Viewed from the historical perspective the reasons for present day road congestion are clear and include a lack of political will and limited response by past governments to introduce timely and effective measures, either to stem traffic growth or ensure adequate infrastructure was in place. The statistics speak for themselves. Road mile/kilometre capacity in Britain has only increased by a few percentage points over the past 60 years. In sharp contrast, during the same period the road vehicle population has increased from just over 3 million to over a figure of 33 million today, a 900 per cent increase. Moreover, the latest Department for Transport statistics indicate that during the past decade road traffic volumes has increased by almost 20 per cent in the last decade, up from 400 billion vehicle kilometres in 1993 to over 500 billion vehicle kilometres today.
It is not for want or lack of knowledge on a worsening problem that governments are ignorant of the problem. Indeed, as far back as 1997 the Department for Transport released a series of stress maps, based on National Road Traffic Forecasts, which indicated future levels of congestion on the trunk road network up to the year 2016. The published data revealed the impact of journey times would become profound without a dramatic improvement in road capacity on key routes on Britain’s network. Despite repeated warnings since the mid-1990s on congestion, the squandering of finite fuel supplies, climate change awareness, continual traffic growth and urban parking problems, the phenomenal growth in gas-guzzling vehicles (Chelsea Tractors) has gone unchecked – demonstrating the paucity of official actions and implementation of effective environmental measures. Presently, serious congestion on Britain’s main arterial routes is now a fact of life.
The introduction of a national road pricing scheme has been suggested as a possible future solution. The idea of road pricing in Britain is nothing new. Indeed, the subject was floated more than forty years ago in the government commissioned Smeed report. Since then the subject has been under continual official consideration. The latest moves towards its introduction can be traced back to July 2004 with the publication of the government’s transport white paper, The Future of Transport: a network for 2030, in addition to released results of a year long road pricing feasibility study. The study indicated that a national road pricing scheme could reduce urban congestion by nearly half.
Essentially, the thrust behind road pricing is that road space is an economic good, like any other commodity, and can be measured in terms of cost and price for use. Therefore, the economic laws of demand and supply can be applied to the use of road space. If demand exceeds road supply capacity the result will be a shortage of space. One method of choking such demand is through the price mechanism. Travel during peak hours and on congested roads would tend to be at a higher toll.
So what you may ask? At a fundamental level, in a country where 90 per cent of internal freight is dependent on commercial trucks, coupled with a growing vehicle population, these are worrying statistics. In the 1990s, in terms of international comparisons, the extent of road traffic exceeding road space capacity was demonstrated, which indicated Britain’s roads are among the most heavily congested in the industrialised European countries. For example, international road traffic indicators showed that there were 67 vehicles per kilometre in Britain, 65 in the Netherlands, 62 in Germany, 36 in France and 32 in Belgium. Needless to say, in 2007 Britain still has more vehicles per kilometre of road than comparative European partners. The reality is that congestion has become a major commercial concern for hauliers and all industry sectors.
The above methods of actually collecting the fees for road pricing are heavily dependent on a physical infrastructure (toll booths) and the human element to collect, enforce and administer the system. However, it is believed that the government’s intention is to implement a national road scheme using satellite navigation systems, thereby making some of the above methods obsolete. The speed of change in electronic technology, especially mobile phones, may be a solution. The system will require all road vehicles to contain a satellite tracking device (the electronic black box), having the capability to identify which roads were driven along and in terms of time and distance travelled.
From a European perspective the European Union has a long awareness of the growing problem of congestion and potential impacts. Serious consideration is being given to the introduction of a European road pricing project, exploiting the Galileo satellite positioning system. Galileo is a European satellite navigation system based on a network of 30 satellites and ground stations, which between them cover the entire earth’s surface. It enables objects to be located anywhere in the world to within a distance of one metre. Galileo, which will cost about 3.4 billion euros and will be operational by 2008, is the world’s first satellite positioning and navigation system designed solely for non-military purposes. Galileo would rival the American global positioning system (GPS) which has a de facto world monopoly at present. Although Galileo has applications in other sectors, transport (air, sea, road or rail) is a key customer.
A system as complicated and having far reaching impacts on society, such as the introduction of a satellite based national road pricing scheme, raises a number of industry concerns as follows:
- In terms of future road pricing policy a lot of faith will have to be put into satellite technology and its reliability. A question increasingly being asked concerns the satellite and computer systems being able to cope with monitoring over 30 million road vehicles simultaneously, 24 hours, every day. What happens if there is a failure in the satellite or computer systems- something not unknown in existing computer technology systems?
