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Is the UK ready for road pricing?
Debates over how to reduce congestion on the nation's roads have dominated the papers over the last few weeks and a number of suggestions, some more feasible than others, have been made. However, the question on everybody's lips seems to be whether the nation is really geared up for such measures as road pricing. With economic growth, the convenience of having a private car and falling motorist costs mean that driving will continue to be a popular choice for those wishing to travel. However, if road traffic levels continue to rise at this pace in urban areas then extreme traffic congestion could become a problem.
Road pricing is just one of the options being considered, alongside measures such as improving the road network in Britain, installing better traffic management, the extension of bus lanes and investment into long-distance rail.
The Managing Our Roads paper was published by the Secretary of State for Transport in July 2003, which discussed the pressures on the network and the choices which had to be made to address them, which also included a look into the feasibility of implementing a national road pricing scheme.
Results revealed that a national road pricing scheme may be feasible within ten to 15 years and may reduce congestion by almost half, despite traffic only being reduced by four per cent. Results also revealed that the plans would have the potential to deliver significant environmental benefits in terms of noise pollution and air quality.
Transport for London (TfL) is also hoping to extend its congestion charge in order to cut down on the amount of traffic on the capital's roads. Proposals from mayor Ken Livingstone plan to halve congestion within the M25 area.
Nevertheless, critics are pointing out that the latest initiative may cost modernisers a great deal more money than they expected.
TfL's plan is to introduce a variable charging system where the highest costs are incurred in the areas with the highest congestion. It is thought that the scheme, which will be in place by 2015, will be controlled via satellite and tag and beacon technology.
Michelle Dix, TfL director of congestion charging, has estimated that the cost of running the scheme will be somewhere in the region of £500 million to £1 billion and with a projected revenue of £3 billion, the remainding £2 billion would be invested in London's transport network, but this is where the snag is.
The current London Congestion Charge is levied on a per use basis in addition to all other road-related charges and can be reasonable well sustained. However, wider-scale, national road pricing strategies may operate differently. The Labour manifesto claims that if it considers road pricing it will do so on a basis of switching from the current taxation system to a road pricing one, although this has been criticised by some as not getting to the root of the congestion issue.
Many are claiming that in order to really overcome the issue of congestion in the UK real tax levels would have to rise and, of course, this is never popular with the British public.
In the meantime a number of smaller contributions have been made to traffic management in London. TfL is currently running a trial of the tag and beacon technology in the London borough of Southwark. This technology uses an in-car device combined with roadside beacons to log vehicle movements and levy charges.
The system is also widely deployed on the bus network and is used to give buses priority at traffic signals. TfL also claims that it is looking into the feasibility of converting the tag and beacon system to GPS.
With the start of Channel 4's Big Brother this week, it seems that tag and beacon system and the London congestion charge are not too far off the dystopia that Orwell envisaged.
The enforcement of a £5 charge and the £40, £80 or £120 penalty notice through the use of a massive CCTV monitoring system and Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology, has raised a number of privacy concerns among the general public.
The London congestion charge system relies on around 700 CCTV cameras which cover around 203 entrances and exits to the city in the 21 sq km zone. These entrances and exits are then manned by number plate recognition technology.
Critics are becoming increasingly concerned that the systems will be an attractive target for terrorists, stalkers, thieves and computer criminals as the systems will contain home addresses, mobile phone numbers, credit card details, vehicle details and the movement patterns of a number of high profile characters in the UK including the Royal Family and members of government.
Nevertheless, the government seems intent on introducing some sort of road pricing scheme and one incentive that has managed to get some members of the public on board is the fact that it may also reduce the damaging effects of vehicle emissions of the environment.
The lessons learned from a congestion charging scheme in Stockholm have been outlined in a conference in Edinburgh. Councillor Asa Romsson from the Swedish capital addressed delegates in the Hub, which was organised by transport lobby group TRANSform Scotland.
Director Colin Howden remarked to the Scotsman that the conference was aimed at exploring the fundamental transport and climate change issues faced in Scotland.
"The Scottish Executive is currently failing to take action to reduce climate change emissions. The conference will set out the steps that government both nationally and locally will have to take to reduce emissions," he said.
He went on to say that it also explored the likely impacts of climate change on the environment and economy and questioned whether there was any hope of reducing the climate change in the UK without having to introduce radical measures to tackle the volume of traffic on the roads.
Although there are many complex arguments for and against the introduction of a road pricing system in the UK it appears that the government has some way to go before they manage to convince the British public that they are prepared for any eventuality and that the infrastructure is prepared to cope with what could be a very complex system.
23 May 2006