Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Happy New Year 2014

I wish all my readers a Happy New Year and hope 2014 brings them prosperity, good health and happiness for themselves and their loved ones.

I wish to apologise for the more haphazard level of writing in 2013.  That has been driven largely because of the tragic terminal illness of my father, who is suffering from laryngeal cancer.  I have spent some considerable time with him in the past nine months.  Secondly, work has been very busy in that time and so my free time to dedicate to this blog has been more limited than I would have liked (although I am far from unhappy about being busy with valuable work).

The past year in road pricing has seen continued growth in the application of tolling worldwide, and despite some controversy, network road pricing systems are about to be implemented in France for trucks, and in Belgium for trucks (and a vignette system for cars).  In the United States, difficulties in raising fuel taxes continue as states move forward either with expanding the application of tolls for new highways (e.g. in Texas and Florida) or in new forms of charging (e.g. Oregon's implementation of distance based highway taxation).  This appears to have percolated north, with stronger interest in forms of road pricing in Canada.

Gothenburg has now completed its first year of congestion pricing, although there is little sign of significant moves forward towards such pricing elsewhere.  More notably, Denmark seems to have backed off introducing congestion charging in Copenhagen.  

Fundamentally, the key problem faced by governments at all levels and highway authorities is that it is becoming less satisfactory to raise money from road users by taxing motor fuels, when vehicles fleets are becoming so much more efficient.  Parallel to that is growing resistance from voters to increases in such taxes, especially when they are sceptical as to whether politicians will use such revenues wisely.  Although motorists may resent them, at least tolled roads raise money for using roads directly and the revenue raised is spent on those roads.  Similarly, whilst economic slowdown in many countries has seen reduced concern for congestion, it still remains that major cities cannot significantly address traffic congestion by simply building more highway capacity or public transport capacity, but must address the underpricing of urban road capacity at peak times.  It is notable that cities such as Jakarta, Beijing and Shanghai appear to be at the forefront of considering congestion pricing, rather than those in Europe and North America.

Yet, despite all of this, there are significant challenges in convincing governments and voters of the merits of charging directly for road use.  For all of the economic arguments, there is a strong undercurrent of scepticism and resistance, as so many think that road pricing is just another way of governments to extract more money from them for little value.

When governments don't reduce other taxes or don't provide means to dedicate such revenue to (more of less) objectively defined high value projects, then I am hardly surprised.  Road pricing doesn't succeed when the whole governance, funding and management structures of roads are driven by short term political imperatives rather than delivering service to customers.  It is curious indeed that this problem is seen widely in the United States, and less widely in parts of Europe, where commercial and private sector management of major highways is more widespread and acceptable.  

Finally, it is worth talking briefly about technology.  Costs keep coming down, and most notably it is becoming clearer that there is a future in using smartphones, connected intelligently to vehicles, as a means of introducing road pricing.  It is becoming more difficult for opponents to road pricing to claim cost is a reason to reject it.  Their biggest argument remains a lack of trust towards those who would implement it.

It remains, in my view, that this is the key challenge.  In a political environment of mistrust of government, there is a need to recast arguments about road pricing in terms of changing the relationship between road users and the provision of roads.  In most jurisdictions, there remains little real useful feedback between road users and providers, and expectations remain low.  In a world where more automated road use is looking ever more likely in the medium term, this will have to change, simply because traditional political/engineering based ways of managing such infrastructure wont be dynamic enough.

Think how telecommunications and the internet would be if it were subject to political and bureaucratic horizons as to what you need.

That is today what happens with roads.

So whether you work as an infrastructure manager, engineer, policy maker, researcher, politician or a road user, think how much more innovative this sector could be, and what would happen if the cynicism and doubts so often seen are replaced with creativity and intelligent debate about practical change.  

Road pricing almost always will appear negative to those used for taking what exists for granted, it is the role of those of us who can see a vision of better highways, cities and transport networks to address the real concerns of so many.  It isn't about telling people how to get around, or punishing them, or trying to take more money from some to give to others with grand visions, but actually about being more rational about what is done now.  

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