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Urban tolls: it's in the air

Government efforts to encourage local authorities to use road pricing as a way of tackling congestion and funding public transport has definitely captured the imagination of borough engineers up and down the country.

Some local authorities have already started developing the concept further to link charges to pollution levels.

Over the last three years, engineers in Leicester have been working on a project which could lead to pollution increases triggering road price rises and corresponding cuts in bus fares.

Last week Leicester City Council, with partners from Maidstone in Kent, Swedish city Gothenburg and Volos in Greece presented the findings of their Environmental Forecasting for the Effective Control of Traffic project begun in 1996.

EFFECT involved integrating real-time air quality data with state of the art traffic monitoring technology and traffic management and surveillance systems.

Under the experiment, local information about emissions was correlated with a regional meteorological picture to produce pollution forecasts and 'nowcasts'. This data could then be used to change traffic management and road pricing strategies in response to prevailing and anticipated conditions.

To date, Leicester and the other EFFECT participants have been changing signalling to divert traffic from congestion and pollution hot spots, and putting out information on road-side digital billboards, in local papers and on radio and television, to try and reach drivers' conscience and influence their behaviour.

But the strategy could, in extreme circumstances, involve banning cars altogether (as the draconian mayor of Genoa, Italy, has been known to do) or, with an effective 'intelligent' tolling system, deter drivers from city centres on heavy pollution days by squeezing them where it hurts - in their pockets.

In little more than a year, at least one UK city will have the power to charge vehicles for road use. Several cities are preparing bids for a £1M plus European Union-funded, Department of Environment Transport and the Regions administrated tolling pilot scheme which will build on the lessons of EFFECT. Submissions will be in by March, and it is hoped the winning council's strategy will be implemented early next year.

Meanwhile, DETR is expecting pre-qualification bids for the design and operation of an electronic fee collection system on

1 February. The winning package will be used in the pilot scheme and after refinements have been carried out, it could also set a UK-wide standard for urban and inter-urban tolling systems.

Leicester City Council municipal engineer Nick Hodges says it makes sense for neighbouring local authorities to start sharing pollution information too. 'Dirty air is no respector of boundaries,' he says, adding that it is in Nottingham's interest to know what the wind will bring it from Leicester.

With public understanding and political will, Hodges envisages a regional and national pollution monitoring and traffic control network in five to ten years.

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