Westminster Bridge, London; Westminster Bridge, London;

The responsible network: road pricing comes of age

The ease of getting around is fundamental to a city’s growth, prosperity and social cohesion – but balancing the needs of road users with a sustainable urban future has never been harder. Road pricing is the obvious way to manage demand for roads, but has traditionally been seen as a politically unpopular one. Could that be changing? 

Faced with longer commutes, higher costs and the dangers of air pollution, today’s road users have greater understanding of the trade-offs presented by urban travel. This makes road pricing a more approachable idea. 

And in the smartphone era, it’s become possible to make road pricing responsive to travel habits, users’ needs, and ability to pay, overcoming the one-size-fits-all charging infrastructure of older systems. The message for politicians struggling with increasing traffic, declining income from fuel duty and vehicle tax and rising air pollution is clear: road pricing should be a central tool in their approach to the management of mobility, as well as broader environmental and economic policy decisions.

Making the case for road pricing 

Of course, drivers already pay for road use through one-size-fits-all approaches like fuel duty, vehicle registration, general and local taxation, congestion (time), health and flat rate tolls on specific roads, bridges and crossings. But city populations are open to change, and London and Stockholm’s congestion charging and low-emission zones have proven that if upfront costs lead to improved, reliable travel, then public support for schemes quickly grows. 

The Stockholm story is a particularly interesting one, with the scheme initially attracting wide debate and ultimately going to public referendum before being permanently implemented in 2007. The scheme is now widely reported to have the support of more than two thirds of the local population. 

Road pricing achieves something larger too, effectively starting a public dialogue about the true financial, social and environmental costs of different modes of transport. As Governments are tasked with adhering to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, road pricing could become a vital tool in shaping more sustainable and equitable mobility for all.  

The digital infrastructure is already here

Designing the right digital tools is central to successful user adoption. If you provide an easy-to-use interface that explains the need for charges and offers a simple way to pay them, then road pricing can join other urban conveniences. Our everyone-always-connected world means pricing can be personalised and dynamic too. You glance at the driving app before setting off ‘Pollution is high today… do you really have to drive? It will cost more…’ Increasingly the data processing infrastructure is already in the vehicle – unlike earlier road pricing schemes, there is less need now to rely on expensive roadside and back-of-house public infrastructure. 

Road pricing gives cities a powerful new way to understand and shape sustainable road use and development. ” Photo of Padraig Kenny Pádraig Kenny Global Road Pricing Leader and Europe Digital Services Leader

From driving to mobility

In around a hundred years, roads have gone from being the domain of a few private vehicles, to a frequently unmanageable gridlock of public transport, taxis, HGVs, cars as well as walkers and cyclists. On-demand rideshare services have led to significant and rapid increases in inner city car use. As cities around the world prepare for the addition of autonomous and electric vehicles, the need to gain real-time control of the road network, and mobility in general, has never been greater. Digitally-powered road pricing could be that lever, allowing administrators to evolve road networks sustainably.