Road block for road pricing? 17 Oct 2007

The Government appears to have hit a brick wall in trying to convince the public about road pricing, according to the director of the RAC Foundation in a key note speech at the National Transport Conference in London today (17)*. He suggests that a voluntary scheme with rewards for early adopters, including cuts in fuel tax, might be the way ahead.

Reminding delegates that, driven by concern about how road pricing would affect their lives in the car-dependent UK, more than 1.8 million individuals signed the Downing Street petition opposing road pricing, King will urge UK authorities to use the lessons learned from the voluntary road-pricing scheme piloted in Oregon, USA, to address UK motorists' concerns.

Calling for an open dialogue with motorists, whose support is essential if pricing is to be implemented, King will brief delegates on the successful Oregon pilot scheme**, where motorists who opted into the pay- as- you- go scheme received discounts on fuel duty at the pumps. The scheme successfully addressed privacy concerns, and placed minimal costs on businesses and vehicle owners.

Royal Automobile Club Foundation research on the acceptability of road pricing schemes has consistently found that the majority of motorists (60%) accept the principle that it would be fairer to pay for the roads according to the time spent driving in congestion, but are worried about how this change would impact their lives. Support for the concept of charging has increased slightly over the last four years, but support for any specific application of congestion charging is starting to wane. UK motorists also believe that any road pricing scheme should be socially just, with 58% agreeing that there should be protection for those on low incomes. When asked where finances should be reinvested, over 50% of motorists believe that finances should be directed straight back into the road network itself and acceptability increases if there are equivalent reductions in other motoring taxes.

However, almost 80% of motorists are so anxious about the situation that they want an independent watchdog to stand up for their interests. Nine out of ten do not trust the government to deliver a fair system. Therefore one way ahead could be a voluntary system that gives motorists a package of benefits, which will make a real difference to their journeys.

A voluntary scheme, where motorists can opt to join what we have dubbed "UK Drive Time" would bring great benefits. Scheme members could benefit from:

  • reduced fuel duty,
  • satellite navigation and congestion avoidance,
  • stolen vehicle tracking,
  • e-call emergency button to notify police or breakdown service in event of an accident,
  • discounts for greener cars,
  • parking availability,
  • location of favourite shops or restaurants and
  • cheaper insurance.

Even if only ten per cent of drivers sign up to such a voluntary scheme, significant congestion reduction will still be achieved. Having a meter in the car outlining the cost of each journey will lead to a reduction in journeys by highlighting the actual cost of the trip - RAC Foundation research has found that most motorists regard fuel, tax and insurance as "sunk costs" and do not relate them to individual journeys. In Oregon the "pay as you go" group showed a reduction in miles traveled even thought they were paying the same amount as those paying tax at the pumps. Where the charge varied at rush hour there was a 20% reduction in travel.

Motorists already pay £44 billion per year in motoring taxes. If the motorist is to accept road pricing, the RAC Foundation urges government to demonstrate that pricing will be part of the solution to their needs, along with more investment in transport, and not just another means to raise money and price them off the roads.

The RAC Foundation believes the government needs to change the way the debate is presented. Road pricing is not an end in itself but may, as a voluntary scheme, be one element of a package of measures required to give the UK a transport system fit for the 21st century.

Commenting, Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, said:

" Economists have been talking about road pricing for more than 40 years and it always seems to be ten years away. If the Government is serious about changing the way we pay to travel then a fresh approach is needed. A voluntary scheme that gave motorists other benefits would be a step in the right direction.

"No-one is likely to buy "road pricing", but they might be interested in subscribing to "UK DriveTime" as a package of solutions which incorporates services that motorists actually want.

"Motorists who opt into a "UK DriveTime" scheme could benefit from reduced fuel duty, congestion avoidance systems, up-to-date parking information, cheaper insurance and e-call technology, which pinpoints the car and calls the emergency services in the event of an accident. The mechanics of the system would run in the same way as the Oregon trial and the RAC Foundation believes that even a voluntary scheme would have an immediate impact on congestion."