It’s a Saturday afternoon in the run up to Christmas in Cardiff. The roads are very busy in a city where business is affected by congestion more so than anywhere else in the UK (1). What should be a twenty-minute bus ride from Albany Road (Roath) into the city centre can take over an hour. Standstill traffic on some of the city’s main arteries filters out onto its collector roads, and the experience is frankly miserable. On several occasions, it’s been quicker to walk.

Towns and cities across the UK are facing similar challenges, with their road networks struggling to maintain optimal traffic flows. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because the way we pay to travel on these roads isn’t achieving an efficient outcome. At its heart, tackling congestion involves altering whether we need to travel at all (something we’ve all become more used to during the pandemic), when we travel (because most roads, most of the time, can cope with demand), and how we travel. Our current system of fuel duties, although effective at covering the climate change externality of car travel, doesn’t provide an effective incentive for drivers to consider the wider costs of congestion. Before the pandemic, the annual cost of congestion on the UK roads amounted to £6.9bn, or £894 per driver (2).

With the ongoing decline in fuel duty revenues due to our transition to electric vehicles, the UK is heading towards the point where a new regime of financing its roads is necessary. Some form of road pricing is now inevitable in the medium to long term. The question is what sort of scheme do we end up with?

On the one hand, there are congestion charges as used in places like London and Stockholm. In the latter, the charges have helped to reduce traffic levels by around 20%, as well as fund a transformation in the city's public transport network. As Eliasson and others found in their 2012 study, the charges quickly went from being massively unpopular pre-implementation to accepted common sense (3). Such a scheme could have significant benefits in places badly affected by congestion across the UK.

But if that’s as far as pricing goes, and fuel duties continue to decline, the cost of motoring could fall substantially in those areas that don’t need congestion charges. A widening affordability gap between driving and public transport (a reality for most areas outside of London) and significant pressure on house prices are just two of the unintended, but clearly foreseeable consequences of such a system.

On the other hand, and perhaps more likely if the UK embarks on nationwide pricing, there are pay per mile schemes. This has occupied much of the UK press attention to date, with particular interest in whether motorists might each receive a “free” annual allocation of miles before being charged a flat rate (4). Just how high that allocation stretches is almost certainly a political question, and may create tensions between the UK’s various devolved administrations.

The case for pay per mile is that it’s universal and simple to grasp. But without congestion charging in places where it is necessary, a pay per mile system alone would be no better equipped than fuel duties are in achieving a more efficient use of the road network. A mixture of the two approaches seems inevitable. Getting the detail right for how such a hybrid scheme might work in practice will be an enormous task stretching over several years. But the decline of fuel duty means time is not on the side of those charged with implementing pricing, as more people transition to electric vehicles. The longer it takes, the greater the discomfort as pricing hits the pockets of those accustomed to the cheaper running costs of EV’s. It is not difficult to foresee a narrative of the “War on the electric motorist” gathering pace unless those drivers have an early expectation of the true costs of their new vehicle.

Going sooner rather than later would therefore be a fruitful political strategy for those tasked with implementing road pricing. Despite the initial discomfort, this is ultimately a necessary reform, otherwise tax rises elsewhere seem unavoidable. But are the public onboard?

Despite congestion charging referendums flopping in Manchester and Edinburgh in the 2000s, more recent research indicates a greater acceptance for road pricing. A 2021 Social Market Foundation study of 3000 UK adults found 39% in favour of pricing (specifically as a replacement for fuel duty) compared to 26% against (5). This held true across all income groups and UK regions. Although not a critical mass of support, such research contrasts sharply from the days when anti road pricing petitions could muster close to two million signatures (6). Critically, the largest group in this research remained undecided. There has never been a better time to set out a positive case for road pricing, but there is a real risk that a scheme gets kicked into the long grass as the UK heads towards a likely General Election in 2023. If that happens, and progress is delayed until the next parliament, then the “war on the electric motorist” becomes an even bigger possibility as discussed previously.

Transport planners can make a valuable contribution to this fledgling conversation. Road pricing will primarily serve to replace fuel duty, and to achieve a more efficient use of the road network. But if achieving Net Zero is a serious ambition for the UK, our travel habits will likely need to change on a bigger level. This might involve further price disincentives to travelling by car, not least because EVs will still contribute significant lifecycle emissions (7). That is a more uncomfortable conversation, with no easy or obvious answers, but it is a conversation planners should be willing to engage in.  For now, however, 2022 looks set to be an important year in the UK’s developing discussion on road pricing.



(1) Traffic Congestion Cost UK Motorists More Than £30 Billion in 2016 - INRIX

(2) INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard: Congestion cost UK economy £6.9 billion in 2019 - INRIX

(3) Shibboleth Authentication Request

(4) Motorists could be forced to pay per mile on all UK roads under new government toll plans - reports - Manchester Evening News

(5) Public dislike of ‘unfair’ fuel duty opens the door to road-pricing – think-tank - Social Market Foundation.

(6) Blair dismisses 1.8m road-pricing protests by email | London Evening Standard | Evening Standard


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