Thursday 8 January 2015

2015 ahead

First to my readers, apologies.

2014 was a tough year personally with bereavement and family illness, and so it was difficult to dedicate the time and energy needed for this blog. Given this blog is a voluntary effort, and between family and work, I simply didn't want to spend the time required sitting in front of a screen to write about these issues as frequently as I would have wanted.

Quite a bit happened in 2014, with there being little let up in the growth of road pricing internationally, whether it be the opening of more toll roads in many countries, the addition/conversion of more HOT/toll lanes in the US (it is worth thinking why this is only happening in the US), and the incremental growth of network based charging in a few countries in Europe.  Meanwhile, interest in charging for driving in cities to address congestion and pollution continues to grow, with Asia being the new frontier.  While Jakarta has had some delays in progressing development of road pricing, Chinese cities are looking at such options.

At a high level it is worth noting what the big trends are, and I hope to write more regularly and look forward to any comments you may have.

Road pricing to supplement and ultimately replace fuel taxation is continuing to grow:  In the US, Oregon, Washington and California are all at various stages of development of charging vehicles by distance because of the two fundamental challenges around fuel taxation.  Firstly, the increasing inequity of using a tax on fuel when the fuel efficiency of cars in particular, continues to improve to the point that those who can afford new ultra efficient cars are paying much less to use the road than those who cannot.  Whilst there remain sound arguments on environmental grounds to encourage this, it does not address the need for revenue to pay for highway maintenance.  This is further exacerbated by the emergence of hybrids and electric vehicles, which effectively mean some vehicles use roads they do not pay for at all.   This isn't only inequitable, but is financially unsustainable. Secondly, the politics around increasing fuel taxation remain very difficult.  Although decreases in fuel prices in recent months have allowed a few jurisdictions to increase such taxes, there remains widespread distrust that any increased taxes would be spent wisely.  There appears to be more acceptance of user pays.  In addition, it is recognised that increased fuel taxes feeds the unsustainable cycle of encouraging more fuel efficient vehicles, reducing net revenues.  In the US this argument is widely accepted, it is increasingly being heard in Australia and has started to be raised in the UK. However, the big breakthrough will come when a large US state moves on this issue, watch this space.

Charging heavy vehicles alone on major intercity highways continues to grow in Europe, and is gaining momentum in Australia:  Whilst Europe is known as being the main focus for charging trucks by distance on major highways, Australia is now looking more seriously at doing the same, noting New Zealand has done this for some time.  A key driver for European countries has been to address the inequity of trucks from foreign countries using highways they may pay little to use (dependent on where they purchase fuel), but for Australia as well is the poor equity around charging trucks to use roads based on fuel tax and ownership taxes.  The technology to charge heavy vehicles to use all roads is now much more financially viable than in the days when the Toll Collect system was introduced in Germany, which should mean countries like Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Slovenia, which have considered and rejected such charging may revisit past decisions, in some cases as a step towards wider charging.

Cars are next in Europe:  As has been seen in Germany and is also the case in Belgium, given that charging trucks for using roads is more common in Europe, charging cars (for countries without extensive networks of toll roads) is coming next.  This is driven politically by a desire to charge foreigners for using national highways (although EU law means that any charges have to apply to nationals as well as foreigners), but also as a way of raising additional revenue.  

Urban congestion charging remains difficult politically in developed and developing countries, with success dependent on delivering a compelling package to motorists, residents and businesses:  In developed countries, urban congestion charging struggles to get support even in cities where private motoring downtown is a minority activity.  That reflects both a widespread cynicism about politics and taxation, but also because few believe that potential benefits of reduced congestion and pollution either will come about, or will be worth the higher costs and fear of damaging businesses and employment.  In developing countries the problem is that those with the greatest political influence are the growing middle classes who are embracing motoring and are uninterested in switching to transport modes perceived to be for the poor.  To get over these difficulties requires politicians and officials that are pursuing urban road pricing (in whatever form) to demonstrate that those who are paying will get something back, whether it be lower travel times, more reliable journeys and improvements to road infrastructure, or alternatives that are compelling.   It also means convincing businesses that they wont lose customers, that costs for logistics and deliveries should fall and they wont lose employees.   To do all of that means serious effort needs to be spent on designing urban pricing proposals that are refined, not blunt, targeted not blanketing, and treat those who are being charged not as pests to be deterred, but as customers who for once, are paying directly for a service - access to road space.  

