The road charging revolution: how smart technology will transform road use

Air Quality News editor Chloe Coules investigates the potential for smart road user charging to revolutionise how we pay for the negative impacts of road use, from air pollution and congestion to road safety and maintenance.  

To tackle air pollution and reach net zero, local and national governments are working to make journeys more sustainable. However, as navigating the UK’s growing network of Clean Air Zones becomes more complicated, experts and policy makers are starting to call for a more dynamic solution to paying for the negative impacts of our road use.  

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is one of the first local leaders to open the conversation around one potential solution – smart road user charging.  

Smart road user charging involves charging drivers per mile travelled and could take into account a range of factors including how polluting the vehicle is, location, and what public transport alternatives are available, with exemptions possible for people on low incomes or with disabilities.  

Many experts argue the transition to this kind of system is crucial to reaching environmental aims but making this change won’t be easy. 

What’s wrong with our current system? 

In the UK, drivers of fuel cars pay two forms of tax – Fuel Duty and Vehicle Exercise Duty – which help to cover the costs of road use. Electric vehicles (EVs) are exempt from these taxes, meaning the switch to EVs will leave a growing hole in the Chancellor’s budget. 

This makes moving over to smart road user charging in the UK ‘almost an inevitability’, according to Nick Ruxton-Boyle, Director of Environment at Marston Holdings. 

On top of this, the growing network of Clean Air Zones, Low Emission Zones and Zero Emission Zones in the UK is becoming confusing and arduous for drivers to navigate, with each local scheme having its own rules and exemptions. Despite contributing to air pollution, congestion and road safety issues, EVs are also not affected by these schemes, leaving a gap in the regulation of these vehicles.  

Experts predict that the UK will need to switch over to a dynamic system of road charging in the near future, allowing local authorities and government to tackle issues like air pollution and congestion, and fund road maintenance and transport services equitably.  

Despite slow uptake of road charging in the UK compared to other countries, there are examples of this technology in the nation, including the congestion charge in London and toll roads.  

However, the road charging technology used in the UK is ‘fairly basic’, explains Matt Finch, Director of Transport & Environment UK.  

‘The London congestion charge uses automatic name plate recognition cameras, and that software is pretty advanced, but it is still basic in the sense that you have to go around and stick a camera up everywhere, and these cameras break, and you have to spend time maintaining them.’ 

Nicolas Bossetti, Head of Data & Insight at Centre for London, echoes this message: ‘The [ULEZ and congestion charging] are seen as good starting points, and definitely tools that were innovative in their time, but the congestion charge is cordon-based, which means that you pay it once and then you can drive as much as you want within that zone. That flat charge doesn’t encourage you to reduce your driving and doesn’t reflect the fact that the more you drive, the more you impose costs on the environment.’ 

‘In terms of the ULEZ, things have moved on with it being expanded, but it also feels like it doesn’t impact the majority of people in that a lot of vehicles are already compliant, which is definitely a good thing on one end, but on the other means that for a lot of people it is not an incentive to use more sustainable options or options that are better for air quality in the city.’ 

Matt Finch tells Air Quality News that to roll out effective road charging across the UK, we will need to move to a smarter system based on GPS tracking: ‘Most people when they talk about road pricing and road charging cannot see past a better system than putting something in the car and just letting it be tracked automatically.’ 

The benefits of smart road user charging 

Using GPS tracking to develop smart road charging in the UK is not only more effective than our current cordon-based approach, but it is also cheaper. ‘To have a national camera-driven scheme, you need tens of thousands of cameras that cost money, and then they all need to be maintained and that costs money. With a GPS scheme, all new cars have GPS systems in them, so it suddenly becomes a lot cheaper to set up,’ explains Matt.  

Smart road user charging also allows drivers to make more informed decisions about how and when they travel, according to Nick Ruxton-Boyle. ‘If you have to pay per trip, it makes you think more about the value of that trip to you as a user and to the environment. Another benefit to it is that the user pays and those who create the damage of road use pay more – it’s quite simple and equitable in that sense, rather than some of the blunt taxation tools we’ve historically had.’ 

‘It’s more progressive as it’s based on how much you drive, it’s a lot more responsive to the local situation as well,’ argues Nicolas Bossetti. ‘It depends on whether you’re driving at a time when there’s a lot of traffic in an area and a lot of pollution, and whether you have got a convenient, realistic alternative like public transport. It adapts a lot more to the individual characteristics of your journey.’ 

While the congestion charge and Low Emission Zones each have a specific target, smart road user charging allows you to address multiple issues simultaneously. ‘We need a solution which is able to have an impact on congestion, air quality, the climate emergency and road safety,’ explains Nicolas Bossetti.  

What is stopping us from implementing it? 

Despite these benefits, politicians warn that implementing sophisticated road charging is a long way off. Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London for Environment, told Air Quality News: ‘[Meeting the Mayor’s environmental targets] would ideally require some form of smart road user charging by the mid to late ‘20s – certainly by the end of the decade. The Mayor has already said that we would keep this under review in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, but that is going to take some time – nowhere has that sophisticated level of charging in place so it is going to require a lot of brains and innovation to come up with the technology, the approach to how you manage it, the back office systems and so on.’ 

However, transport experts claim that the technology is already widely used in other ways, and the real question is who will implement it first. 

‘The technology is ready and available, it just needs someone to decide what time of system we are likely to have, if any, and then go out to tender and say, “Who can build this technology platform for me?”’ argues Matt Finch.  

