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Road user charging will happen

Louise Lawrence | 11 Aug 2014 | Comments

Road user charging is feasible, if we really want it to be…

National road pricing, congestion charging, tolling – call it what you will – will happen. The “it’s twenty years away” line simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when you consider where we are with technology and needing our transport network to provide a competitive advantage, rather than be a drag on economic performance. So in my view, it is feasible now if we really want it to be.

And why do we need it? It’s the same arguments; tackling congestion and pollution. Although the recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)[1] doesn’t lean too heavily on congestion, it does address the massive issue of how pollution affects public health. So, despite increased road capacity, increases in public transport use, walking and cycling, and uncertainty over the plausibility of the DfT’s traffic forecasts, most transport professionals expect traffic congestion and emissions to increase. Both have a damaging effect on our economy and our health. Any benefits derived from new capacity and improved vehicle technology could quickly be eroded as traffic continues to grow and congestion increases.

The report rightly picks up that it is political and public acceptability that is the biggest barrier to introducing road pricing; again, this is nothing new. What is new – or if not new then at least a dawning realisation – is that the need to reform the way we pay for roads and pay for road use is becoming more widely accepted.

There are two drivers to this. The first is that to maintain tax revenues from road users the Government will have to continue to increase vehicle excise duty and fuel duties to ensure the coffers are filled to fund healthcare and schools. I think we need a different approach. Second, the IPPR’s work shows there is some evidence that road users are ready for change. There is recognition that the current and very crude system of paying for road use doesn’t meet their needs because they are not getting a quality of service that they expect from the network. It seems that users would be prepared to pay for road use differently if it meant more reliable journeys. Any improvement to air quality is an added bonus from a public perspective. It is clear that influencing behaviour can be a long and slow process but it is possible to change the water in which the fish swim. The drink driving campaign from the late 70’s is a great example of how influencing attitudes and perceptions, supported by the right legislation can really work.

The IPPR report should reignite sensible discussion on road pricing outside of our community of transport professionals and as a key instrument of developing public policy. The roads of the future will look very different, very soon. Intelligent vehicles, intelligent infrastructure and a user-focused service are what the next generation will expect. Road pricing in some form needs to be part of that future and unless we actively start developing our thinking about what that road pricing future looks like now – and redefine what the economy needs and what road users need – then we shouldn’t be surprised if it continues to remain 20 years away.

[1] The long road to ruin: Why the UK needs to reform motoring taxes, http://www.ippr.org/publications/the-long-road-to-ruin-why-the-uk-needs-to-reform-motoring-taxes

An amended version of this article was originally published in the July 2014 edition of Surveyor