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The price of congestion

Date: 21 February 2018   |   Author: Sean Keywood

A system of road pricing, where drivers are charged based on the roads they drive on and the time they drive, has been suggested as a solution to UK traffic congestion.

Emeritus Professor Roger Vickerman, from the school of economics at the University of Kent, has made the recommendation after research by analytics firm Inrix found that rush hour drivers in the UK spend an average of 31 hours a year stuck in jams.

The research found that the direct and indirect costs of congestion for all drivers added up to more than £37.7 billion annually, an average of £1,168 for each driver. Vickerman said this problem is far from new, and a solution has been available for decades.

He said, "What is needed is a nationwide system of charging for roads by use - road pricing. 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 time of day can encourage those with 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." 

Vickerman said drivers in rural areas, many of whom have no alternative to cars, typically use the country's least-congested roads, but pay the same in road tax and fuel duty as other motorists.

He continued, "Such drivers would be better off under a system that 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. Politicians need to grasp this nettle now."

Vickerman's comments echo a recent report from the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), entitled 'Funding Roads for the Future', which stated that road pricing would be better suited to developing trends such as zero-emission vehicles, ride sharing and increased urbanisation.

ACE chief executive Dr Nelson Ogunshakin said, "In the years ahead, only a reformed funding regimen based on dynamic road-user pricing will manage traffic flows and deliver the significant investment needed to keep the country moving.

"It's vital that the government starts these conversations with the public now as, to date, there have been suspicions of road user pricing and fears that people will be priced off the road. 

"This doesn't have to be the case and there is a great opportunity to develop a fairer-for-all road funding system that delivers the first-class road network that this country needs long into the future."

Dr Graham Cookson, chief economist at Inrix, suggests the best response to the firm's research would involve better traffic management. He said, "With more cars on the road than before, we need to consider innovative new approaches to solving the issue. 

"Increased flexible working or road charges have potential; however, transport authorities should be looking to exciting developments in data analytics and AI that promise to reinvent our approach to traffic management."

RAC spokesman Rod Dennis has called for more alternatives to car travel, better traffic planning and the encouragement of car sharing.

"There is no silver bullet to sorting out congestion. Ring-fenced funding for improving England's major roads from 2021 should help, but there also needs to be an emphasis placed on providing cheap, practical, reliable alternatives to the car - especially in urban areas," he said.

"In the meantime, urban planners should be looking at how we can maximise vehicle flow - looking at traffic-light sequencing, reducing the amount of time roadworks are live on roads and seeing what impact reducing road space for vehicles is having on journey times. Employers and individuals can also do their bit by encouraging greater car sharing."