Should we use toll roads and charges to cut congestion?

Congested traffic

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If you have ever struggled to get into work, or even across town – and no doubt you have – then you will know that our roads are busier than ever.

The congestion is likely to get worse, too. The UK is already the congestion capital of Europe, but the Department for Transport forecasts an increase in road congestion of 55% between now and 2040. That’s a lot of cars.

Busy roads are an inconvenience – and potential safety hazard – for both drivers and pedestrians.

They also have economic implications. In a competitive global economy, an efficient infrastructure is an important factor in a country’s success.

Then there’s the environmental impact. After all, more cars generally lead to higher levels of pollution.

The government is already investing billions of pounds to boost capacity on the road and rail network. Think of Crossrail, HS2 and improvements to the Strategic Road Network.

But what about measures to reduce the number of cars on the roads?

Demand and supply

Experts agree that the government needs to look at demand as well as supply in order to solve the problem of congestion.

Experts such as the fellows at the Royal Academy of Engineering, who have assessed more than 20 measures to curb congestion based on the cost of implementation and potential success.

The Academy’s conclusion will not please everyone. It states that road pricing offers the “single best way to tackle road congestion”.

In other words, it wants to charge people to use the road network.

Revenue raising resentment

Drivers tend not to like road charges. They argue that they already pay enough tax, without having to stump up additional money to access the road network.

There is also the sneaking suspicion that some charges simply raise revenue and do nothing to ease congestion.

Politicians aren’t too keen on road pricing, either. For a start, they don’t want to upset the powerful motoring lobby.

There are also concerns that charges can have an unfair impact on low-income groups.

Taking their toll

Of course, we already have some experience of road pricing.

There are toll roads, such as the Dartford Crossing in Kent and the M6 toll in the Midlands. A number of cities also implement congestion charges, notably London.

But do we really want more, and do they really work?

The engineers claim that a charging system cuts demand for the road because it encourages some motorists to pick alternative modes of transport; others put off non-essential journeys or replace longer trips with shorter ones.

Charging can also influence when and where we travel.

Motorists might, for example, travel in off-peak period or use less congested areas of the road network in order to avoid charges.

It also usually results in some consolidation of journeys and more vehicle sharing.

Value for money

The Academy acknowledges the public and political antipathy to road pricing, but claims it “represents excellent value for money and is technically viable now”.

However, it points out that any pricing scheme should be well designed, transparent and fair in order to garner public support and to achieve its aim.

Sounds like a big ask!

Professor Tony May OBE FREng, lead author of the paper, says: “Transport congestion really matters – it’s frustrating, it wastes time for people going about their lives, and it costs money for businesses transporting goods around the country.

“The technology to deliver an efficient road pricing scheme is available today and has the potential to be very effective.

“It makes road users aware of the full cost of their travel and encourages drivers to consider other types of journey – be that a different route, a different time or a different mode of transport.

“There is ample evidence from where it has been applied around the world that it works and attracts public support.”

Parking problems

If road charges were not enough to rile the average motorist, the engineers suggest parking restrictions as another way to reduce congestion.

They explain how restricting on-street parking at critical points in an urban network, such as near road junctions or schools, can increase capacity.

Charging and restrictions on parking duration can also ensure there is always spare parking space available and so reduce the amount of traffic searching for parking spaces.

More generally, controls on supply, usage and price can reduce the attractiveness of accessing a city centre by car, and therefore help reduce congestion on roads in the vicinity and encourage a switch to less congesting modes.

Park-and-ride facilities on city fringes can reinforce such city centre controls.

The conclusions of the report are unlikely to have motorists dancing in their cars, but then congestion is no fun either.

So maybe we all have to make a difficult choice between higher road charges or longer traffic jams.

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