In defence of mediocrity

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Are you a ‘halfway-up-the-mountain’ or a ‘halfway-down-the-mountain’ kind of person? New CiTTi columnist Keith Mortimer ponders a weighty issue…

This account is more UK-centric than normal; but then I haven’t been out so much recently, and I reckon the dear country needs a bit of help with its tolling tactics. If colleagues from other nations are willing, we can catch up at the 19th annual Road User Charging Conference, which takes place on the 04-05 May 2022 at the Steigenberger Wiltcher’s in Brussels, Belgium.

For a start, after two decades of waving the ‘RUC’ flag, I can confirm that everything is still complicated. Repeatedly, its opponents (and some supporters) issue mixed messages and metaphors, sending policymakers back to square one while key issues remain unresolved. And the circus is coming to town again.

We are told we live in a ‘post-truth’ society. I will strain every sinew to make things perfectly clear: words can mean whatever we deem them to mean. Almost daily, fulsome phrases about ‘world-beating schemes’ and ‘incredible achievements’ are bandied around. It is as if their subjects had scaled Mount Olympus to gain first-name terms with the Greek gods.

Those same gods punished the dishonest King Sisyphus by making him roll an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. Sisyphus would have understood the translation of ‘mediocre’ – literally, its derivation means “halfway up the mountain.” In fact, its pejorative tinge took root after Shakespeare’s time. Like road pricing, the meaning of words is time and place dependent.

How much should be promised? It is about setting expectations. Trying to get all the way up the mountain can be tricky. Politicians have said that a mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one. Wouldn’t the average politician be delighted to have taken things halfway to the highest point of excellence? Compared with progress to date this would indeed be incredible!

Some 20 years ago UK-wide RUC scheme was promoted as an idea whose time had come. Then, 15 years ago, a populist referendum sent the whole plan back to square one. The well-respected think-tank IPPR concluded: “Despite a broad ‘elite’ level consensus on the principle of road pricing in the UK, public attitude arguably remains the key barrier to its introduction.” Tony Blair retreated, murmuring about “kamikaze politics”. Road pricing was in the wrong time and wrong place. The damage he feared was more than just financial.

This year’s Parliamentary Transport Committee report champions RUC: “The government must start an honest conversation with the public on the funding implications for road development and maintenance of decreased revenue from vehicle excise duty and fuel duty.” I had to read this phraseology twice. Was the Committee suggesting that all the attempts up to now had lacked integrity? Perish the thought that deception was ever a weapon in the policy arsenal! But how far up the mountain will the ‘road to zero’ take us?

Today the UK chancellor is reported to be “very interested” in RUC to make up for Treasury losses arising from his colleagues’ policies to reduce vehicle emissions. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has suggested that road pricing “offers a huge opportunity to rethink our relationship with our cars and the incentives we put around their use”. Others expound RUC benefits of reducing congestion while channelling cash into city-centre EV charging points instead of public transport. A new generation of EV drivers is getting used to low-cost road usage, in a happy green haze of urban driving. No wonder people get confused, as RUC opponents prepare to pounce on worst-case contradictions. As Sisyphus might have said, “Please, not déjà vu again!”

An honest conversation with the British public? Make the mountain less steep. Don’t try to carry all the baggage at once. If it’s just about the money, keep it simple. I have read treatises about cognitive dissonance and advice about coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas. But perhaps people don’t spend as long puzzling over such policies as their would-be mentors might wish. And they don’t need complex ITS equipment to detect baloney. Not being a psychologist, I submit also that in an honest debate the people who cause the worst problems are mostly thoughtless or bloody-minded.

Space is limited here for examples. However, my theory is borne out by even a cursory study of how people behave. Try following the ‘public conversation’ about the currently deferred Manchester clean air zone (CAZ). It gets as toxic as the pollution it seeks to limit. Opponents are vociferous. Press reports dwell only on ‘unfair’ cost, often without even mentioning the health emergency that spawned the policy. The scheme has now been condemned by the British prime minister as “damaging to business”. Is the CAZ plan for the twenties going the same way as RUC did in the noughties? The experience hardly suggests that road pricing is becoming more palatable to the public, even when the best intentions are displayed. If only people were more reasonable!

Thoughtlessness abounds: parking in bike lanes, blocked sewers, littered oceans. More than a billion cigarette butts are dropped on Sweden’s streets every year. Corvid Cleaning, a pilot project in Södertälje, has successfully trained wild crows to pick them up. But it still seems impossible to train people not to drop them. If only people were cleverer!

The proposed RUC scheme need not be the absolute best in the world. It should of course avoid being the worst. It will not be incredible, but believable and workable. I fear that for mere mortals, the world-beating, road-fund-raising, congestion-busting, emission-ending, climate-solving, distance-based road pricing heaven is still hidden in the clouds at the top of the mountain.

An old Chinese proverb reminds us that there are many paths up the mountain, but the view from the top is always the same. If I were a politician, I would lead the Mediocratic Party. I would take my followers halfway up the mountain, avoiding an eternity of futile labour, and enjoying the view while planning the next step. The gods would smile on us.

The Road User Charging Conference seeks to encourage cooperation, so that we can all go higher, faster. We might even think of blasting a tunnel right through the mountain. After all, in the room we’ll have all the people needed to raise the necessary capital!

Keith Mortimer is the owner and director of Wyeval Consulting, and a co-chair of the Road User Charging Conference and CiTTi Conference.

You can learn more about the key trends and challenges affecting senior decision-makers who have responsibility for tolling, intelligent transportation systems and road pricing at the 19th annual Road User Charging Conference in Brussels, Belgium on 04-05 May 2022. Visit for more information.

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