Charging drivers for road use could raise revenue for transport projects, reduce congestion and improve the environment in urban areas. So says a report from the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology. What is new about that, a variety of road users, road abusers and other readers might ask? The forthcoming Transport White Paper, which is expected next month, might tell us. Then again, it might not.
In the meantime, the main question is not whether roads are overcrowded but how congestion can be dealt with. There is one simple answer. Why not just let roads become so busy that motorists tire of traffic jams and think of something else? They might, for instance, take another, less encumbered, route. Or they might possibly leave their cars at home and, full of virtue, seek some suitable form of public transport. That seemed to be the policy of Paul Channon when he was in charge of the transport ministry in the distant past. If I have misremembered his policies, I am apologetic, but I do not think that I have.
But that was long ago, and the policy failed then and would be likely to fail again. What is the situation now, and is there anything that can be done about it? Two immediate questions arise; first, is the situation as bad as the critics make out, for critics exist in order to turn crises into catastrophes; and second, if it is, is it totally out of hand or can a remedy be seen even if only through a glass darkly?
POST has looked at this and, in answer to the first question, it sees increased traffic growth in the next 30 years or so as substantial. On POST's highest forecast, traffic will increase in that time by 80%; or by 20% on its lowest one. Both of these, as we know from past experience, are guestimates rather than real forecasts. They have always been wrong before and will be again. But, whatever they tell us, the trend is remorselessly upward.
So, if the trend can be taken at its face value, there is, as the song has it, trouble ahead. Is that trouble to be dealt with - though Heaven knows how - or is it to be averted by a change in policy? The answer might - but only might - lie in charging for the use of roads.
Road charging is a real possibility and has been considered before, although governments have shied away from it so far. It is well known abroad, especially on toll motorways, but here tolls have been limited to estuary crossings and a few relics from history.
According to POST, about 46M toll payments are made each year and about 7.5M of these are made using an automatic payment system, the only kind feasible in Britain. There are 17,000 toll-gated lanes worldwide, of which slightly more than a third are equipped with automatic identification systems. Seemingly these schemes generate about £500M in profit, which is not bad business.
But caution is needed. Up to now, the only fully operational full-speed free-flow road user charging system is on Highway 407, a relief motorway on the outskirts of Toronto. Since last October, it has had TV cameras on gantries over sliproads and transponders on vehicles to track traffic.
Approximately half of the vehicles on the relief road have transponders and the operations hope to raise C$70M a year, rising to C$100M two years from now. If this all works out to plan, the future looks rosy, but questions still remain.
Most importantly, is the technology so far advanced that it can be introduced in Britain with confidence? Perhaps it is, but so far experience is restricted to small scale schemes working on roads which already have tolls or, as in the case of Toronto's Highway 407, a new road specifically designed to include electronic road user charging systems. Neither of these preconditions apply in Britain, so it seems we are not quite there yet.
If the availability of the technology is one snag, there is another, possibly the cruncher. Figures from the environment department show that motoring costs in 1996 were 2% lower in real terms that in 1974, whereas rail and bus fares had risen by 75% and 58% respectively. Meanwhile disposable income had gone up by 62% over the same period. It looks as if road charging, if a feasible system can be found, would have to be fairly hefty to make much of dent in congestion, unless it was accompanied by serious vehicle and fuel taxes. That would give John Prescott and Gordon Brown plenty to think about.