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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June 2005, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
The real cost of road pricing
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Road sign
This week, after 40 years on the drawing board, road pricing will become a political reality, as the government goes public with its radical plan for cutting congestion. It could change the face of Britain, utterly.

It was the year Beatlemania hit the US, Nelson Mandela received a life sentence, Nikita Khrushchev stepped down as the Soviet leader and Cassius Clay was crowned heavyweight champion.

As the world convulsed to these momentous events in 1964, Reuben Smeed, a senior employee of the government's Road Research Laboratory, was putting the finishing touches to a government report which pondered how to tackle Britain's increasingly congested roads. His solution: road pricing.

Forty-one years later, the government is preparing to back just such a plan. In that time, congestion on Britain's roads has multiplied time and time again. Under the road pricing plan, road and petrol taxes would be replaced with a pay-as-you go charge. Roads would be individually priced with the most congested costing the most to travel on.

There's no doubt road pricing would have a profound effect on society. Cars have become an integral part of most people's lives. There are 28 million in Britain and road traffic has grown by 77% since 1980.

But beyond simply cutting congestion, the impact of road pricing cannot be under-estimated. It has the potential to radically alter our lives and our surroundings.

TRAFFIC LEVELS

No one knows for sure exactly what impact a system of charging drivers per mile would have on motorists' behaviour, says Denvil Coombe a transport consultant, because no other country has gone down this route.

Oxford Street in the 1960s
We have enquired about optical, electo-magnetic, radar and sonic methods - the capital cost quoted... was 12 10s 0d per vehicle
The Smeed report weighs up road pricing technology

Singapore's road charging scheme is restricted to its downtown district, while in Norway, prices are set low, to raise funds for road building rather than to deter drivers, says Mr Coombe.

Instead, he and others in the transport field, base their predictions on the results of computer modelling. A study by the IPPR think tank last year found a "revenue neutral" scheme - in other words one where road charge revenues are cancelled out by cuts in fuel and vehicle tax - which the government seems to be in favour of, would increase overall road traffic.

While the report said traffic would be cut on premium-priced routes, such as London's M25 orbital motorway, drivers would flood on to cheaper A roads - lured by a cut in fuel duty. This dispersing of traffic would lead to an overall increase in speeds by about 5km per hour (3mph).

London, with its congested road network, would be the only region to see an overall reduction in traffic, says the IPPR.

EMISSIONS

If more traffic was the result, it would mean more emissions, although advances in engine technology will help ameliorate this. However, the government's road pricing feasibility study last year makes the point that engines operate more efficiently in free-flowing conditions than in congestion.

The report also suggests that cutting fuel duty would cut incentives for drivers to buy more fuel efficient cars.

Residents in built up areas could however benefit from cleaner air and quieter streets as pricing might help reduce the noise generated by stop-start driving. On motorways, though, less congestion would mean faster cars which, in turn, would mean more noise.

LIFESTYLE

Calculator
"Just popping out to the shops darling"
One of the biggest concerns about road pricing is how motorists would tot up the likely cost of a journey, especially given lots of different rates.

"The government feasibility study uses 80 different charges. As you start out on your journey you wouldn't have a clue what you're going to pay," says Mr Coombe.

Perhaps calculators will come as standard spec in new cars of the future. But fewer jams would see motorists benefit from "a more fluid, comfortable and less stressful journey" according to the government's report.

ROAD SAFETY

Accidents are another concern. Faster cars on roads that are ill-equipped for high traffic levels, could mean more accidents. If motorbikes are exempted from pricing, as they are in London, collisions could rise even more - motorcyclists are 35 times more likely than car drivers to be killed or seriously injured, according to the feasibility study. In London, however, accident rates have fallen since the start of the Congestion Charge, which motorbikes are exempt from.

There's even the prospect of drivers being so distracted by the cost of their journey they take their minds off the road, says the government report.

POPULATION SHIFTS

Countryside
Cheaper, rural roads could mean more traffic
In the longer term, road pricing could lead to broader population shifts as people move out of town, to avoid high priced roads. A recent assessment of pay-as-you-go motoring by backbench MPs suggested such a scheme would need to be accompanied by new planning regulations to limit development in rural areas.

Paul Hamblin of the Campaign for the Protection for Rural England says a scheme that charges by individual roads "would simply shift the problem rather than solve it".

The government study recognises that road pricing could have an impact on "where businesses locate [and] where people live".

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Road pricing could be a boon for bus travel, but not in all parts, says Mr Coombe. Drivers in urban areas might feel the financial pinch more, and be more likely to switch to the bus, tram or train. In outlying areas, where public transport is more erratic, they might continue at the wheel - but make shorter journeys.

"They'd shop more locally rather than travel 50 miles to get to Bluewater," he suggests.


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