- There is a possibility that the higher the tolls the more incentive there will be for some road users to interfere with and compromise the integrity of vehicle black boxes to avoid or reduce payment. This will require anti-evasion measures, a bureaucracy to administrate, coupled with a legal framework for policing and enforcement.
- It will be a challenge to install and operate a robust road pricing system based on satellite technology otherwise there is the risk of ending up with a hugely expensive white elephant.
- The idea of a spy in the sky, monitoring, tracking and tracing vehicle movements on a 24/7 basis may be regarded by some people as being a step towards an Orwellian and Big Brother society. The aspect raises concerns about future civil liberties.
- It is argued that road pricing is a double tax as £42 billion is already collected in road taxes, but only £7 billion reinvested in the network. Road users frequently express concern that road pricing is nothing more than a congestion tax in disguise and an extra cost burden.
- Road users will want to know if road pricing is going to raise the overall cost of driving. There is a growing suspicion that the real reason behind road pricing is to raise revenue to pay for their other public sector deficits, not to pay for improvements in public transport, road infrastructure or create a modern transport system.
- In terms of time, it is going to take ten to fifteen years to implement and will be a very expensive exercise. What happens if it does not work? Also, what is to be done in the meantime about present day worsening levels of congestion?
- There is a risk that road pricing measures will end up shifting traffic flows and therefore congestion problems to other routes and areas.
- Road pricing raises the spectre of equity, fairness and freedom of choice. There is concern that road pricing will drive the poor off the roads for the benefit of the rich. It has been pointed out that while the London congestion charging system allows road users access to the London inner roads it enables the rich to travel on less congested roads, while the poorer classes are reduced to using other methods of transport, such as public transport, pedal power or walking.
- Will road pricing be introduced nationally to cover all roads, or just on those roads subject to congestion? If introduced nation-wide those people living in remote, rural areas, lacking an adequate public transport or alternative transport system, and heavily dependent on road for social and business services would consider this option as inequitable and they are being unduly penalised.
There is a growing consensus that some form of road pricing is inevitable. Most organisations tend to qualify their support for road pricing with caveats, reflecting the individual interests of the organisation in question. For example, the RAC Foundation broadly supports the principle of road pricing, but would not support it if it were introduced as just another road tax. Surveys on road pricing indicate that people will support the principle if the funds raised are ring-fenced for investment in transport infrastructure and improvements.
The main industry trade associations, such as the Freight Transport Association and Road Haulage Association have adopted a cautious approach to road pricing. Research conducted by the FTA in 2002 indicated that congestion on Britain’s motorways and truck roads could increase by up to a third by 2010. The FTA points out that road congestion is the curse of modern logistics, because it causes unpredictability in journey times, resulting in more vehicles needing to be used to meet customer deadlines and stay within driver’s hours regulations. The RHA draws attention to the fact that British road users already pay over £43 billion in taxes, but only £7 billion is used for the road system. The remaining £36 billion is siphoned off for other purposes.
Additionally, the FTA and RHA point out that unlike private cars, hauliers have limited options in travel times as they have to compete in the open market, often being required to meet tight delivery/collection windows demanded by their customers. Consequently, hauliers may have no option other than to travel during peak hours. Furthermore, in an economy such as Britain, heavily dependent upon the road freight sector, road pricing will be inflationary (unless revenue neutral).
Consideration also needs to be given to the aspect of perishable goods. It is essential that a large proportion of goods delivered or collected by truck, such as newspapers, fresh foods, chilled foods, market garden and diary produce, is undertaken as and when the market requires. That is a commercial reality that must not be overlooked. When it comes to the haulage sector there is an apparently high inelasticity of demand as and when a truck can travel, which means the industry can be subjected to road pricing at the highest toll to a much greater degree than private cars.
Despite a recent petition of almost two million signatures against the introduction of road pricing policy the question is no longer if, but when will it be introduced? The sad truth is that mendacious governments, with a parsimonious approach towards the nation’s transport infrastructure have been sleep walking towards worsening congestion for decades. Each year, as statistics clearly illustrate and what every road user knows from daily experience, congestion levels have progressively become worse, geographically spreading throughout more parts of the country.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that road pricing is the solution to congestion.