few are inland. We have our own road network that we own ourselves collectively, just like in the old days. If you want to go to another freetown, you have the options of air, rail and water transport, which are not (yet) under FT's control. If you want to visit people outside freetown land, you have to pay the toll, of course :-(  This  -- referred to as "gating out" --  is minimized by careful planning.

You may ask, why did I choose to live in a place, and under a regime, that limits my freedom of movement so much? Well first of all, it is my own choice. I don't want to owe my "freedom" to an authority that does not represent me. And then, there are compensations. The people. Freetowners are active, involved citizens; everything is debated, and decisions are taken by informed people. Compare that to the way outside. It's a different culture really, and I like it. They are my kind of people.

And, except in the matter of transport, life in a freetown is just as good or better than outside. There is a lot of employment in hi-tech; as I said, we are a sophisticated lot. And there are no advertisements of FT, like there are everywhere outside, enquiring politely but insistently where you would feel like going today... that really gets my blood pressure up.

These are interesting times we live in; recently the freetown movement has gained a lot of interest and newcomers are flowing in. Resentment at the Federal Transport monopoly is tangible, now that fees are going up and road maintenance is being neglected. Earlier, just after the sell-off, roads were maintained well; you had the option of choosing alternative routes, and the toll revenue was channeled to maintenance and improvement. Now, many road segments seem to be in free fall down towards their natural state. You still have alternative routes to choose from; but they are all under FT's control and in uniformly poor shape.

And then there is this crazy project called the RoadPlane. It is a gigantic vehicle, carrying hundreds of people at 200 mph along the highways, rolling along smoothly on smart-strutted wheels, navigated by satellite, electronic map and road radar. I have heard of people riding one of those things; quite an impressive experience, it appears. FT's slogan is "A Better Plane Than The Plane", but some bad accidents have happened already. It is a very complex system; OK as long as everything works, but winter weather, the poor state of the roads, and errors in the maps -- or an animal straying on to the road -- are hard to foresee and take into account. These problems have generally been glossed over in the media; FT represents a major advertising budget for them.

RoadPlane is FT hybris at its best. It is a white elephant and that fills me with glee. This could be the undoing of FT, who knows. But it will only happen if people take the trouble to inform themselves, understand how they are being ripped off, and become active!

Similarity to real events and circumstances is, again, purely and wholly intentional.

Copyright © 1998, Martin Vermeer
Published in Issue 32 of Linux Gazette, September 1998