A senior UK government transport adviser has proposed that SUV drivers be penalised for driving their vehicles in city centres. Such a move would certainly be welcomed on environmental grounds, but to make a real impact on urban traffic congestion, the government should extend London’s successful congestion charge.

Few vehicle segments have experienced the phenomenal growth that the SUV market has experienced in the UK. The popularity of these 4×4 vehicles stems from several factors, most notably their large frame and higher seating position which are popular among safety conscious parents, the key customers for these vehicles in towns and cities. However, these features come at a sizeable cost in terms of the environment and congestion. With both these factors becoming increasingly sensitive issues, it is likely that the government will now take a closer look at the impact of these vehicles.

Professor David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, has taken a strong stance against drivers of these vehicles, and has indicated that they should face higher penalties for driving in towns and cities where their presence has a proportionally greater impact on the environment and congestion. In France, the government has already imposed a green tax on the purchase price of these vehicles, to come into force next year. Politicians are also considering banning them from the streets of Paris.

The British government is facing a major political dilemma over the growth in traffic and congestion in the UK, especially in London. While creating additional roads is a potential option, space is limited and the requisite construction work is highly time-intensive, expensive and disruptive.

The UK authorities need to urgently address the twin issues of road congestion and an under performing public transport network. Imposing sanctions against SUV drivers would be a good start, but these measures will not make much long-term difference to urban congestion.

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Static and slow traffic generates more air pollution and produces more carbon dioxide. So, if the government is serious about reducing traffic and urban pollution, it should look to the example of the London congestion charge scheme. In the capital, drivers are automatically charged £5 to enter the central zone of the city. Despite vociferous opposition in certain quarters, the scheme is considered highly effective in maintaining traffic flow, and it is ripe for extension to other cities. Revenues from the scheme could then be ploughed back into the nation’s ailing public transport system.