If the leaks from the Treasury this week are to be believed, Rishi Sunak has been presented a study on road pricing by his civil servants.
He’d be a fool not to take it seriously.
Shifting towards a comprehensive system of road pricing would help the chancellor level up the regions, drive down pollution, and leave a lasting legacy which serves the country well for decades to come.
For the uninitiated, road pricing charges drivers per mile they travel, ideally at different rates for peak and off-peak times.
Any kind of new motoring cost would likely elicit a degree of opposition. We are so used to thinking of roads as being a free resource that this transition would require a mindset shift. But if we can get over the initial trepidation, road pricing would start to work its magic immediately.
The most obvious impact would be on traffic. The UK suffers from dreadful congestion, which official data shows is only getting worse. Average road speeds are tumbling right across the country as motorists spend time stuck in queues.
Why? Because our roads suffer from an enormous lack of coordination.
In the relative absence of price signals, drivers face a free-for-all on road space, with everyone trying to use them at once. Under road pricing, a premium would be placed on travelling during rush hours, while lowering the costs at quieter periods. This would create an incentive for those who can happily wait to travel at midday, leaving the roads clearer for those who most need to use them at peak times.
Evidence from abroad shows how effective road pricing can be at keeping traffic flowing. In the dense city-state of Singapore — the poster child of road pricing — rush hour speeds average around 20 miles per hour. In London’s inner boroughs, you might be lucky to nudge half that.
Congestion is maddening enough on its own, but it has tangible consequences for businesses and ordinary people too.
It might be what deprives a parent from reading their child a bedtime story before they fall asleep. It might be what stops a haulier from making a delivery on time. It might be what prevents someone in a left behind area from accessing employment opportunities in their nearest city, because they know they can’t realistically fit in a long commute twice a day.
Throw in the environmental benefits of cleaner air and lower carbon emissions, plus the shoring up of Treasury revenues as income from fuel duty dwindles with the ascent of electric vehicles, and the benefits of road pricing really do start to stack up.
Of course, transitioning to a comprehensive system of road pricing couldn’t happen overnight. To capture its full benefits, we’d need some way of accurately recording when and where journeys are being made. This probably means installing telematic black boxes in vehicles, or developing software that can be accessed via drivers’ smartphones.
That said, people are beginning to do this voluntarily, and many taxis and delivery vans already have tracking equipment fitted as standard. Moreover, any reluctance from drivers to embrace the change would be tempered by the opportunity to do away with the blunt instruments of fuel duty and vehicle excise duty — a victory for the millions of motorists who rightly feel aggrieved at paying over the odds on these taxes, particularly outside of urban areas.
In road pricing, Sunak has the chance to cement his name as the chancellor who dared to take the country’s outdated transport system into the twenty-first century. He should waste no time in seeing that mission through.
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