In a radical reform of how light vehicles are to be charged for road use, the Brussels Government has announced that it is replacing high annual vehicle registration fees with a charge based on distance. If successful, it is possible this model will be replicated in other jurisdictions that charge ownership of a vehicle rather than usage, such as in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and also Australian states and territories.
The policy is called "SmartMove" and has its own dedicated website in English, Flemish, French and German. It means that vehicles registered in Brussels (which is one of Belgium's three Federal "states") with gross mass of less than 3.5 tonnes will pay a per kilometre charge that will vary by time of day and engine size (the latter appears to be a legacy of the existing registration fee system).
It applies to all roads except the Brussels ring road and access roads to park and ride stations at the periphery of the Brussels-Capital region.
|Brussels SmartMove charged roads|
The scheme objectives are to:
- Improve fairness: Charging light vehicles by how much they use the road network, rather than simply ownership, will mean the costs of maintaining and developing the network are born the most by those who use it the most.
- Improve mobility: It is expected that the reform will reduce congestion, and through use of the app, enhance mobility by making it easier to make choices about alternative modes (and for those who drive, less congestion improves mobility and makes freight and bus traffic more efficiient).
- Improve quality of life: Reduced congestion and traffic levels will reduce emissions and improve air quality.
- Provide 24/7 assistance to road users, using technology.
It is hoped that the reforms will reduce car trip numbers by 25% by 2030, by encouraging motorists to consolidate trips and choose other modes of travel.
The policy was announced in July, and an impact analysis is currently underway. The project is seeking volunteers to test the app, with the full test phase to be launched in 2021. The impact analysis will look at transport impacts, as well as socio-economic and environmental impacts. It is expected to be fully operational in 2022.
All light vehicles, including cars, vans and motorcycles. Heavy vehicles are excluded as they are already part of Belgium's nationwide heavy vehicle road user charging scheme called Viapass
. It applies not only to vehicles registered in Brussels, but ALL vehicles entering the Brussels-region. They will all be subject to a distance based charge. No exemptions have been announced (other than heavy vehicles of course), except mopeds with a maximum speed of 45 km/h. Electric vehicles are expressly included, as the proposal is about congestion.
As it will replace the registration fee and annual road tax, it is worth looking at what those fees are. Below is the table for registration fees (on first registration in Brussels):
|Brussels Capital Region - first registration tax|
As can be seen, it ranges from €61.50 for a moped through to €2478 for a 3.1-3.4 litre engine vehicles that is less than one year old. From then, the annual road tax is as follows (up to 5 litre CC, the table does go up to 8.8):
|Brussels annual road tax (up to 5 litre)|
This means annual road tax is €292.38 for a 1.6 litre vehicle, but escalates rapidly with larger engines. This is a broad proxy for emissions, although bluntly (as a large capacity engine may be cleaner burning than some older smaller capacity engines) and not officially. As the distance based road pricing scheme would still charge more for larger engines, it is unclear whether any vehicle owners will benefit based on engine size, but it is likely they will benefit if they drive relatively low distances within Brussels region. It isn't difficult to envisage this benefiting car owners who don't commute by car in Brussels, but drive longer distances outside the region (which itself will benefit Brussels by reducing congestion).
How will it work?
All vehicles using the scheme will have number plates registered and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology will be used to identify vehicles as to whether they have:
- Registered for the app with an account; or
- Bought a day pass (intended for visitors/occasional users).
However, unlike a traditional congestion charge, the Brussels system will operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but will have higher charges at peak times.
The mobility app is intended to:
"enables the comparison of mobility alternatives (travelling at a different time of day, public transport, bicycle, car sharing, taxi…). The SmartMove app also keeps track of individual travel costs and calculates the impact on air quality and the climate so people can make the best travel choice. It’s our ambition to also link MaaS (Mobility as a Service) to the app, allowing users to plan a quick, affordable and sustainable journey in just a few clicks. Occasional drivers, tourists or visitors can also purchase a day pass via the app (or website)."
So it doesn't just manage the account, but also is intended to measure distance travelled and promote alternatives. However, the website does indicate that "other systems may also be made available, in cooperation with other external parties, for calculating the kilometre charge". This could be a dedicated On Board Unit or a vehicle's own embedded native telematics, but none of this is determined yet.
There are some big questions about this approach such as:
- What happens if your phone is off when you drive? You have an account, but it isn't measuring distance travelled, do the ANPR cameras take enough records of number plates to match in the back office vehicles that don't have active smartphones reporting trip data? What happens if the phone is on and off while driving during the day? How is it enforced?
- Who is responsible if the battery on the phone expires whilst in use, or the phone reboots due to a manufacturer's setting?
- What happens if your phone is on and you don't drive? You could be in a friend's vehicle, or on a bus, will it measure distance and charge you accordingly? Or will ANPR be used to avoid this? How many ANPR cameras will there need to be around Brussels to enable this?
- What happens if you switch vehicles and don't update the app?
These are some of the challenges that have meant other jurisdictions have not adopted mobile phones as the platform to measure road trips on a continuous basis, because it has been difficult to ensure that a phone is on and running the app the whole time a vehicle is travelling (and not running the app when a driver leaves the vehicle), and also that no more than one phone and app are operating at once.
The Brussels scheme will be ground-breaking, as the first time any jurisdiction has replaced high ownership based taxes with distance based charging, with a time of day element to reduce congestion. It will be the first distance-based charging scheme in Europe designed for light vehicles, but not the first light vehicle distance-charging scheme globally (New Zealand, Utah and Oregon all have these, but only in Utah is distance-based charging an option to replace higher annual registration fees).
More importantly, it doesn't just mean a shift from ownership based taxes to distance based, its attempt to include a congestion charging element could significantly improve mobility and environmental conditions in Brussels. Albeit that the congestion charging element is blunt (it doesn't vary by road, which it would have to, to seriously target major bottlenecks), it may yet provide an example of how a flat non-usage based tax might be replaced with charging based on usage in a way that improves the performance of the network.
I'll look forward to seeing how trials progress in 2021, and if the technical issues around exclusively using mobile phones to measure distance can be resolved. If so, Brussels may set the path for other jurisdictions in Europe seeking to move away from high fixed charges to lower usage based charges. However, it is notable that this is not a replacement for fuel duty, which is charged at the Federal level in Belgium (at €0.61523 per litre (US$2.83 a gallon)).
However one point on its website is inaccurate. "In other major cities that have introduced smart kilometre charges (e.g. Stockholm, London and Milan), many positive effects on the local economy have been identified: more attractive and pleasant cities, time gains for economic activities, a more attractive and accessible labour market". None of those cities have any form of distance based charging at all. They do have cordon/area charging schemes to reduce congestion.