HOT lanes and toll lanes remain an almost exclusively US phenomenon and while useful in isolated cases, do not provide comprehensive solutions to congestion/funding issues:  Thanks to the surfeit of high occupancy vehicle lanes on major highways that are underutilised, the scope has existed in the US to get better utilisation out of such lanes (and introduce pricing).  However, as such lanes are rare elsewhere they aren't widely seen in other countries (Israel being the only example I know of).  Pure toll lanes added as new capacity funded from tolls are exceedingly rare, if only because it is difficult to recover the costs of that capacity only from those who choose to use it (although it is not so difficult to do so if all lanes are tolled).  Similarly, as HOVs are essentially "free-riding" in HOT lanes, they don't add to the financial viability of them.  While some cities are developing "networks" of HOT lanes, they provide useful bypasses to congestion on some corridors, but don't deal with wider congestion, nor do they contribute significantly to funding gaps.  They are an attractive interim solution politically, by showing how pricing can deliver improvements to mobility, but there is little evidence that this leads to acceptance of wider forms of pricing on existing capacity.  As such, interest internationally in HOT lanes remains tepid.

Tolling remains a popular funding solution in many markets:  If a new road or new crossing delivers substantial improvements in travel time for road users, tolling can often fully or partially fund the new infrastructure.  This continues to see increased usage in developing countries, but is also being utilised increasingly in the United States.  Europe continues to have tolling most prevalent in southern Europe (although demand for new infrastructure there has largely stalled).  Latin America and Africa are seeing some growth as well.

Conversion to fully electronic freeflow tolling has grown:  Whilst fully electronic free flow tolling has been around for  close to twenty years, as seen in Canada and Australia, manual tolling and DSRC assisted barrier tolling has been dominant in most mature tolling markets.  In the past year, electronic free flow tolling conversions have been seen in growing numbers in the US, and now the UK.  The benefits in reduced congestion and long run administration costs should be clear, but they are dependent on the ability to enforce compliance.  Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology (depending on the design of number plates) can now achieve reliable recognition rates of over 95% (some claiming around 98-99%), meaning DSRC based "tag and beacon" systems are not essential for such charging.  When enforcement allows, and the costs of conversion outweigh labour costs, expect to see more of this in other mature tolling markets in Europe and Japan.

Technology challenges how roads are charged for, but also how they are managed:  Moves towards more direct road charging and tolling change the relationship between road users and road providers, towards that of customer and service provider.  Even without such charging, the UK is moving towards a commercial structure to manage England's motorway network.  However, increased vehicle automation will present a similar challenge, and confront politicians and government agencies with questions as to whether existing governance structures can respond dynamically and effectively to the challenges and demands placed upon them by road users and automotive companies.   In Japan and parts of Europe, there have already been significant steps forward in having roads managed as companies and businesses, albeit in most cases with government ownership and/or regulation.   The US often struggles to grapple with managing publicly owned assets in ways that minimise ad hoc political interference (the same applies to airports), but the ways that energy and telecommunications companies are regulated may provide a model that is worth further consideration.

Private investment in toll roads will continue to be seen where opportunities are robust:  While bankrupt toll roads in Australia, the US and parts of Europe gives rise to some caution about future investments, investors are still keen to find infrastructure investments across the globe.  As long as the business case stacks up, with robust independent review, there will be more private investment in highways, and countries that enable this, will gain such investment.


  1. Hi. I just discovered your blog and value it immensely.

  2. Hi
    Interested to see this site. I tried to sign in but I got shunted to an error page.

    I see you have some coverage of the New Zealand scene. NZ already has road charging, through petrol taxes for light vehicles and road user charges for heavy (and diesel) vehicles. So the Auckland proposals are an additional tax, and the Government will have none of it. But what is really needed is not a new tax but a change from averaged charges to location and time specific charges. If that was done, most people would be better off, and there would be some chance of popular support.

    Anyway I hope you do recover your energy. Look forward to following your blog in the future.