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For whom the road tolls

The 'blue skies' thinking for UK transport is…find more and more ways to stop people from driving.

Austin Williams

Topics Science & Tech

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One of ex-BBC director-general Lord Birt’s ‘blue sky thinking’ proposals for transport was the creation of a separate system of toll ‘supermotorways’ alongside the existing motorway network. Those who were prepared to pay would be allowed on to these gleaming new roadways – presumably able to wave as they sped past the poor suckers who couldn’t afford the toll.

Back in May 2002, this proposal was laughed out of court. In fact, Birt, who was UK prime minister Tony Blair’s appointed transport grandee, was criticised by the new transport minister Alistair Darling within weeks of him taking up his post at the end of May.

‘Britain isn’t big enough for us to be pouring more and more concrete over its green and pleasant land…. I don’t think there is much sympathy for building a whole new network of motorways around the country’, said Darling (1).

Given that even the government, in its 10-year Transport Plan, accepts begrudgingly the need for more roads (2), Darling has come out in favour of tolls because, ‘everything has to be paid for one way or another’.

However, by rubbishing Birt’s idea of a major roadbuilding strategy, but holding on to the notion of charging people for the pleasure of driving, ‘thinking the unthinkable’ has developed into an open discussion about constraint. The question now is how best to restrict provision of, or access to, the national road network.

Unsurprisingly, Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth advocated not building at all, stating that: ‘Building a network of new super-motorways across the British countryside would…simply encourage more people to use their cars and result in more pollution and congestion.’ (3)

The RAC Foundation, on the other hand, favoured ‘tacking on’ toll lanes to existing networks – saying that this would reduce traffic levels and also raise funds to pay for road improvements (4). The Foundation is confident that ‘most would find road tolls acceptable’ (5).

A phoney war has emerged, with one side recommending toll road improvements on the basis that this would be cheap and would restrict demand; the other side insisting on no road improvements, to curtail demand.

Reports claim that Darling will soon appoint a Congestion Tsar – who will be placed in an enviable position of mediating between two factions who both want to save the Treasury’s money. This kind of lobbying must have UK chancellor Gordon Brown laughing all the way to the bank.

Recognising that the Friends of the Earth position is untenable, a new report by Orbit, a consortium acting on behalf of the Government Office for the South East, argues for road-user tolls along large portions of the M25, combined with selected road widening (6). The tolls, in effect, will pay for the ‘improvements’.

But this debate is not about improving mobility. The Orbit report notes that ‘area-wide road user charging’ is the ‘preferred method of reducing traffic levels or the rate of future growth’. The report proposes to charge, on average, 10.5p per mile to use the M25. Given that the cost of petrol is 5 to 7p per mile, this is a significant disincentive to drive.

In a recent test, a Peugeot 206 driven around the 120 miles of the M25 in 2.5 hours (averaging a respectable 50mph) cost only £5 in petrol. When tolls are implemented, the cost will more than double – and given that drivers will have to navigate toll gates, slip roads, ramp meters, priority and segregated lanes, traffic filters, and so on, there is no guarantee that the journey will be any quicker. Unless, that is, the primary objective of reducing the number of cars on the road succeeds.

The congestion charge will be introduced in 2011 to reduce traffic to 1997 levels – and the charge will increase to ensure that traffic levels don’t go up. Crucially, the report notes that ‘the dominant effect would be to reduce the length of car trips’.

In effect, the aim is to change people’s attitudes to mobility – in Darling’s words, to effect a ‘cultural revolution’ (7) – ‘encouraging’ them to travel less.

Thus has Birt’s blue-sky thinking been moderated. The restraint element of his proposal (pay-as-you-drive roadways) has been retained. But rather than ‘supermotorways’, we have support for minimising expenditure through demand management – effectively restricting provision, by offering no new or improved routes, just maintaining and widening the existing networks. The idea of national state-funded infrastructure provision is becoming a dim and distant memory.

Will it work? Nobody really knows until it is tried. It is this uncertainty that has led government and local authorities to wrap themselves in the cloak of lobby-group respectability, and to keep a close watch on trial schemes to see if it all goes horribly wrong. Will drivers protest; will they be resigned to pay; or will the tolls be too successful?

In Durham, for example, the first city to introduce so-called congestion charging (to deal with a peak flow of a mere 3 to 4 cars per hour), the success of the scheme has scuppered the council’s revenue plans. Ninety percent of road users stopped driving along the street, thereby cutting the projected income in half and jeopardising the funding for the shuttle bus, which was the stated reason to implement the scheme in the first place.

One positive sign for the future is that some transport consultants like Halcrow Fox, keen to get their share of the mythical £80billion transport fund, are putting forward ambitious suggestions for underground roadways and proposing significant extra miles of motorway (8). Unfortunately, although these proposals are grounded in a realistic grasp of the need to provide more infrastructure for a growing economy, they go against the established credo of demand management and are likely to get short shrift from government.

Private priority roads will soon be with us. At least then we might get some useful new roads, but not, unfortunately, for universal access. Building more roads, tolled to discourage people from using them, is the curious logic of the moment.

Once demand-management principles have been accepted, blue-sky thinking simply turns into a brainstorming exercise to fine-tune the practical implementation of restraint.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Facts about the tracks, by Austin Williams

Driving London to despair?, by Austin Williams

(1) No 10 corrects Darling over Birt criticism, Telegraph, 3 June 2000

(2) On the road to nowhere, Telegraph, 8 June 2002

(3) FOE slams super-motorway proposal, FOE Press Release, 19 May 2002

(4) Blair urged to reject Birt plan for new motorways, Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, quoted in Guardian Unlimited, 20 May 2002

(5) ‘Motoring Towards 2050’, RAC Foundation, June 2002

(6) ‘Orbit: Transport solutions around London’, KBR, Government Office for the South-East, November 2002

(7) Alistair Darling, speaking at ‘Making it Happen’, RAC Foundation conference, London, 26 November 2002

(8) ‘£70billion cost of easing congestion across Britain’, David Williams, Evening Standard, 26 November 2002

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Topics Science & Tech

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