Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Road Pricing

Parliamentary consent has been given to allow local authorities to trial methods for charging drivers based on the time of their journey on a particular road. The idea is that the highest charges for using the busiest roads at the busiest times will deter drivers from making un-necessary journeys at peak times and thus keep the roads clear for essential traffic.

Now it is good that the government wants to tackle congestion. The free movement of people and goods is vital to the economy of the nation. The problem is that Britain is densely populated, everyone is crammed into a relatively small area and when we go to work we end up going to the same places.

Sadly the proposed solution appears to be based on flawed assumptions. I would suggest that the biggest flaw is the idea that a big scheme like road pricing is the answer. Grand schemes are a great way of being seen to do something (which government always likes to do), but may divert attention from the boring practicalities of solving the problem. In the case of traffic management small improvements such as redesigning junctions, revising traffic light timings, removing traffic lights where practical and removing “traffic calming” measures may yield greater benefit but won’t make front page news.

Public transport is touted as a way to reduce congestion but it seems that funding for new initiatives will only be granted for local authorities where road pricing schemes are implemented. My fear is that the road pricing will come before any public transport alternative is put in place. You also have to be sceptical of any support for future public transport schemes give that cost-benefit analyses carried out by government always count lost revenue from motorists as a cost.

The biggest problem is that no consideration is given to the fact that there are already incentives to reduce congestion. The biggest incentive is congestion itself; no-one wants to sit in traffic and, where possible, people plan their journeys accordingly. Of course workplaces expect their employees to start on time – and usually the same time - which means sitting in traffic. There is also the question of cost, sitting in a traffic jam burns fuel to no good purpose – anyone stuck in traffic is already in effect paying a healthy sum to the government for the privilege. Assurances that other motoring costs will be reduced are met with understandable cynicism.

Maybe there is a place for road pricing in managing Britain’s road network. Simply raising awareness of the issue is no bad thing. I would suggest that road pricing is better left as a last resort rather than using it as a quick fix.

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