Ask anyone trying to get into work on the main Belfast arterial routes during the rush hour and they will recall regular tales of congestions and delay. Our road network is creaking at its seams and while investment is planned, the soaring cost of fuel means that it is key that we use the available transport infrastructure in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Governments in other countries develop strategies to address congestion whilst getting most out of the current infrastructure. He brings a discerning voice to the current situation in Northern Ireland.“The Investment Delivery Plan published by DRD in May this year sets out a massive £3.1bn programme of investment in the transport infrastructure between 2008 and 2018. This is part of the solution, however even this huge amount of investment will not reduce levels of congestion.
“The investment consists of a range of measures, some new, for example the potential rapid transit system for Belfast, and some of it more traditional, for example road building/widening. While these measures may have local benefit, they are unlikely to have the impact across Northern Ireland that the public and the business are crying out for. Indeed in the short-term they may make the situation worse – just ask anyone who has travelled on the Westlink during its upgrade over the last two years.”
Failure to address congestion adequately is stifling economic growth. Charlie estimates the current cost of congestion to the economy to be around £250 million annually or 1.5 per cent of total economic productivity. “In short, Northern Ireland is stuck in the slow lane – the lack of concerted progress in addressing congestion is costing business and the economy an estimated £250 million every year in lost production.
“With spiralling fuel costs and Government budgetary constraints, there is now a huge impetus on us all to use the transport infrastructure efficiently. ”
The business community has been particularly vociferous on the need for an improved roads infrastructure. The Quarry Products Association, the Freight Transport Association, the CBI, IoD and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce have made their feelings known. In particular the CBI and FTA at their joint forum last year made it clear they didn’t want road charging used as an excuse for avoiding improvements to them roads network and it has to be part of a ‘broad and integrated package of other transport measures’.
The IoD in Northern Ireland have also recently published their document, The 1.7 Challenge, in which they call on the government to ‘commission feasibility studies into new and innovative ways of funding transport construction including road charges’.
So what is to be done?
“We cannot just look at increasing the capacity of our roads or increasing public transport availability,” said Charlie Henderson. “We need to influence when people use the transport network to get the most out if it.
“We all know if we travel on a week-day morning or evening that there is a much higher volume of traffic and the roads can be grid locked. There are several ways of addressing this. You could look at phasing school timings - a third of journeys in the rush hour relate to taking children to school.
“You could adopt more flexible working arrangements and encourage home working – many commuting journeys could be made at different times of the day or indeed not at all. A more controversial approach is road charging”.
He explained that road charging is not uncommon across Europe and has proven successful. The principles behind it are simple – road users are charged for using the busiest and most congested roads. In Central London this has provided a clear message to drivers and encourages behavioural change, either to use public transport or travel at different times.
Charlie Henderson acknowledges that this is not always popular. “The public are generally sceptical about the motive for road charging,” he said, “claiming that it is just another tax.
”To understand more about gaining acceptance PA Consulting developed and tested a road charging system with a small number of road users and piloted it in Belfast, Dublin, London and Copenhagen. The pilot demonstrated that in a range of urban environments, the location and speed of vehicles could be accurately and cost effectively recorded. Importantly it also demonstrated that to gain public acceptance there needed to be a strong relationship at the individual driver level between costs (road charge) and benefit.
Mr Henderson said; “To develop this relationship and provide more benefit to the users, we created a secure website where the driver could review previous journeys, the time taken and associated costs.
“This in turn allowed the driver to analyse a number of things, for example the route, how quickly they accelerated and braked. This helped develop a more economical driving style and thus reduce fuel costs – an issue which is becoming increasingly important. It also allowed the driver to look at regular journeys and identify the best time to travel, thus reducing journey time.
” With fuel costs rising rapidly and touching around $130 a barrel the cost of fuel is going to become an increasingly pertinent factor for those planning traffic management systems as well as the roads infrastructure.
“Any move to introduce charging in the current climate would be highly political and add a considerable burden to that already being carried by businesses large and small,” said Mr Henderson. “Freight transporters in particular would be hit by such a measure and it is almost inevitable that they would pass on the extra costs to customers, namely Northern Ireland plc.
“In truth the potential for charging road users in Northern Ireland is not something that has been widely considered. While not paying for using roads may seem a good thing, the consequence is we will continue to use them inefficiently and have to endure worsening congestion. As a result our economy will suffer at a cost far more than the present £250 million a year.”
It seems that the question of road charging in Northern Ireland is not ‘if’ but ‘when’?