The fact that over a million people have now signed an online petition against the introduction of a road pricing scheme just goes to show how much the public hates this idea. Even if there has been a lot of encouragement in the press and the blogosphere for people to add their names, and even if some people have signed up more than once, there is nevertheless a lot of opposition to it out there.
With such a complex issue, it’s difficult to say exactly why people might object to a new policy. In the case of “pay as you drive” road tolls, I have seen postings urging people to sign the petition against “tracking”. In fact, the exact wording of the petition is, “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy.” This is a reference to the fact that Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is likely to be used to pinpoint the location of a vehicle, so that the correct tariff for driving in the area at a particular time can be levied. Now of course, GPS itself does not track anyone. The satellites broadcast signals that can be used by a GPS receiver to pinpoint its location. No information is sent back to the satellites. It is not yet clear how the road pricing system would operate, but it is possible to think of arrangements where journey data would not need to be sent back to a central location. Anyone truly concerned about tracking should try to distance themselves from those who simply don’t want to pay to drive, as the latter group could overshadow an important civil liberties issue.
The stated aim of road pricing is to reduce congestion. At first, a sensible alternative to installing expensive GPS equipment in every vehicle would seem to be simply to increase fuel duty, while at the same time eliminating the tax disc, and providing annual “MOT” roadworthiness checks for free. That would encourage people to drive less, even if they already owned a car, as the cost of keeping a car unused would be reduced. However, while fuel duty means that both high usage and inefficient vehicles are taxed more heavily, it does not allow prices to be varied according to the time of day. If congestion is the issue, drivers need to be deterred at particular times of day: during the morning and evening “rush hours”.
So, would road pricing have much of an effect on congestion during the rush hour? I don’t believe it would. There is already a big incentive not to travel during the rush hour: namely, congestion! Who in their right mind would choose to sit in queues of traffic for nearly an hour, when they have the choice of cruising along in 15 minutes? On the trains, peak-rate fares already exist, yet the rush hour commuter trains are as packed as ever. People travel at certain times because they have to. If congestion at particular times of day is to be eliminated, we all need to rethink our daily routines. People drive to work; they take their children to school. Both work and school start at around 9am. Reducing congestion during peak times will require more flexible working arrangements – something that could be encouraged by the government.
The other reason that people won’t abandon their cars even if new taxes are introduced is that the alternative – public transport – is extremely poor. Londoners complain about their transport system, yet visitors to the city from other parts of the UK marvel at the regular, integrated bus and underground system. Anywhere else, you are likely to discover that the route is served by three buses a day, and that those are operated by three different companies who print separate timetables, and whose tickets are not valid on each other’s services.
There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to stop our roads becoming even more congested, and we haven’t even begun to consider the effect of cars on the environment. Road pricing may well have a role to play in the end. However, there are many steps that need to be taken before the public will ever begin to accept the idea. First, reassurances must be given that the system will not mean a record of everyone’s journeys are collected and stored by a central agency. Then, people must be given the opportunity to make their journeys in a way that avoids the high peak-time charges: by providing a world-class public transport system, and by initiating a change in society where the “9 to 5” culture disappears wherever possible. Without these measures, road charging will inevitably be seen by the petition-wielding public as nothing more than an attempt to impose yet another tax – and to keep tabs on what they are doing.