Leading Article: Clear road ahead, at a price

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The Independent Online
TRAFFIC jams are the nearest thing the West has to the old Soviet economy. Road space is scarce, like other things consumers expect to pay for; yet it is given out only by queuing. Those who want to drive along Euston Road towards the City of London must wait their turn, like a babushka at a Leningrad state grocery. They cannot save money by driving at a less popular time, nor can they pay extra for a clear run through at 9.30 on a Monday morning.

In the past, charging for urban road use has been impossible, for there is no easy equivalent on the roads of the tickets that are issued for train or bus journeys. The tax disc hits even those who drive only on Sundays; levies on petrol take no account of the congestion on the roads the driver uses. French-style tollbooths slow down the traffic; in cities they would create chaos and cost more to install than they would raise in revenue.

Five or 10 years from now, as the report published yesterday by the Department of Transport shows, the situation will be different. New technology will allow cars to be detected as they travel down city roads. Without stopping, drivers will pay for the exact routes they take, perhaps by deductions from an electronic 'smart card' on the dashboard. The immediate result should be fewer traffic jams, more money to maintain roads or subsidise public transport, and incentives for private companies to build new urban roads. In the long term, the system could even offer drivers guaranteed parking places in city centres - and allow cars to drive themselves into town on autopilot.

The guarded support that John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, gave yesterday for further research into systems of 'road pricing' is therefore welcome. It is also in conspicuous contrast to the political cowardice of his predecessors, who wanted nothing to do with the idea. Their fear was that drivers would resist road pricing and see it as an attempt to make them pay again for road use they had already paid for by buying a road-tax disc.

To lay that fear to rest, ministers should make it clear that road pricing could in the end be an alternative to the old-fashioned tax disc, not an addition to it. They should remind voters that the fees levied on road use in cities would be more than just another way to raise revenue for the government. Rather than disappearing into the bottomless pit of government funds, the fees would belong to a road management organisation earning the same rate of return as railways and other transport services.

Now is not the time, however, to install a fully-fledged system in London. Yesterday's report revealed the staggering complexity of the system that would be required in the capital: since cars would pass beacons 40 million times a day, it would need a computer installation equivalent to the cheque-clearing capacity of all the big British banks combined. Rather than risk a repeat of last month's Taurus fiasco on a grander scale, the wise policy would be to keep an eye on the half-dozen towns across the world that have already toyed with road pricing, and see how they develop it. Over the coming decade, techniques are certain to improve and equipment costs to fall. Britain and its capital will benefit most from road pricing by allowing others to make the early mistakes. This is a case of a good idea whose time has not yet come.