Road Pricing — is it a scheme worthy of consideration?

With an increasing urgency to reform the way road use is taxed and paid for, the idea of pricing based on usage is being re-examined. Here, Tony Francis raises the option of including road pricing as a measure to help improve the national transport network, our air quality and potentially to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The background to road pricing in the UK

There are many everyday services and products that we pay for as we use them, for instance when we consume energy or travel on public transport, and in such instances, it is possible to apply discounts and premium pricing so that demand for these services can be managed. Thus, in an era where there is the intention to minimise the consumption of energy and reduce road use, policymakers are focusing attention on how best to incentivise responsible vehicle use and paying for individual road usage — or road pricing — is being considered as an alternative to the current universal road tax.

With the use of highways, the idea of road pricing has a long history in the UK, culminating with the emergence of an extensive network of toll roads in the eighteenth century and where users paid for a vastly improved highway network which allowed the development of an extensive stage carriage service network across much of the country. There are examples today of toll roads, notably the Dartford Crossing on the M25 and the M6 toll, and there is also the London Congestion Zone, introduced to manage demand over a limited road system and more recently to reduce pollution, which charges according to the emissions standards of vehicles.

During the recent pandemic, road use was dramatically reduced and air quality greatly improved in many communities. With a return to pre-lockdown conditions, those advances are being lost and there are reports of road congestion exceeding levels before the pandemic. This could then have a number of adverse effects, especially on public health but also by lengthening journey times and thus affecting individuals, businesses, and the attractiveness of retail and recreational centres.

The need for a more radical transport solution

Previous attempts to apply road pricing have met with considerable opposition, despite evidence from London where the congestion charge initially reduced traffic by 15% and allowed a 30% improvement in journey time. Such criticisms suggest that the freedom to use all roads would be lost but, at least in previous consideration, there was little discussion highlighting the potential advantages. There has thus not been a widespread national debate or campaign and only a few examples of successful schemes presently exist.

Air quality and the need to address climate warming is a growing concern and one that needs to be addressed on several fronts. For example, by the introduction of all electric vehicles, promotion of active travel (cycling and walking) and hopefully also with new bus strategies developed jointly between local authorities and operators. However, all those changes may still not be sufficient to significantly reduce the overall use of highways and thus will not achieve targeted emissions levels.

The public acceptability of road pricing

In 2011, the RAC Foundation published a research report, The Acceptability of Road Pricing, and the initial reaction to the research was one that saw road pricing as an additional tax that would entail paying again for the use of the highway. Road pricing, however, is better represented as a replacement of all existing levies on highway use and the report takes a balanced view and suggests that road pricing is not intended to force people off the roads but to encourage them to consider driving at different times of the day, on different routes or even using different modes of transport. This also includes not making the journey at all or combining two or more activities into a single trip.

It emphasises that people place a significant value on their time spent travelling and public transport usage often takes longer, especially if changes are needed. Additionally, with reference to “trip chaining”, where many school, work and shopping trips are combined, it reflects that these are not always easy to transfer to other modes of transport.

As an update to this research, it is hoped that the development and implementation of the new bus strategies will inspire a better understanding of each community’s travel needs, so that services can best reflect the requirements of their users. This underlines the need for local authorities and bus operators to build close relationships so that opportunities to use public transport, in and from a wider variety of locations, significantly increase.

The role of technology in delivering a scheme

During debates on road pricing, challenges are commonly made about how exactly it would be managed, especially with the frequent need to adjust tariffs based on changing demand, and how maximum efficiency could be ensured over the entire network. Road works, special entertainment events and other “one off” events generating additional traffic flows would also need to be accounted for effectively in any systematic approach. However, with modern computer-based technology tracking traffic flows, determining solutions and informing drivers on many different aspects of road travel and conditions, the ability to create an integrated national road pricing infrastructure is well within today’s software capabilities. Privacy safeguards also need to be built giving assurance that an individual’s information is sufficiently secure but again this is entirely possible with existing technology.

As climate and congestion challenges increase and face the whole country, there is a defined logic in introducing one standard national system but charges could certainly vary according to local and regional circumstances.

The opportunity for a national debate

After discussion, it is first suggested that there needs to be a swiftly conducted and objective nationwide debate that aims to better understand the principle of road pricing. This should determine if a scheme can be created which is seen as creditable, understandable and acceptable to the majority of road users and which preferably enhances and accelerates the move towards a net zero emissions society.

Any successful scheme would need to ensure all local communities and authorities, along with central government agencies, are fully included with the aim to ensure concerns, misgivings and ideas, however trivial, are resolved. In implementing any scheme, speed is essential so that road pricing can be built into all future transport and land use planning.