By Barnaby Mason
UK affairs analyst
Charging people according to where, when and how far they drive is a big idea whose time has come.
Road-pricing plans would involve tracking the UK's 30 million vehicles
In Britain, there is suspicion about the motive: is it gridlock, global warming, or a stealth tax?
But road pricing is being tried out and talked about in local and national schemes across the developed world, from Europe to the United States and Asia.
The scale varies, the justification can be vague, the problems not always foreseen, the effects unpredictable - but satellites and computerised technology are making the idea practical and driving the process on.
The London scheme brought in two years ago is reckoned a success in reducing traffic congestion, despite the fears voiced in advance. The daily charge for driving in the central zone is on Monday nearly doubling to £8 ($14), and a big westward extension is being considered.
Last month, the British Transport Secretary, Alastair Darling, suggested something altogether more ambitious: a national system covering the whole country.
Drivers would be charged a varying rate per mile, depending on what kind of road they took. Cars would be fitted with a "black box" to record their movements, probably linked to global positioning satellites (GPS).
Mr Darling described it as "a radically different approach", something that no other country in the world had done.
In contrast, a parliamentary committee said last week that Britain's Highways Agency had been timid and ineffective in testing and adopting less ambitious measures used abroad to tackle congestion, falling behind leading countries like the Netherlands, Germany and the United States.
Britain plans to introduce road charging for lorries in 2007 or 2008 based on the distance travelled. But the Germans implemented a satellite system to charge lorries using their motorways at the beginning of this year.
Admittedly it was 18 months late, after many problems getting the elaborate software to work properly. But predictions of traffic chaos failed to come true and the scheme is running smoothly.
The German system is more sophisticated than earlier ones in Austria and Switzerland, both of which rely mainly on roadside beacons and microwaves.
The Swiss system introduced in 2001, which covers all roads without distinguishing between them, was strikingly successful in reducing lorry traffic across Switzerland - its main aim.
The very first city-wide charging for road use was introduced in Singapore as long ago as 1975. Later, electronic modernisation allowed prices to be varied to ensure maximum traffic flow at an optimal speed.
In the United States, Southern California pioneered high-occupancy lanes in 1995. Now they are being built or planned in many places, including around Washington, in Minneapolis, Denver and Houston.
People are prepared to pay for a smooth ride. However, not everyone thinks they will get it if the proposed British nationwide system is implemented, in 10 years or so.
Although "nearly all the technical bits and pieces are already in use," says Professor Stephen Glaister of Imperial College, London, "the difference is in the comprehensiveness and sheer scale of what's being talked about."
Prof Glaister was on the panel that produced a feasibility report for the government. But "an all-singing, all-dancing GPS system could be very expensive", he told BBC News.
California pioneered high-occupancy lanes in 1995
With the data-processing involved in tracking 30 million vehicles, it would be "an astronomic IT exercise."
There are also problems with locating vehicles accurately by satellite, especially among tall buildings in cities.
And Prof†Glaister said he was concerned about the integrity of the system, given the possibility of jamming what was in effect a very faint radio signal. Malicious people, similar to computer hackers, or those with a financial interest in sabotage might be able to override it.
Across Europe, the mixture of technologies is going to make it difficult to comply with last year's EU directive requiring that different national systems be interoperable.
All the same, there are strong pressures on governments to push ahead with road pricing.
For one thing, some experts say, revenues from fuel taxes have begun to decline as cars become more efficient. Next, building new roads is becoming more difficult and expensive because of environmental worries.
So as the number of cars continues to rise relentlessly, controlling demand directly is an obvious way out.
On the other hand, governments often do not make the real reasons for road pricing clear: is it to keep traffic moving, cut carbon emissions or raise money?
The most politically sensitive question is what happens to the revenues - in the case of a British national system, perhaps £40 billion a year. If that is not made clear, Prof Glaister says, you will not get public consensus.
He drew a comparison with the London congestion charge, where the Mayor Ken Livingstone promised that the money would be spent on transport in the city. Political accountability was a big issue nationally too.
In all developed countries, the effects of widespread road pricing are likely to be far-reaching. Economic liberals believe that bringing market forces to bear on a scarce commodity - road space - will increase the demand for public transport.
Variable charges may create pressure for more flexible working hours, encourage car sharing, favour local shops at the expense of more distant complexes, and make it easier to privatise roads.
As Prof Glaister puts it: "In the long run, road pricing gives people incentives to change their behaviour in all sorts of ways."
