The Invisible Referee

21st Century Traffic Control: The Invisible Referee University of Southampton

Acceptability of Road Pricing

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Transport professionals agree that, as Sir Rod Eddington put it, ‘the potential for benefits from a well-designed, large-scale road pricing scheme is unrivalled by any other intervention’. That view was endorsed by the UK Department for Transport, which stated that ‘The Government accepts the Eddington analysis regarding the exceptional case for exploring the potential of road pricing’ (in ‘Towards a Sustainable Transport System’).

Road pricing reduces road traffic congestion, thereby benefiting the economy, and reduces pollution. However, governments worldwide have been slow to implement it on a large scale, mainly through fears that the electorate would not like it. But there is much evidence that road pricing is indeed acceptable to voters, provided that:

  • it is equitable – which it is, compared to alternatives. US authors Schweitzer and Taylor demonstrated that it is less regressive than other taxation. As they put it, ‘we should not subsidise all drivers (and charge all consumers) to help the small number of poor travelers who use congested freeways in the peak hours and peak directions. Rather we should help those who are less fortunate, and see to it that the rest of us pay our own way on the roads’;
  • it is revenue-neutral (i.e. other motoring taxes and charges are reduced correspondingly – as they were in Singapore (figure 1)), or that revenues are reinvested in transport;
  • it is cheap to run; a 5% cost overhead seems to be achievable. Fuel duty is cheaper to collect (0.2% overhead) but does not manage traffic or reduce congestion and pollution;
  • it is familiar: people affected must have experience that road pricing works. Public education and demonstration are necessary.

A number of aspects of road pricing are surprising, or at least not in accord with popular belief:

  • People really did vote for the introduction of road pricing in Stockholm (figure 2). Despite the initial opposition of 62% of the population, following a temporary scheme which demonstrated the benefits, a majority of residents voted to make the scheme permanent. It is currently supported by 74% of the population, and is no longer a political issue.
  • Ken Livingstone was elected as Mayor of London on a manifesto which included the introduction of congestion charging (figure 3).
  • Major traffic reduction can be achieved with very low charges. Charges of £1 produced traffic reductions of more than 20% in Stockholm.
  • It does not result in traffic diversion onto other routes. Minimal diversion was observed in Stockholm and London.
  • Improved public transport will not of itself get people out of their cars. In Stockholm, extra buses were introduced in August 2005, but there was no effect on road traffic until January 2006 when the Congestion Tax came into operation. Increased bus services apparently accounted for only 0.1% of the reduction in vehicle traffic during the initial trial.

Other studies have shown that the UK public:

  • prefers Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) to other technology for implementing electronic road pricing (figure 4); and
  • does not like higher charges at busy periods.

The setup and running costs for a UK road pricing scheme would now be much less than in previous government estimates, due to the falling price of technology, and to equipment already in vehicles which might be suitable for generating charging data. A more detailed study of costs, preferably combined with a pilot scheme to confirm cost figures, would be a good idea.

Given the above, it is recommended that Governments should:

  • look positively at road pricing, rather than ruling it out as anti-motorist;
  • in collaboration with local government, implement a temporary urban congestion charging scheme in a town or city, to demonstrate the benefits and give people experience of road pricing;
    • preferably with rebates of other motoring taxes; and
    • using ANPR technology initially;
  • phase in a national scheme by charging certain vehicles (such as trucks) first, before expanding the scheme to all vehicles (figure 5);
  • publish information about the benefits of road pricing, conduct an educational campaign and proactively stimulate a genuine public debate;
  • commission further research on issues such as:
    • scheme technology and costs (figure 6);
    • how best to achieve phased implementation;
    • whether a voluntary opt-in phase would be possible;
    • whether a shift from cars to public transport will occur without road pricing;
    • how best to implement an educational programme; and
    • revenue-neutrality.

In summary, road pricing can reduce road traffic, can match an individual’s road use and environmental pollution with the payments made, and can raise revenue. It has long been recognised as a good policy, but the problem has been in moving from theory to reality. Public attitudes seem to be changing, technology has changed radically in scope and price, and the time is ripe for a serious and practical Stockholm-style trial which would enable Governments to get real-world answers to very important questions on road pricing.

For more details see ‘The Acceptability of Road Pricing’.

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