“All eyes are on London” for smart road user charging

London could be the first UK city to adopt the pay-per-mile scheme for motorists known as smart road user charging (SRUC), the London Assembly Transport Committee heard last month.

SRUC would see motorists charged on the basis of how much, as well as where and when, they drive. It can also reflect vehicle and engine size and the availability of alternatives, such as public transport, walking and cycling.

It is widely seen as the natural heir to current road user charging regimes both nationally and locally.

Matthew Hudson, director at transport consultancy Rebel Group, told the committee that the capital’s experience of developing contactless ticketing technology for the Oyster card make it the natural choice to trial SRUC.

He said: “London has the credibility to deliver this. All eyes are on London.”

Nick Bowes, chief executive of think tank the Centre for London, told the committee that, with fuel duty and vehicle excise duty declining as petrol and diesel vehicles are phased out, central government is looking for a replacement revenue stream. But it is currently too nervous to introduce SRUC nationwide.

“Politically there is not much appetite for this nationally at the moment, but I think officials know full well that this has got to happen, and they’re desperate for London to go first,” he said.

While SRUC may not currently be on the agenda, Matt Finch, policy manager at the Transport & Environment consultancy, told South West Londoner that the issue will be more in focus after the next election.

He said: “The loss of revenue will be a problem for the government after next, so the next government will have to do something about it.”

In the capital, the principle of charging motorists for driving is already well established. SRUC would be the next logical step.

Finch added: “The Congestion Charge and ULEZ already exist, and Londoners are used to them, so it would be tweaking an existing scheme.”

Replacing the four charges, London motorists who currently pay with one single charge would not only be simpler, says Finch, but fairer.

“At a local level, the Congestion Charge and ULEZ are relatively blunt instruments. From a fairness point of view, an individual who only drives in the zone for five minutes should pay a lot less than someone who drives in the zone for five hours,” he said.

Finch points out that what was once politically toxic has now become more palatable, not least due to the widespread adoption of mobile communications technology.

“Public acceptance on this has changed. We’re now used to having smartphones in our pockets and apps tracking what we do,” Finch added.

Recent polling bears him out. Surveys by the Centre of London and Campaign for Better Transport have indicated that, for the first time, road user charging now has majority support in the capital.

But not everyone is keen to see more road user charging in the capital.

“It’s just not a good idea to keep charging people,” said London Assembly member Tony Devenish in a broadcast interview about the recent ULEZ expansion.

“We don’t need hard-working families to be hit with yet more charges.”

Assembly Member Emma Best argued in a broadcast interview earlier this month that road user charging is unfair on London’s poor.

“Effectively what the Mayor is doing is penalising the poorest people in London. The big polluters, the big companies, the people driving flashy cars, are not going to be affected by this. It’s those with older petrol vehicles – the people who can’t afford a new vehicle,” she said.

She pointed out that the set-up costs for technologically complex road user charging schemes are a poor use of resources.

“You could spend the money on scrapping older vehicles, instead of spending it on cameras,” Best added.

Neither Cavendish nor Best responded to requests to be interviewed for this article.

Despite the opposition from some quarters, Dr. Tom Cohen, senior lecturer in architecture and cities at the University of Westminster, agrees that pressure for SRUC is building.

“The weaknesses of the existing system are creating an increasing pressure for change. The proportion of all UK congestion that happens on London’s roads is huge. London would be a very sensible place to start,” he said.

Dr. Cohen points out that SRUC could help London reach ambitious targets to reduce congestion, pollution and carbon emissions.

“London has to have this. It has objectives that are not going to be met unless we really get to grips with car use,” he added.

From a climate point of view alone, he says, “we cannot continue as we are.”

Building on the fairness argument, Dr. Cohen points out that SMRUC can also be used to help poorer drivers with the cost of living crisis.

“If you can come up with a system that takes account of people’s disposable income, then you can say this is the fairest way forward,” Dr. Cohen said.

But he is realistic about the extent to which such a scheme will reduce the amount of motor traffic on the capital’s roads. He points out that driving is in some cases unavoidable and for many people is easier and more convenient than public transport. 

“Some people are highly reliant on their cars for quite legitimate reasons and don’t relish the idea of paying more than they currently do, so it will be a difficult thing to square with London,” he added.

Silviya Barrett, director of policy and research at the Campaign for Better Transport, told South West Londoner that a London trial could also bring the capital reputational benefits.

“All countries are looking at vehicle taxation reform due to the transition to electric vehicles. It’s good to be a technology leader. And the technology can then be sold to other cities and countries,” she said.

It would also give London a greater claim to keep the revenue from the scheme rather than see it disappear into central government coffers. 

“We’d be at the negotiating table from day one,” Barrett added.

Whatever the barriers are to the introduction of SRUC at the moment, it is clear that they are less and less to do with political will and public acceptance.

Nor are they technological. All the contributors to this article, and the speakers at the committee, were unanimous that the technology already exists and can be implemented relatively quickly.

Fiscal, environmental and traffic management priorities are combining with pressure for a system that’s fairer and simpler. For the capital, with its current complex charging system and unique challenges around congestion and pollution, SRUC seems all but inevitable after the next general election.

Barratt is adamant that the principle of road user charging is here to stay.

“The necessity for it has become much clearer,” she told the committee.

“We can’t just drive cleaner vehicles. We also need to drive less. The only way to achieve that is by charging people.”

Featured image credit: Richard Ley from Pixabay 

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