There is a strong case for road pricing, particularly on London’s roads. The question is: can it ever be fair?
Won’t it hit poorer drivers the most?
What about small businesses who rely on vehicles?
And wouldn’t it finish off the cab trade?
I’ll try and show why road pricing – or what I’ve called road-user charging – could make nearly all of us better off……if it is introduced in the right way.
There is certainly a need for it.
It goes beyond the current debate around the impact of low traffic neighbourhoods.
Take a look at this stat: The number of miles driven by motor vehicles on London’s roads has grown by 3.6 billion since 2009 – an 18.6% increase – to an all-time high of 22.6 billion miles in 2019.
And side roads suffered the most. Not only did they absorb the full 3.6 billion net increase, they’ve also abstracted a further 300 million miles off the main road network. Since 2006, the number of miles driven on London’s main roads annually fell by 800 million.
Nevertheless many main roads remained very slow going.
Transport for London figures show car journeys fell during the first lockdown when half of all journeys were made by bike or on foot but they are now back close to their 2019 levels.
In order to rescue London – its economy choking from congestion and its people battered by noise and air pollution – I believe road-user charging is essential.
But can it be fair?
The journalist Janice Turner wrote in her Times column (22/10/20): “Drivers will refuse to pay to collect tiles from B & Q or take their old mum to Tescos…businesses will revolt.”
Introduced tomorrow it would hit a lot of people very hard: low-income and disabled drivers, delivery vans and many small businesses, even a lot of families on average incomes, given the high cost of public transport.
But imagine this scenario. Public transport is dirt cheap or even free so the only real cost of travelling around would be the road user tax. In the round, this means most people would be spending less on transport than they do today. Car use would fall. Congestion on the roads would be eased saving people who need cars and vans to do business time and money.
Is this the impossible dream?
I don’t think so. What the evidence shows (1) is that road-user charging, together with viable alternatives, will persuade us to use our cars a lot less, maybe even allow some of us to give them up altogether.
What alternatives are needed?
1. Quality conditions for walking and cycling. There is significant scope for modal switch. About half the journeys we make are under two miles and 75% less than five miles.
2. Embrace new technology. London is beginning to buzz with exciting alternatives to the car: freight delivery cycles, e-scooters, e-bikes, shared bicycles and pedicabs. Freight cycles have real potential. Research by the consultancy WSP has found that up to 14 per cent of vans could be replaced by cycle freight in London by 2025 (2). Electric bikes, too, have a lot of potential. They make cycling over longer distances and up hills so much more viable for many more people. There are also increasing opportunities to make use of shared transport.
3. Convenient, accessible and affordable public transport. I’m not sure any of it will work while London has its sky-high public transport fares. Cheap fares don’t require massive public subsidy.
Cheap fares can be financed in a number of ways: by using some of the money raised from road-user charging; by imposing a transport tax on big employers (as places like Paris already do), on the basis that their employees benefit from cheap fares; by introducing a small annual transport levy on our rates.
A number of European cities have introduced free public transport – places like Luxembourg, Tallinn and Dunkirk. Fare-free bus travel in Dunkirk has been a game-changer for a working class town that was culturally very attached to the car. One year on, bus trips are up 85%. Half of new bus users previously drove and one in ten new bus users have sold their second car.
Free or cheap, these sort of fare levels would mean that, even with a road-user charge in place, most of us would be forking out less to get about than we do today. Car use would fall. Congestion on the roads would be eased saving people who need cars and vans to do business time and money. If fare levels were sorted, London has the basic transport network in place to enable people to switch from car to bus, tram and train. It can lead the way in the UK. My belief is that a town or city would need a regulated bus network, such as we have in London, if road-user charging was to work. The road-user charge should be distance-based so that those who travel the most play the most.
There could be exemptions – disabled drivers, certainly. Maybe others as well – whatever it takes to make it fair.
One thing may make road-user charging inevitable. As electric vehicles become commonplace, fuel duty will begin to dry up. The Treasury will be looking for an alternative source of revenue. Good planning and housing policies would also help – so, for example, car-based new developments are avoided.
Now is the time to put together a scheme that works for everybody.