Road-pricing: the decongestant which gives effective relief

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2005

I will get my declarations of interest here and now. I do not drive, have never driven, do not plan to start driving. For fear that this statement ends up bracketing me with the extremist green fringe – rife in Oxford’s trendy, dilettante artisan areas – I should state that my motoring celibacy is based not on principle, but on pragmatism.
I have lived in this city for a decade now, and, as a single guy with no family responsibilities, have yet to see the need to pour my hard-earned salary into a petrol tank. Instead, I walk, catch the bus or train, and hail taxis.

However, I have no philosophical problems at all with motorists, or their insatiable driving urges. Indeed, the desire to hit the open road, to travel where you will, to follow your being, is such a striking expression of personal freedom that there are times I feel I ought to learn to drive if only to be able to share in this credo.

More importantly, driving is quite simply a way of life for those with kids, or if you live anywhere approaching rural. In my neck of the woods, there are buses into and out of town every five minutes; and coaches to London, Heathrow and Gatwick almost as frequently. This is just one of the many reasons why city living is infinitely preferable to the countryside, where villagers are more likely to spot the beast of Bodmin than a Number 5.
Right, with all such declarations, well, declared I can give a hearty hooray for road pricing, a policy whose time seems, finally, to have come.

(Indeed, such is my enthusiasm for Transport Secretary Mr Alistair Darling’s announcement that – only parenthetically – will I add that it might have been even more welcome if Labour had spelled out its ambitions in its general election manifesto. The plans Mr Darling is due to announce in his speech to the Social Market Foundation on Thursday have, I assume, been worked up by his Department over many months, even years. I’m probably just being a stickler for protocol, but it would have been nice if he’d, y’know, shared with the rest of us.

To be fair, though (and I’m a liberal: it’s in my DNA), the silence from my own party that has greeted Mr Darling’s news is scarcely impressive. Road-pricing is Liberal Democrat policy. I know that because I just checked. So where’s our press release? Answers on a post-card to Lib Dem Shadow Transport Spokesman, Tom Brake…)

Why is road-pricing so obviously a Good Thing?

Well, let’s look at the principle first. It is clearly fairer that motorists are charged for when and where they use roads, and not simply for owning a vehicle. Petrol tax, which, in Britain, accounts for 75% of the total price per litre, is one way of making real the ‘polluter pays’ ideal. But it is a very crude mechanism, penalising the motorist for the amount of fuel used, not the congestion that may be caused. It treats a driver who travels 2km along little-used country roads in the middle of the night in the same way as a driver cutting 2km across town at rush hour. This is a nonsense.

The argument for road pricing is just as strong if we look at the practical implications. Petrol tax is no longer the money-spinner it once was. Quite apart from the political sensitivity of any further increases in petrol tax – the fuel riots are etched on Mr Blair’s (and Mr Brown’s) consciousness – fiscal revenues from this source are declining as our cars become more fuel efficient. The trend is obvious, even if that dinosaur of yore, Mr Prescott, prefers a gas-guzzling Jag (or two) to a clean-living Prius.

And greater demand can no longer be met simply by building new roads. Even if you ignore the environmental consequences, it is simply too expensive: land, materials and labour are prohibitively pricey.

To sum up: road-pricing offers a new, and fairer, income stream to pay for public transport improvements; and offers government an highly elastic fiscal mechanism to regulate road capacity according to the local demand for it.

But does it work?

The only working example of road-pricing in this country is Ken’s inner London congestion charge. By common consent, this is a success: journey times are down by a third, air pollution down by 12%, and bus usage up by a third. There is a hole in his budget – net income is £80m pa, his projection was £120m – owing to the devilish combination of lower than anticipated vehicle numbers, and higher than predicted operational costs. But few begrudge Ken his plaudits (on this issue, at least): he has earned much political capital.

But are there any advantages to the consumer? Is there any reason why a motorist should welcome the change? We all know that pricing according to use creates winners and losers, just as water metering has brought tears of sadness to the eyes of many large families in the south-west of England (and tears of joy to prudent pensioners).

Well, it’s likely that, within a few years, all cars will have to be fitted with an On-Board Unit (OBU), in effect a satellite-tracking device, which will charge drivers according to when and where you’ve travelled. Chances are it will also have built-in GPS navigation, warning you of tailbacks, and advising on the quickest and cheapest alternative routes. And telling you how far away is the next petrol or service station. And booking your car in for its next service. And automatically contacting the AA with your coordinates when you break down. And brewing you a latte with cinnamon dusting. (Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.)

Road-pricing: everyone’s a winner. Unless you’re not. Them’s the breaks.