Emeritus Professor Roger Vickerman explains why tackling congestion on UK road requires innovative new ideas, chiefly a form of road pricing that charges for use rather than simply vehicle ownership.
‘A year on from the report that UK drivers spend an average of 31 hours a year in traffic jams we now have evidence on the most congested roads in the UK. And this shows that although the worst trouble spots are in London the problem affects all our big cities. I have argued before that what is needed is a nationwide system of charging for roads by use – road pricing. But this would need to be embedded within a much more strategic rethink of how we provide the transport we need for our cities and towns.
‘We already have blunt instruments such as the London Congestion Charge, but a sophisticated system of electronic tolling would charge drivers for their actual use of the system and by differentiating by the time of day can encourage those with the flexibility to adjust their journeys to times of lower traffic volumes. The current system of charging motorists is a tax on car purchase and ownership, and doesn’t distinguish by area of residence or actual use.
‘Cars spend an average 95% of their life parked. Residents of rural areas, many of whom have no alternative to using a car, typically travel on the least congested roads, but pay the same in road tax and fuel duty. Such drivers would be better off under a system which charged for the actual use of roads that reflected levels of congestion. The overall cost to road users would be less; the estimated average cost of that 31 hours of wasted time is £1,168; that would pay for a lot of miles. The usual response is to call for more road building, and whilst that and junction improvements can help in some cases, the evidence suggests that traffic typically expands to fill the space available.
‘But it is not just about cars competing for road space. Much of the increase in traffic in towns comes from van traffic – typically delivering our online purchases – we have to recognise that this too has a cost that will have to be paid for. Eventually, as with any limited resource, the only solution is one that uses price as a means of allocation – that’s how we charge for the alternatives such as bus, rail or air. And if all modes of transport were priced on the same basis we could make a better-informed choice of the right one to use for each journey.
‘This shows the need for a much more integrated approach to transport planning embracing new technologies both in the delivery of transport services and in paying for them. Politicians need to grasp this nettle now.’