Is road pricing still the best solution to the UK's congestion problems?

Congestion is the biggest issue facing British motorists. It’s often cited that the UK has the third worst congestion in Europe and British drivers spend on average 32 hours every year stuck in traffic. Introducing road pricing has been mooted as a crucial approach to reducing congestion in the UK for several years.

There are many ways to do this, from emission tax and toll charges to congestion charging, but hitting motorists in the pocket further is not a popular move. Nor is it a vote winner.  Perhaps now is time for us to think more creatively.  

London’s congestion charge 

London’s congestion charge is often hailed as a triumph. However, whilst initially successful, since its introduction almost fifteen years ago, the way in which people use the capital’s roads has evolved. 

This, coupled with alterations to the network to re-allocate road space, mean that the current charge is no longer truly effective and traffic in London is now slower than it was pre-charge. Although other UK cities have seriously considered adopting a similar approach, it seems highly unlikely that we will see this method of road pricing adopted in other areas, for the time being at least. 

European solutions to road congestion

Our neighbours in the Netherlands and Sweden have looked at the problem from a completely different angle. Like the UK, traffic is still a problem in these countries, but rather than charging road users, over the last decade they have been trailing incentives to encourage people to avoid certain roads during certain time periods.
The Dutch Spitsmijden approach offers targeted financial incentives to ease congestion at peak times, and where there are roadworks underway. This approach had proved a hit in the sense that it has reduced the number of vehicles on the road in certain parts of the network and extended the lifespan of the road infrastructure itself. With congestion reduced and traffic moving more freely, the economic benefits more than compensate for the cost of running the system. Plus, their levels of road user customer satisfaction are the envy of Europe.

What can we learn from our European neighbours?

From examples like this, it is clear that incentives targeted at regulating traffic flow and easing bottlenecks do work. Tax is not always the best way of changing behaviour. We have been working with the Department for Transport, local authorities and Highways England to bring some of our Dutch experience to Britain and look at what solutions may work best here. 

The potential down side to the Dutch approach is it is paid for by more accurately monetising the cost of disruption to motorists. Bigger budgets are required to run road investment programmes. Against a backdrop of ongoing public sector cuts, the UK Government finds itself in a challenging situation. Does it adopt a similar approach to the Dutch, improving motorist satisfaction and benefiting the economy through less congestion, or does it introduce new methods of revenue raising to help pay for the ongoing infrastructure investment?  

Indecision on infrastructure spending

The politicians are responsible for making the call on this complex and technical issue. For a government that wishes to remain in power, the carrot-led demand management approach has some distinct advantages. What is clear is that indecision on infrastructure spending cost the UK economy £4.6 billion in 2015/16. Uncertainty on how best to manage growing demand on our roads is a significant factor in this matter. 

Future planning to improve traffic congestion

All told, it is now clear that charging road users through road pricing programmes is not the only answer for managing demand and congestion. Taking the lead from our European counterparts, incentivised strategies can deliver impressive economic benefits and significantly improve motorist satisfaction. 

At Arcadis we are working hard to bring fresh thinking to the UK that builds on innovative approaches we have successfully delivered through our global team. 

Dr Colin Black, UK Transportation Business Director will be speaking at the upcoming conference Delivering the UK’s Road Network on 13 July.