Nick Ruxton-Boyle explains that in-car technology is already widely used by insurance companies and mobility apps like Uber to monitor and manage services, and we already have roadside technology like ANPR cameras in use across Clean Air Zones. We also already have the satellite technology like GPS and the legacy back-office systems needed to manage and enforce a scheme.  

‘Each little part of the puzzle, each module of a dynamic system, already exists and is used in the public sector in a variety of ways.’ 

If the technology is ready, what is holding us back from making the switch to smart road charging? 

‘The technology is ready – I don’t think the politics is quite ready yet,’ explains Nick Ruxton-Boyle. ‘It’s a big shift to go to a charging per mile system based on the blunt tool of taxation we have now, and as we have seen, consecutive and subsequent political authorities and governments have shied away from this type of solution for a variety of reasons.’ 

Matt Finch echoes this: ‘The problem isn’t technological, it would be rolling it out, and then the problem becomes political.’ 

He explains that scrapping our current system is difficult because it is so established: ‘We have always built roads and paid for them via taxes, and once something has been established it becomes the norm, and it is quite hard to change that norm.’ 

Bringing the public with them while making this switch will be crucial for politicians, and there is concern that the public will object to road charging on the grounds that it might be unfair or raise privacy issues.  

However, Nick argues that it is an easier task to make the move than it was 10 years ago, with buying as you consume becoming the norm.  

Matt also tells Air Quality News that potential privacy concerns can be addressed in how the scheme is implemented: ‘I think there will be people who flag [privacy concerns] for sure, and the way to combat it is to give those people the option to just pay a fixed amount and make it relatively high. 

‘Most people now have a smartphone, so at any one point they send out signals as to where they are. Is it that much of a stretch [to have GPS tracking in your car], especially if it meant you would pay less? It’s impossible to know, I think there are privacy concerns, and some people would opt out and would be happy to pay more, but a lot of people would opt in.’ 

Nick also highlights that in order to make road charging an effective solution to issues like air pollution and congestion, there needs to be viable alternatives to car use. Public transport networks will need to be improved, especially in rural areas, and fares will need to be affordable to discourage driving.  

How should it be implemented? 

One of the biggest debates around the switch to smart road charging is who should implement it.  

Nicolas Bossetti argues that linking these schemes to local public transport funding would help to make them more acceptable to the public: ‘You are making it clear to people that one of the reasons why you have got this pricing in places is that it enables you to improve the quality of roads locally, but also it enables you to give out mobility credits locally – discounts on shared and public transport – and also invest in the quality and expansion of the public transport system, so people understand the end result.’ 

London has been leading on developing smart road charging, partly due to its devolved powers and funding, but Nicolas thinks that other cities can follow suit as more devolution happens. ‘It is important for these schemes to be designed in the interest of the cities and citizens who are going to be paying for them and affected by them or benefitting from them. It makes sense for London to be designing its system, but there is a case for government to help coordinate systems and make sure that if you are driving from one to another it is easy and straightforward to do that.’ 

However, Matt argues that it would be too expensive for small towns and cities to implement these schemes, which raises questions of whether a national approach is needed.  

‘I think it needs to be national and it needs to be countrywide,’ says Nick. ‘We saw with Covid the challenges of the different rules across the devolved nations, so it has got to be adopted and delivered across the country.  

‘What we are seeing with Clean Air Zones is even though they are partially centralised, there are local differences for each of the different zones in terms of which vehicles are included with the local exemptions and discounts, so it just creates a more complicated system.  

‘That is not to say a dynamic system cannot have its local elements – you can charge more to go into a city centre at a peak time for example – but at the moment the way in which it works regionally is quite complicated for a user or driver to understand how to go about paying the charges and making a decision to drive or not and as to what vehicle to invest in. A national scheme will make those decisions a lot easier.’ 

Despite debate over whether these schemes should be local or national, experts and politicians agree that we will need to introduce this scheme by the end of the decade.  

‘We have certainly got some really strong deadlines in place for the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles and for decarbonisation, so I believe these are some of the timeframes we need to be considering,’ explains Nick.  

‘The [EV rollout] trajectory along with the revenue trajectory for the Chancellor is going to drive this, and it has got to be within the next decade in my view.’ 

This article first appeared in the May issue of Air Quality News – view it in full here


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1 year ago

This is nothing more that a disgraceful tax on the poor. We are not the ones who affect the environment. If everyone in the uk drove an EV the environmental impact would be negligible. Why is this necessary at all?

2 years ago

I have trust issues with road pricing schemes. A prior iteration proposed to charge in excess of the value of an annual road fund licence fee for a single peak-hours journey (for parity with standard-passenger rail fares). It should be noted that charging per mile to replace lost revenue from EV’s does not require GPS; recording verified mileage at MOT & billing accordingly would achieve this. Those calling for a GPS system are trying to fix a different problem, and in so doing are essentially seeking the power to apply significant financial pressure on drivers with the express aim of modifying their behaviour. This could be seen very cynically as a class issue – challenging equity of ‘freedom of movement’, with the rich benefitting (through their increased freedoms & reduced journey times) over the poor (who are economically excluded from access to certain places, or at certain times). Yes the rich would pay more – but that doesn’t necessarily equate to social fairness. I would also argue that privacy is an issue – I don’t own a smartphone (or use ‘free’ media services paid for with the currency of monetizable personal data-) precisely for the reasons mentioned in this article – it was always going to be the thin end of the wedge, and is now being expressly regarded as aggregate social consent for a state-sponsored social tracking system, which would rightly concern users greatly if we were talking about certain other nations. Do we really have that much trust in our own government(s), now and in all perpetuity?

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