Network: On the road to nowhere

Technology can solve our traffic crisis but experts are divided as to how. Result? Gridlock.
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The Independent Culture
Technology has never managed to establish a role in the portfolio of possible solutions to the road congestion problems of Great Britain. The idea of automatically charging for the use of roads, via bar-codes and "swipe" or smart cards, has been around for 30 years. But the hurdles such schemes present have persistently daunted governments, developers and the public.

However, John Prescott's consultation document, "Breaking the Logjam", published last week, pushes to the top of the agenda ideas reliant on technology. The "new deal" for road users is clearly looking to new technology to move transport into the fast lane.

Hypothecation is perhaps the most important new feature, channelling money back into tackling the problem. Targeted taxation is now accepted as politically necessary to justify road-pricing policies, but it is feasible only when the collection system is highly automated.

Another important aspect of the consultation document is support for local authorities in the development of systems, a practical step required if automated road pricing is to get off the ground. Further, the Government is making available on CD-rom the consolidated results of a number of relevant studies carried out in recent years.

Technology has grabbed the Government's attention, from Tony Blair down. But what may we expect to see after John Prescott has had his hands on it? In the United States and continental Europe, a number of road pricing schemes are in fairly advanced stages of development. They provide an indication of the kind of system that would be available for introduction in the UK.

One is a privately operated, variable-toll highway south of Los Angeles. California Private Transportation guarantees that any commuter willing to pay the price, which rises to $2.50 during the rush-hour, will have a delay-free journey in a reserved lane in the middle of the existing highway. When congestion mounts up, the toll to drive in this lane automatically rises to the point where a sufficient number of motorists will choose to stay in the free, but not now free-flowing, lanes. The fare is collected electronically by a transponder on the car windscreen. A bill is sent out whenever $30 in tolls has been accumulated.

A second and much-heralded system is the toll ring around Norway's third- largest city, Trondheim. The city centre endured traffic jams and unpleasant levels of pollution, largely from through traffic. It was decided to implement a "toll ring" - 12 toll plazas encircling the city which collect tolls from motorists entering the city during working hours. The use of automated electronic tags, which research showed would reduce the cost of collection to less than one-third, is encouraged by discounts. Currently, 90 per cent of vehicles entering the city during rush-hour use the tags. Payment is arranged by making a deposit on account or by automatic bank account withdrawals.

Although the UK Government is still far from introducing similar systems here, there are pilot schemes now running. The Leicester Environmental Road Tolling Scheme (Lerts) includes a road-pricing experiment, funded in part by the European Union. Similar feasibility studies on road pricing have been carried out in Bristol, Cambridge, London and Portsmouth.

Eddie Tyrer, transport special projects officer at Leicester City Council, explains how commuters were issued with smart cards and their cars were equipped with an electronic device that deducted money from accounts whenever they travelled into the city during the charging-period. The trial ended in May and a report will be made to the Government in the new year. However, provisional results indicate that a cordon approach would bring about a more effective reduction in car use than a corridor system. As expected, when faced with tolls motorists rerouted, shifting the burden around the road network.

The Leicester trial points to the problems of road use charges - in particular, how to manage a cordon. For example, identifying local residents, who might reasonably expect not to be charged, as opposed to through traffic, is no trivial problem when dealing with the traffic volumes of a large city. While a few cars slipping through because a remote detection device misses them would be tolerable, double-charging motorists, because a system clocks them twice, clearly would not.

Another problem the Government will have to face is the fact that there are no road-pricing technology standards, let alone "off-the-shelf" solutions that a local authority might implement. This could become a major issue if isolated schemes start to bubble up with little or no central co-ordination.

Stephen Glaister, of the London School of Economics, argues for less technically glamorous and more practical options. The central problem as he sees it is that technical solutions demand high initial capital costs, and once a system has been paid for there is no going back. "I am not arguing that technology does not have a role to play, but I believe we need to avoid investing in high technology located in the car and at the roadside, and keep it in the hands of the road enforcement agencies," he says. And thus keep costs down.

For example, traffic wardens might be provided with the means of scanning cars for "smart disks", electronic tax disks, as well as digital cameras to register offenders. Alternatively, a similar smart disk might double up as a public transport permit, so that users would pay regardless of their mode of travel.

"This could be regarded as an integrated solution," Glaister suggests. "Perhaps a mayor would market the idea as a piece of civic membership, too."

Ken Livingston might see the irony in that: the Greater London Council advocated a not dissimilar scheme back in the Seventies.