Political will aside, is implementing national road pricing feasible? Five golden rules that can make it a reality

By James Date

A growing number of authoritative voices are making the case for national road pricing. At the same time, economic pressures are creating an opportunity to win support for a different method of taxation. But this is about much more than filling the gap in the Treasury bank account caused by electrification. Implemented successfully, road pricing will bring benefits such as congestion relief and drive smarter travel choices to help deliver on sustainability targets, as seen in London with the congestion charges and emissions zones.

Implementation presents a maze of challenges

There are many challenges to overcome to realise these benefits. These range from the emotive – many road users are fiercely resistant, in 2007 a petition gained 1.7 million signatures signalling public disapproval – to the practical – how to measure miles travelled and apply charges? Add to this evolving technology, which will change what is possible going forward. Then factor in the various and disconnected toll and charging schemes already in operation. Implementing road pricing will not be straight-forward.  Here are five core principles which will help navigate this complex landscape and lead to successful implementation:

1. Start communicating now

 Communicate early. This will allow time to shift the national psyche and build recognition of the need for road pricing. Equity and privacy are often the headline objections, so tackle these issues first to win public support.  

 Start by being open about data collection and usage. For road pricing, this is far less intrusive than data collected via mobile phones, but somehow far more emotive. Next, make it clear you’ve taken full account of the equity impacts of your scheme in its design and any supporting measures.  Properly designed as part of a wider programme, road pricing has the potential to ensure greater equity, for example for lower-income households and disability groups. Highlight the investment in public transport, cycling and walking alternatives enabled by road pricing to shift attitudes. And make the re-investment of the revenue from road pricing transparent, ensuring it benefits the regions and cities. There is an argument for transport and regional authorities to have control of pricing and supporting measures.

2. Plan a phased approach 

Implementing a national road pricing scheme that raises revenues, lowers congestion, and incentivises low-/no-emission vehicles is unlikely to be a ‘big bang’. So consider adopting a phased approach.

Evolution of the scheme should always be responding to a case for change. In the UK, we could begin by introducing a per-mile cost for electric vehicles (while maintaining fuel duty and vehicle excise duty for petrol and diesel vehicles). This will ensure all drivers contribute to road maintenance budgets. Per-mile charging for EVs could be enabled by an annual odometer check. This is a blunt means to secure revenues, but the simplest and cheapest, and responds to the budget deficit case for change. It also establishes a platform for smarter methods, such as discounts for early adopters of an on-board unit or a mobile phone-enabled scheme to incentivise road users to sign up. Government could eventually leverage the platform to introduce a smarter approach to managing demand by applying congestion or emissions charges at points of the network as and when there’s a need.

3. Design for future complexity

To set out what the future might look like, design for future complexity.  A ‘keep it simple’ approach, such as an annual mileage check at MOT to inform an annual charge, will meet some of the immediate budget challenges in the UK. But it doesn’t start to do some of the ingenious things that a well implemented road pricing scheme could achieve. For example – using time-of-day charging to incentivise mode shift or applying variable charging to manage congestion and emissions and support transport’s contribution towards net zero. Set out the end vision for road pricing early, to ensure early scheme design can enable future evolution. 

4. Collaboration – use a cross-government approach to design for future integration

A range of disconnected toll, congestion charge and emissions schemes are already in operation across the UK. So a centralised back office for a national scheme is not going to be in place from the beginning. But the goal should be to ‘design for future integration’. A cross-government approach could provide coordination and energise policy development. The collaboration between the Department for Transport and Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, led by an independent group with cross-industry representation, has been an effective model to enable the set-up of clean air zones. A similar group for road pricing could coordinate early liaison with regions and cities, moving towards a centralised national approach if schemes evolve in the right direction. 

5. See the bigger picture

It’s not just about road pricing. Road pricing is part of a much wider network of policy and strategy objectives, spanning electric vehicle infrastructure and charging, Mobility as a Service, public transport investment and alternatives. These all contribute to national growth targets. So, take the focus away from ‘replacing fuel duty’ and develop a whole-picture economic case for road pricing. Promote the benefits to the wider economy, including reduced time spent in congestion, cleaner air and its health benefits, and a shift to greener modes of transport, as intended by Greater Cambridge Partnership. The integrated systems and technology that support current UK road infrastructure can be an enabler for future road pricing. But, as the Transport Select Committee Report on Road Pricing urges, we must first define the bigger picture.

Any introduction of a national road pricing scheme faces challenges ahead. But keeping these five core principles at the heart of design and implementation will create a smoother and more effective road to success.

About the authors

James Date PA transport expert

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