Road User Charging – Status Today, Preparing for Tomorrow

Road use charging is back on the agenda. While the economic and environmental arguments stack up, public acceptability will be a significant challenge. Getting this right is important and the infrastructure sector, says Stantec’s Dougie McDonald, must actively engage with Government to influence policy development

Dougie McDonald, Stantec

Over the past 50 years there has been extensive research and assessment of the benefits and challenges of different approaches to directly charging for road use in the UK. Until relatively recently, the London Congestion Charge and M6toll provided the only two examples of implementation of large-scale schemes, other than estuarial crossings.

Now road user charging (RUC) is back on the agenda, this time due to the emergence of a roads policy ‘trilemma’ for the Government to solve. This consists of the need to decarbonise our roads network to meet climate change commitments, a potential £40billion blackhole in Government finances from the associated mass adoption of electric vehicles and fuel tax loss, and the ongoing necessity of supporting economic growth through free-flowing road-network connectivity—particularly as we seek to close the lost economic performance from the pandemic.

Current policy proposals can comfortably address particular aspects of the trilemma; however, it is likely that all three issues will need to be addressed over time. As a result, there is renewed interest in RUC in the UK and its role on our future road systems.

Applying RUC anywhere comes with significant known challenges. We have to consider the best technology, which parts of the network it will be applied to, and different approaches between cars and heavy goods. We must assess the impact on different social groups, particularly low-income, marginalised groups, and those with few options other than a car and travel at certain times of the day. RUC schemes collect a large amount of data on the travel habits of millions of people—meaning privacy is a challenge. And finally timing and transition are key as the Government has set ambitious targets for a net zero UK.

Taken together, these challenges all lead towards the issue of acceptability whereby the public feel confident and willing to use toll systems.

Trials in the United States have shown the importance of equity and privacy arrangements, and that rural, low income groups and certain ethnicities may be more difficult to convince of the merits of RUC. Lessons from schemes in Europe and Asia/Pacific show the importance of demonstrating how funds raised can support public transport improvements or environmental gains. These schemes show that the technology is ready for RUC implementation and that “back office” account management arrangements are important.

In the UK, an upgrade programme has begun to improve the tolling system on the M6toll, introducing new digital systems and enabling broader interactions with the user base who complete 18 million journeys annually, or around 50,000 every day.

Public acceptability of a new RUC system will be a significant challenge, so the infrastructure sector must actively engage with Government to influence policy development.

Dougie McDonald is Stantec’s UK Regional Director for Transport. He is speaking with Andy Cliffe, CEO of Midlands Expressway, in a session at Highways UK at 9.30am on 4 November which will further explore current trends in road user charging and lessons learned. Highways UK takes place at the NEC, Birmingham on 3/4 November. It is free to attend, register now!

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