Blog: Dave LeggettRoad charging

Dave Leggett | 12 February 2007

The British government is getting itself in a right pickle over plans to test pay-as-you-drive electronic road charging. Over a million people have now signed an online petition opposing electronic road charging. A million people signing a petition is sure to have politicians quietly backpedalling and wondering what sort of hornet's nest has been stirred.

A number of points occur. One, just imagine the admin costs in sending every driver in the country bills. It is almost certain to cost more than it should to administer and be a project management mess. That's how most big public sector projects turn out in this country. Two, the civil liberties aspects are unsettling to say the least and I can't believe that the data won't be interrogated for reasons other than determining people's road pricing bills. At the very least, no government can offer a guarantee that it would never happen. If it tried to, it would be deservedly laughed at.

I just don't see the need for electronic road pricing myself and to me it seems blindingly obvious that there is a better way to go.

The idea that the roads will 'just fill up' to complete gridlock is utter nonsense. There comes a point, as congestion rises, at which people acting rationally change their behaviour because journey times have got too long. Discretionary journeys decline in number, people move to alternative modes (where available) and a kind of equilibrium prevails. As the cost of transport increases - price and time - behaviour alters. 

But why the high-tech with knobs on stuff (guys like Siemens must be salivating at the thought)?

It's all so unnecessary!

We already have 'pay-as-you-drive' in the form of petrol duty. Why not simply drop the annual 'road tax' and stick that on petrol instead - and make the change revenue neutral (if a future government wants to charge us all more for using our cars, that's another issue, to be tested at the ballot box) for the time being, at least.

No need for satellite tracking, black boxes in cars and a new division of the DVLA sending out thirty million bills every month. It would also remove the current admin costs associated with road tax and plug the revenue hole from people who just don't pay it. There's also a pertfect differential graduation so that those who do more of the polluting with less efficient or heavier cars or travel more pay more tax. It's intellectually very tidy.

With the petrol tax, the more you drive, the more you pay. If you drive in heavily congested traffic, you'll be paying more as you burn more fuel. Drive sensibly on less congested or empty roads and you'll deservedly keep your costs down. All in all, how ridiculously simple is that?

Add in the benefits of selective toll roads (like the M6 toll road) or special charging lanes for avoiding congestion, as well as congestion charges in city centres like London and we've got the bones of a sensible congestion policy. And it doesn't sound anything like as hostile to motorists and civil liberties as the ideas that the government has been propogating. First rule of politics: know if the juice is worth the squeeze. 

Where's the catch with abolishing road tax and replacing it with a higher fuel tax? I can't see it.



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