The prospects for satellite tolling have taken another hit. Just when the UK Government could have opted for road pricing, transport minister Ruth Kelly has backed off and will now raise cash by introducing toll lanes instead.
To do this she has to create new capacity on the UK’s crowded motorways to accommodate the toll lanes. So Kelly will turn the hard shoulders into extra lanes – because it's cheaper than widening roads.
Cutting or moving congestion?
Extraordinarily she claims that this strategy will reduce congestion. Unfortunately, increased capacity always generates more traffic, which then creates congestion further down the road. The drivers who choose to drive in the toll lane will simply reach the jam sooner.
Why didn't she choose satellite tolling for road pricing? Maybe it's because she is an economics graduate. Across the North Sea, in the Netherlands, her counterpart Camiel Eurlings is pressing ahead with tolling every journey by every vehicle for every kilometer – by using satellite systems. Eurlings has an engineering degree. There's the rub.
Eurlings’s government has overseen a program of intense research into the systems that make satellite tolling possible. It has also understood that its citizens want something better and fairer than a quick fix such as the odd toll lane here and there.
The problem elsewhere appears to be that many citizens have an irrational fear of satellites in case they intrude on their ‘privacy’. They may be the same people who watch satellite television and don't care that the broadcaster monitors their viewing habits. They also don't mind that their cell phone reveals their location day and night, and they publish their personal details on Facebook. Yet, they fear their journeys being tracked by a ‘spy in the sky’.
But satellite tolling does not have to mean an invasion of privacy. It's perfectly easy to do without storing detailed information about each journey made by every driver. It's also possible to start satellite tolling as an optional scheme. Drivers who opt in can be exempted from the annual road license and fuel duty. Pay as you drive insurance schemes operate like this and are winning significant shares of the market. Yet giving straightforward information like this to the public is something governments find difficult to do, so few have bothered to explain it.
Running our roads from outer space
Satellite tolling is a simple concept, which repeatedly falls foul of government ministers who prefer complex solutions to multiple challenges. It's a fairer way to raise revenue because the driver who covers 10 times the distance as his neighbor pays 10 times as much. It needs little or no roadside infrastructure yet still covers the vast majority of the network.
All the research shows that congestion will fall with satellite tolling because drivers change their behavior when they realize the true costs of their journeys. With fewer vehicles there is no need for extra lanes. Hard shoulders could remain intact. Instead of our roads running out of space, we should be running our roads from outer space. It's not rocket science, but while decisions about traffic technology are made by economists, satellite tolling will remain science fiction.
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