Is charging drivers a sensible step forward or an unfair tax? What is your experience of road pricing? Send us your views on the form below.
I drive to work daily and I dislike it - so I move closer to work or move jobs. I drive to see friends, so I drive at night or take time off to avoid congestion. Avoiding peak time driving is one things that this proposal is trying to encourage. I think that's good; the more we realise that cars are not a right and the more employers start to be flexible in working arrangements then the more likely it is that driving conditions will improve and people will feel that they get what they pay for.
For all these people bleating that it is a tax on the people who live in the country - I say move a bit closer to your job! I find it amazing that people travel two hours plus to work - I walk in everyday, and it takes about 30 minutes. Give up your country mansions, and use your legs!
M Wood, Reading, UK
I wish we had a decent public transport system in Miami - like many US cities we have a pretty non-existent system that takes you nowhere so we are forced to use cars. But as Miami expands there is no more room to build roads so the situation gets worse and worse. Increased taxes is not the answer!
Having moved here from London, if the intent is to get people off the road, the government has to come up with a better public transport system that is convenient and affordable.
Andrew Davis, Miami, FL
I think we're all going to end up working from home (at least those of us that work in offices). It's going to be a little unsocial but unless you live in the major cities of the world its becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to get into work. I don't think public transport is up to coping with the amount of people that will need to use it as we get priced out of using our cars.
I am being made redundant soon, as a result I am looking for a small local job that will keep me going, I am sick of the commuting, it costs and is a waste of my time. I am throwing my years of learning and experience to the winds and trading down. Driving in this country is no longer a joy, either for getting to work or a trip out.
Mike, North of England
The road pricing scheme is probably something that will have a negative effect on overseas tourists coming to the UK as well as locals. We travel to the UK almost every year and leave by car from Heathrow to head for the country. All major airports will undoubtably be in high cost areas as will getting to the hinterlands past major cities. Talking a train to a distant locale to rent a car would increase the travel time and reduce the "tourist" time. As a side comment, both your roads, and definitely your drivers, are better than those in the US. Driving the UK roads is a pleasure compared to our driving (at 40,000 miles per year).
M. Raymond, Port Townsend, WA, USA
It is about time, there is no need for people to pile into their cars by themselves so they can drive to work. Unless you have at least three people in your car, you should not be permitted on highways during rush hour or drive in urban downtown areas unless you are a resident, rich or poor. At the end of the day, people should really reside where they work. Charging drivers for each mile driven is a good idea, as long as it lowers taxes, improvements are made to public transit and the government does not use the information to track our every movement.
Alex, Toronto, Canada
All these schemes are simply money making schemes and a way of implementing control and Surveillance on citizens' movements. If there's a need to reduce congestion on the roads; get the public transport system updated and make it run properly like the rest of the world. There are countries classified as third world with a better transport system. This short term; short-sighted approach to solving problems is ludicrous and ineffective.
Sam, London, UK
This tax uses a lot of money to create a system that taxes those who can least afford it. Who has the luxury to control what time they travel to and from work? Only those in the highest positions within companies. Many people travel long distances to jobs they cannot afford to lose, and this tax targets them specifically.
Irv Giles, Toms River, New Jersey, USA
Has there yet been a government computer project that has ever worked properly, been delivered on time, not over-run on costs or has never been back to the drawing board. Me thinks not.
The project to deliver this insane scheme is massive. Taxpayers, as usual, will carry the burden for the mistakes.
Let's just abolish the 'Road Tax' and levy an equitable tax on fuel. Everyone wins; you pay for the mileage you do and so do the foreign lorries.
Charging people to do their daily work will be the next 'Poll Tax'.
Adrian Green, Sherington, Buckinghamshire, UK
Of course it is an unfair tax - thought up by people who are paid travel expenses or live close to their work (so therefore it doesn't affect them). What will it do to tourism within Britain? People will not be able to holiday in their own country or even go for family days out - too expensive. They will not be able to go to work - it won't be worth it for the salaries that many are paid. People will use villages as rat runs as it will be cheaper. Low paid workers are already having to live miles away from where they work as they can't afford to live nearer - they will then not even be able to afford to travel to work! It will cost me over 5 times what I pay now to get to work - forget holidays, weekends away or even nights out to go to a gig!
