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Monday, 27 March, 2000, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Gridlock: Race to find cure for motorway madness

Life in the fast lane could literally cost you more in the future, under new government plans for motorway charging.

Press reports say John Prescott's Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is examining a proposal to charge motorists according to their speed.

E-cyclopedia
Under the ambitious proposal, drivers who stick to more congested, slow routes, will travel for free while those in a hurry will pay for the "privilege".

The two-tier system is just the latest in a growing arsenal of novel ideas aimed at cutting congestion on Britain's roads.

While politicians and interest groups argue over the tactics, all sides agree that something must be done.

Figures from the Commission for Integrated Transport show:

  • the amount of traffic on many roads, especially in rural areas, is set to double by 2025
  • road congestion is set to grow by 65% by 2010
  • motorway congestion is set to increase by 268% by the same date

Yet so far attempts to penalise motorists have fallen flat. The government's controversial year-on-year increase in petrol tax, dubbed the "fuel escalator", has failed to free-up the roads.


Ferarri Spider
Fast car ... then it might cost you
Research carried in the British Social Attitudes report reveals the severity of Mr Prescott's uphill struggle. The report found three-quarters of young people would rather give up their right to vote than their driving licence.

The government has resolved to tackle such trenchant attitudes with some creative thinking.

Road charging - the principle of charging motorists for the distance they drive is not new. It was considered by the last government and toll roads have long been a fact of life for motorists in Europe and the US.

A trial in Leicester linked pricing to daily air quality. It found that when drivers were charged 3 a day, few were prepared to give up their cars. But when the charge went up to 10, 40% opted for a park-and-ride system.

However, technology has lagged behind. An electronic tariff system operates successfully in Singapore, but is simply used to charge drivers passing through a city centre cordon. A trial is due to start soon in Leeds that will test the technology further.

High occupancy vehicle - The practice of giving priority to drivers who carry passengers has been widely used in America. For example, on a three-lane motorway, single occupancy vehicles are restricted to one or two lanes.


Traffic jam on M4
The M4 bus lane, unpopular with many drivers
A similar scheme is being tested on the A647 dual carriageway between Leeds and Bradford. Motorists who violate the rule face a 20 fixed penalty.

But heavy policing is needed to guard against the efforts of wily motorists. In the US drivers have taken to using inflatable passengers to fool the system and, in Los Angeles, an elderly woman even used her husband's corpse as a decoy.

In Singapore, schoolchildren have taken to topping up their pocket money by offering to pose as passengers for lone motorists.

Priority bus lanes - When, last year, the DETR allocated a lane of the M4 specifically for buses and taxis, the idea was slated by many of Mr Prescott's enemies. Yet a study by the Transport Research Laboratory found it had improved journey times for all types of traffic.

Satellite speed control - Earlier this year the government was reportedly weighing up a plan to curb the speed of drivers with the use of satellite regulators. The scheme would have the dual purpose of easing congestion and limiting accidents.

But Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation dismissed the measure as being "extremely expensive and extremely unpopular with motorists".


Police woman with anti-fume mask
Traffic congestion causes delays and pollution
Workplace parking - Mr Prescott is drawing up legislation to allow local authorities to tax employees who have a parking space at work.

But Denvil Coombe, deputy managing director of MVA transport consultants, says the effectiveness of scheme could be undermined if employers chose to absorb the charge for their staff.

Mr Coombe says a "disappointly low" number of councils have gone along with the government and taken up the cause of congestion charging.

At the back of their minds may be the thought that today's suggestions are not necessarily tomorrow's solutions.

Dozens of local authorities are currently paying a heavy price for an earlier form of traffic management - road humps. Towns and cities are spening millions of pounds flattening out humps which have proved a hazard to new low-level buses built to help disabled passengers.

The E-cyclopedia can be contacted at e-cyclopedia@bbc.co.uk

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