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Pay as you drive: Is this the price of getting our roads moving?

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Externalities and Market Failure Pay as you drive: Is this the price of getting our roads moving? An influential proposal to charge drivers according to the amount of time they spend behind the wheel and the number of traffic jams they endure will land on the desk of the Prime Minister this morning. It is the most radical idea proposed for Britain's roads and will present Tony Blair with a political headache every bit as intense as that inflicted by the state of the railways. The report is the work of the Commission for Integrated Transport, chaired by David Begg, a former Edinburgh councillor. It states something that many in politics and transport have known for years, but have been too frightened to admit:roads need "congestion charging" to stop people from using them as though they were an unlimited resource. Making the proposals work would require the fitting of a "transceiver" system to every car, linked to a smartcard with a unique ID that could be tracked by satellites. These would record where a car was and send a bill to the owner according to the type of road and the time. For example, rush hour in London could cost 45 pence per mile; motorways an average of 3.5p per mile; rural roads at peak times 1p per mile, and at quiet times nothing. ...read more.


As [the commission] itself acknowledges, it is an issue for the longer term beyond the Government's 10-year plan for transport." But the Government urgently needs solutions to congestion. On coming to power in 1997, Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, was eager to be judged on a pledge to reduce the number of road journeys by the time the next election came. He failed. In fact, the only thing that cut the number of road journeys, in the short term, was the 2000 fuel blockades. The pledge was dropped. The first politician to struggle with road pricing will be Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, who plans to introduce a �5 daily charge for vehicles to enter a central zone in the capital. Although the plans were announced in his manifesto, they have been held up by technical issues and the political problem of introducing such unpopular charges. Professor Begg, however, approaches the issue not as a politician but as a pragmatic economist. He knows the ideas will not be popular. "I will not be surprised or upset if ministers distance themselves from this because politically it could give them a headache," he said. Professor Andrew Oswald, an economist at Warwick University, says charging is long overdue and would not hit the poor. ...read more.


The details are forwarded to a computer which sends you a bill. Cars without smartcards will be detected by positioning "auto-enquiry" points along or over the roadside. If no signal is detected from the car, its number plate will be recorded. But there are still dozens of hidden technical difficulties. The first is logistical: how to deal with millions of movements and detect gaps in the system caused by fraud orerrors such as people with old cars or tourists. The Commission for Integrated Transport says the charges will be based on historical traffic patterns, and will aim to smooth the flows that lead to rush-hour snarl-ups, school-run delays and bottlenecks. But what happens if a driver who intended to avoid the rush hour by leaving early finds himself caught in congestion caused by a crash or roadworks? Even if the difference in cost is tiny perhaps a few pence it will cause resentment. Then there are the privacy issues: Will we feel comfortable with the idea that the data about our whereabouts is being collected by the government? In the end, the awesome logistics rather than privacy concerns will probably delay the widespread introduction of such systems, because while governments can and do ride roughshod over political objections, none has managed to repeal Murphy's Law: what can go wrong, will. ...read more.

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