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Debate: Road Charging

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Is road charging the solution to congestion problems?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Jacqueline Rose. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

The number of car journeys made has been rising, particularly in the 1980s, so that 21m journeys are currently made – a figure that will rise to 31m in 2025. In the United States, between 1997 and 2010 traffic congestion is likely to quadruple, increasing by 5.6 billion hours, at a cost increase of $41 billion. Governments across the world are considering how to combat these trends (see examples), coming to a conclusion – long advocated by right-wing economists – that road tolling is the only solution. ‘Marginal social cost pricing’ is the technical term for charging drivers for the costs paid for each journey by third parties. The likeliest system is one of using electronic tags and satellite technology to charge individual drivers depending upon which roads they have used at what time of day. The toll would be higher on motorways, in central areas of cities and during peak commuting times, to account for increased demands.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Road charging is vital to solving the problem of congestion, for it is only by this way that motorists will realise the true social costs of their demands and make an informed decision whether or not to pay them. Flexible electronic charging is most efficient, as it accounts for the route and time of day travelled rather than simply the distance (which is all that petrol taxes depend upon). Forcing commuters to use alternative routes at off-peak times will spread the load of journeys across the day.

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No

In an ideal world, a fully flexible labour market and transport system would be able to adapt to run in the most economically efficient way. However, in practice this fails; as experiments in the Far East and Europe have shown, tolling the most congested areas simply shifts the traffic onto more minor roads, which are less able to cope with heavy use. Furthermore, it is wrong to assume that work practices will adapt; flexitime is impossible for certain types of job and is not part of the mentality of many companies.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Public transport is in dire need of greater investment, and people should be encouraged to use this rather than their cars if possible. Studies have shown that reducing the price of public transport is insufficient to encourage usage unless accompanied by increasing private costs. Lessening congestion will make buses run quicker, whilst rail freight will be revived if lorry transport becomes more expensive.

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No

It is foolish to think that public transport systems can cope at present, especially in Britain, and they would collapse if even more pressure were placed upon them. Motorists might be willing to pay to use highly congested routes, but they tend to expect the revenue to finance improvements in roads. It is also unusual in some countries for individual taxes to be specifically reserved for particular services.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The principle that ‘the polluter should pay’ is upheld by congestion charging, which would have the external benefit of reducing carbon emissions which are environmentally costly, as well as particulates which damage human health.

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No

In fact it is rarely the polluter who pays, as companies whose transport and sales costs will rise will pass the increase on to consumers. A more effective tax would be one which takes into account the size and cleanliness of the individual model of car, as is at present the case in Britain.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The requirements of the Kyoto protocol mean that it is imperative to find solutions to car emissions, which make up the majority of pollution in cities. A more pleasant lifestyle will result in local areas which currently suffer from intense car use.

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No

Congestion charging not only fails to solve the problem itself, but also provides no answer to other transport issues – the main social cost of driving comes from injuries and deaths. The extent of road depreciation also depends more on the individual driver and car than the time of day – which would demand a system too complex and too intrusive to be feasible.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The concept of paying for a previously free product is becoming increasingly accepted by motoring organisations as well as by government advisors. Were the charges to be displayed at the time of driving, as in San Diego, then proper information would inform decisions. Opinion polls also show that 60% of drivers would accept charges if the money went on further investment in transport, compared to many who believes that petrol taxes have reached their limit.

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No

Demand for road use is relatively inelastic – i.e. it is unresponsive to changes in prices. Electronic road tolls would be paid for by monthly bills, by which time the circumstances of each charge and the state of the roads would have been forgotten. Road charging would have to be incredibly high if it is to counter the falling real costs of car journeys, and it is unlikely that this would be seen as politically possible.

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Argument #6

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Yes

The number of car journeys will continue to rise unchecked, as alternatives have failed. Trying to place cordons around large cities does not solve congestion in market towns and on motorways into those cities. Licenses allowing certain drivers on roads on certain days are also open to abuse. Global positioning system (GPS) and satellite technology are already coming into use for lorries, would cost about $500 (one-off) per car, and run at a low operating costs of an estimated 3% of total revenues.

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No

Electronic charging will be slow to be implemented, as most of the technology will not be ready for another decade, and will be costly to implement. By this time the factors causing the present boom in car use, such as wives continuing to work and the phenomenon of two car families, will have absorbed most potential increases in demand.

Motions

  • This House Believes Congestion Can Only Be Solved by Road Pricing
  • This House Hates ‘Mondeo Man’
  • This House Would Make Drivers Pay

In legislation, policy, and elsewhere

See also

External links and resources:

Books

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