Cities urged to consider road charging

7th Nov 2018

Road pricing’s introduction to the UK will be driven by HM Treasury running short of cash rather than any overt desire to reduce congestion, transport economist Paul Buchanan told an event on Monday.

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Delivering the Ruth Thompson Memorial Lecture, organised by London TravelWatch, he gave the case for road charging and outlined his ‘Pricing for Prosperity’ proposal; a finalist in last year’s Wolfson Economics Prize. Road pricing is necessary, he said, “because the cost signals to drivers” such as refuelling “do not work and people drive as if it were free”.

Paul’s idea would see motorists log their journey intentions before they set off and for a road pricing authority to come back with a price as well as alternative routes and times to drive and cheaper travel options. Those who have not ‘checked in’ first may have to pay up to a third more. 

But transport commentator Christian Wolmar remarked: “Ditch the idea of inputting where you are going; it’s a non starter. Some people don’t even know where they are driving, and it would not pass the political test.”

Christian also suggested that road user charging be presented as a way to tackle the “pollution crisis and climate change” and not look to be revenue neutral.

Paul Buchanan had early said that while vehicle excise duty raises £6Bn a year and fuel tax generates £27Bn, the total figure is likely to decline rapidly over the next 30 years. “The Treasury will need something to make up for that large loss of income,” he said. “The introduction of road pricing is more likely to be driven by money rather than improving reliability or reducing congestion.”

He was later challenged by a delegate who expressed scepticism that the Treasury will readily give up £33Bn in favour of a new idea. But Paul pointed out: “If they don’t do anything, they are going to lose anyway. They can watch their income reduce year on year, or do something about it.”

Paul began his presentation by remarking that “there are a few practical difficulties about implementing road pricing, otherwise it is perfect. It will work at some point; it’s just there is a political fear about taking it on”.

He also offered his thoughts about a series of alternatives to road pricing. Increasing fuel tax is an option, but it is unclear how much higher that could go, he said. Rationing road space by only allowing half of the cars on the road on a certain day - an idea introduced in Athens - would not be fair if wealthier motorists own more than one vehicle, he added.

“My grandfather Colin Buchanan said that wherever there is a traffic problem there a parking solution, but it has gone beyond that now,” Paul added. “We could widen existing roads, but as soon as you make roads faster they will fill up, particularly in cities and towns. The answer is road pricing; paying for each trip depending on where and when you use the roads.”

But the biggest issue is how to convince the public to agree to road pricing, he added. “The Government is terrified: 1.8 million people signed a petition in 2007 against it and they lost two referendums in Manchester and Edinburgh.” Paul added that being able to show people first how road pricing would work, such as with a trial, is the way forward.

He predicted that road pricing “will probably start small” with a city the size of Bristol, or be introduced to the strategic road network. “As soon as it is done properly, I think it would be done all over the country,” he added.

He was asked what the next step is for road pricing in the UK. “I’m looking for cities that want to take this on,” he answered. And once introduced, “these things can become the norm pretty quickly. When was the last time anyone moaned about the congestion charge in London? We just need to do it.”

 Photograph: Elliott Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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