Who should pay for London’s roads?

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Image: Agnese Sanvito

London needs to grasp the nettle of road charging to avoid a gridlocked capital city in future decades. But to get there it must develop a narrative with ‘carrots’ as well as ‘sticks’ to convince all road ‘users’ of its worth.

That was one of the overriding messages to emerge from a wide- ranging NLA Think Tank co-hosted by Transport for London called ‘Who should pay for London’s Roads?’


Providing the context first was Tony Travers, director of LSE London, running through the hierarchy of the capital’s roads and whose responsibility they are, from motorways down to local streets. The advantage of both fuel duty and vehicle excise tax is that they exist, said Travers, but revenue
is declining from both and they are easily perceived and therefore ‘terribly unpopular’ in contrast to the more complex income tax for example. Road user charging would have a very large potential yield in Greater London, potentially of billions. ‘But it seems to me’, said Travers, ‘that it does beg the question that if there is to be an argument for revenues linked to roads or vehicle use it would prompt a debate about what the roads are for.’ There are implied changes already in this, given a reduction in roads being used for private travel and more for freight.


For a long time, road user charging has been the silver bullet, said Lucinda Turner, head of strategic planning, Transport for London. ‘But no one has been able to fire the gun fully.’ And yet the debate is as much about psychology and communication as
it is about anything else, she felt. Somehow, the roads lobby has captured the idea of the attractiveness, freedom and flexibility of the car and those who support charging need to come up with a compelling narrative to counter it. That narrative will have to be different in outer London where the public will expect something in return in terms of their service levels. We also need to think about different models including car clubs, Uber and so on, and build on the modal shift of some 11 per cent that has happened in recent years. There would be some 1.7 million more car journeys made daily if nothing had been done. If we did nothing else some level of integration is necessary between the low emissions zone, the ultra low emissions zone, tolls, and congestion charging zone.


One survey for a future mayor, said Nick Lester, corporate director – services, London Councils, asked how transport expenditure should be funded in future. Over 40 per cent said their first preference was for the payer to be the road user. But if there was to be a push on road user charging – and this was almost ‘inevitable’ – are we doing it to reduce congestion, or to raise revenue? There may be a publicly acceptable case to be made for saying it is to raise funds, Lester suggested.


The movement of freight is a big
part of the equation, said Natalie Chapman, head of policy, Freight Transport Association, but a lot of consolidation already takes place; the creation of 'Consolidation Centres' tend to require public subsidy, as Camden and other authorities are proving. But if road pricing is going to be introduced, where are the improvements – the carrots after all the sticks – going to come from? asked London First’s Richard Dilks, programme director for transport. With little in the way of extra road space on offer, this will be no easy task, but the status quo is not sustainable, he said. The improvement of London’s air quality will, however, be a useful benefit, said Jack Skillen, London director, Living Streets, and this is the issue that will have most draw for a Mayor in terms of headlines. But the ‘negative externalities’ are often invisible, said Travers, and an implied hierarchy of removal from our roads was starting to emerge, with emergency vehicles likely to be last on the list after freight. Even they were starting to use cycle superhighways in certain situations, however. ‘The only way you can really do anything is to have systemic solutions’, Travers said.


Other cities were worth noting, said Scott Wilson, principal consultant, D’Artagnan Consulting PLP. Oslo funded its network of tunnels through tolls, and there was a degree of acceptability in that because people could see the trade-off. ‘One of the key factors of acceptability of road charging is that those using the roads see something for it.’ California is piloting the use of charging by distance, while Australia is getting rid of vehicle tax in favour of distance charging. Perhaps London could follow suit with a distance charging pilot?


Maybe a missing piece in the jigsaw
is technology shaped. Rachel Skinner, director, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff raised the issue of autonomous vehicles, saying we need to make decisions now as they are on the horizon but still an unknown quantity for much of the public. BAM Nuttall’s Matt Banks agreed, saying we need to consider
how funding mechanisms need to be put in place today. But Carlton Reid, author of Roads were not built for cars, was sceptical. Reid could see a future where cyclists or pedestrians toy with autonomous vehicles by jumping in front of them, safe in the belief that they will always stop. This would lead to yet more channelisation. But more seriously, the narrative that is created needs to be one in which the Nick Ferraris of this world (LBC presenter) can be convinced out of their cars. Do you start charging cyclists? Perhaps this could be at the almost nominal charge of pre-car Britain from 1891. Bridget Fox, sustainable transport campaigner, Better Transport suggested a variable charge according to the kind of vehicle one drives, or
a kind of ‘passport’ idea to cover a variety of motoring-associated costs, perhaps linked to incentives, ‘a workplace parking levy would also be a useful tool,’ she added.


The way forward was through forming a coalition to provide reasons to support road charging rather
than debates about how it can be done or whether it is a good idea from the transport perspective, said Vincent Stops, policy officer, London TravelWatch. Travers suggested that instigating a new pricing regime would likely come through ‘force majeure’ items such as oil price
hikes, new infrastructure, or stealth
– ‘the first cousin of nudge’. But the other necessary key component was political direction and will – it was hard to believe any initiative such as the congestion charge, Boris bikes or superhighways would have happened without a Mayor fully behind them.


As to recommendations, the case needs to be made for London-wide congestion charging, and part of that is not just a transport debate but how the city sees itself and the 'place' value of London's streets. There is great potential to shift congestion and freight traffic, smoothing out the peaks and troughs. There is a need for clarity and a firm plan comparable to that in place for rail; there is an opportunity to now shift to something that more closely resembles a pay-as-you-go system; but what happens in London needs to not happen in isolation. The service people get back for such a system needs to include items from pothole repair to congestion, to safety. Ultimately, perhaps the way to go is for one very specific suggestion from the group – for the Mayor to instigate a feasibility study on road user pricing within six months of taking office.


By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ 

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