Blog: Dave LeggettRoad pricing

Dave Leggett | 6 June 2005

I must confess to having mixed views on road pricing. Like most people, I don’t like the idea in principle. It goes against the grain. Here in Britain the motorist is already very heavily taxed and only a small proportion of that tax is reinvested in the road network. That said, it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that somewhere along the line road pricing may have a role to play as a necessary evil in order to avoid LA-style gridlock (though the question perhaps becomes, what is an ‘acceptable’ level of congestion?).

Strange though that transportation policy did not figure as an issue in the general election campaign that we just had. And now we have the government floating the idea of satellite tracking all vehicles alongside tariffs for all, yes all, roads. A little ominously, even the opposition transport spokesman I heard on the radio this morning backed the government in floating these road pricing ideas. Companies like Siemens must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of bidding for the contract to put black boxes into 25 million cars on British roads (probably 30 million by the time this could be expected to actually happen in ten years’ time).

And the government says that road tax (an annual fee we pay – about £100 for a private car) and fuel tax (constituting well over half of our $6 a gallon pump price) will be removed as road pricing comes in, so it will be ‘revenue neutral’. I find that just a little bit hard to believe. Governments tend to like easy sources for raising taxation. And I don’t much like the idea of my car being tracked by satellite in this rather Orwellian manner either (won’t it be tempting to also monitor speed and issue speed tickets?). What’s wrong with selective tolls for congestion black spots at busy times - like London’s orbital motorway, the M25?

How ‘bad’ will the problem become anyway? Traffic jams aren’t fun, but as long as the traffic is moving they are bearable. People are quite rational creatures – if they suspect that the journey time will be way too long, they modify their behaviour accordingly. And there is a paradox here of course: we can take quite a bit of congestion ‘punishment’ in our increasingly comfortable air-conditioned little metal boxes, although we all complain about excessive traffic. I do it too. 

As I say, increased road tolls and a role for pricing of some sort – yes, I agree with that, although I do not like it (and selling this politically, even in a partial way, will be very difficult). But this blanket solution with satellite tracking for all? No thanks.

Link to Sunday Times article on road pricing ideas


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