Great news.....no point working if road charging comes in. I may as well stay at home, but of course I won't be able to afford a home cause its too expensive to get to work. A slight rise from approx £90 in fuel and tax to £864 in monthly cost....Bargain!
Not only is this another way that the government can stealth tax the British driver. If we succumb to electronic driving payment, it will also be another way the government can tell when and where we go 99% of the time. Smacks of Big Brother!
Charging motorists per mile is nonsense, it's an unfair tax that will have people up in arms. Invest in public transport and encourage more people to use it, encourage car pooling with Tax relief schemes and make it compulsory for all pupils to use public transport, every school holiday the road are clear.
There aren't the transport services in place (outside London)to cope with the extra demand that could be caused by pushing motorist off the road, these services aren't cheap or regular enough.
The government already collects vast sums of tax from fuel so in effect we're already paying per mile for the journeys we take.
Jason Shave, Aylesbury
Will there be a huge reduction in the price of fuel if these new charges are introduced? I wouldn't bet on it.
Andy, London, UK
The government wants us to stop using our cars however they aren't asking themselves how we are supposed to get about as the cost or driving forces more people off the road. Wasn't it last week when it was announced rail prices would be going up as they were over crowded? What do they expect us to do if you live more than 20 mins away from work?
Cars are a necessity in most countryside locations, buses and trains are none existent as are jobs in the small villages. If they got the other transport infrastructures in place and affordable the congestion charges for cars might be alright, otherwise only the rich will be able to afford to carry on driving on the roads.
Fiona, Peterborough, Cambs
I drive a Geo Metro because at 40mpg it's a great one person car. Switching from a fuel tax to a mileage tax would only favor SUVs.
Lorne Smith, Claremont USA
Another stealthy move by the government, if they know where you start, what roads you travel on and when you stop, they also know how fast you have been driving.
Ian, Coaley, Gloucestershire
So long as we get the same assurance as Ken gave London, I'm happy with road charging. Traffic congestion and traffic-caused pollution are both destined to worsen, and everyone knows it. We need some solution which will deter people from using cars, and, vitally, help provide a public transport alternative. If road charging can work towards both, as it has in London, then it has to be a good idea.
Hugh Parker, Birmingham, England
We have congestion charging on cars, there was talk of congestion charging on trains. This all feels too much like a tax on people who work and need to travel at specific times to meet set working hours.
Mike T, Farnborough, Hampshire
We have on toll road in British Columbia but no high-tech road toll system. A sophisticated system of charging drivers as an incentive to reduce rush hour traffic and unnecessary movement makes sense. The negative side is it extends the power of money to another area of life. I am sure business leaders, politicians, the upper class and all who are well off love the system in London. They drive forth and back with ease while those for whom £8 a day represents a third of their income are forced to make other, less comfortable and convenient arrangements.
John Keery, Kelowna, BC Canada
I've just tried the pricing calculator from the You and Yours site, and if the prices prove correct, I'm stunned. My monthly bill for my daily journey to Bristol will rise from £132.50 to £568.00! Even if I were to travel by car (the only way of getting there) to the nearest train station it would still cost over £120 per month without considering the cost of the train fare and the cost of the final leg of the journey.
I'm not making this journey because I like it, it's my job. I'm not working in Bristol because I like it, it's where the jobs are. I can't work from home.
Travelling by car is a luxury.
Travelling by train is a luxury.
Travelling by bicycle isn't allowed (motorways).
Staying at home and not working isn't allowed.
Working from home isn't an option.
I suppose I could walk the 60 mile round trip; Sleep is over-rated after all.
Tim Hale, Bream, Gloucestershire
In the 1930s a tax was introduced to pay for building roads in the UK. It's still in place to-day. It's called the road fund licence, more commonly known as "car tax". Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of the money raised in this way is used as was originally intended. The majority of it goes into the government's coffers and is spent elsewhere.
Steve Hunter, Malaga, Spain
Road pricing already exists in the form of fuel tax. Why spend billions on a massive IT exercise which will be far less efficient? Road pricing in the UK alone would be catastrophic for UK industry competitiveness.
Jeremy, London, UK
No, it is not, it is an unfair tax on the motorist which will introduce a third class of people.
The roads are bad, why not increase the fuel costs and cut out road tax.
C Antoniou, UK
A complete rip off. Half of the UK's roads are unfit for cars to travel on at any reasonable speed. Maybe if the roads were fixed and you weren't forced to swerve all over the place to avoid potholes the congestion wouldn't be quite so bad!
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