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October 03, 2005

Oh, To Be In England

Here's something definitely worth watching: the UK is considering a massive pilot project to make drivers pay to use the roads.  And not just on a few selected highways -- the system would effectively turn every street and highway in Great Britain into a toll road. (Here's a link -- but the article is subscription only.  Sorry.) 

Tolls would vary based on the kind of road, the number of miles driven, and the time of day; it would cost more to use the most congested roads during rush hour, say, than an uncongested road in the middle of the night.  This sort of system -- sometimes called "value pricing" -- is a much better bargain than it seems at first blush.  It simultaneously cuts congestion, saves fuel, reduces accident risks, and, perhaps most importantly, relieves some of the pressure to build new roads -- an expense that only seems to grow more costly with time.

As a side benefit, this sort of system would make it far easier for insurance companies to offer Pay As You Drive car insurance.  That's a big benefit to people who don't drive much -- since they drive less, they'll pay less, and will stop subsidizing people who rack up both big mileage and big accident risks.

The basic technology underpinning value pricing isn't far-fetched at all -- in fact, mobile Global Positioning Systems are already available as an option for new cars, as well as in some rentals, and their cost will only go down over time.  The Puget Sound Regional Council has experimented for years with a small-scale value pricing scheme.  That said, there are still all sorts of potential technical kinks to be worked out before the system can be adopted more widely -- which makes a big UK pilot project all the more valuable.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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I think the biggest problem involves privacy -- do you want the govt to bed able to keep a record of all your trips? Just wait for the system to be installed and a terrorist action and the security forces to go to a judge and ask for access to all the trip records.

No, I think this one is a non-starter. Thank god.

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 3, 2005 8:59:38 PM

Yeah, I agree that privacy is a big issue here -- though perhaps more as a political than a practical matter. It shouldn't be too hard to design a system that chages by the mile, but doesn't save a record of every trip taken.

Then again, there's a reasonable slippery-slope argument to be made. And there's at least one practical concern: if you're going to pay tolls, you'll want to make sure that your GPS system has accurately portrayed your route, and isn't just making stuff up -- which will entail some sort of receipt or other record that you can appeal or dispute.

I still think this is an idea worth experimenting with -- though until the kinks are worked out, I agree that it's not ready for prime time.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Oct 4, 2005 9:27:33 AM

Eh, I'm dubious that you can have a checkable receipt without having a permanent-enough-to-mine record of citizen driving. Certainly not without encryption schemes that require, first, some thought on the part of the user, and second, a change in US gov't policy.

I have a different utopian objection. I don't want us to try to spread traffic evenly over all times and streets. I am basically a pedestrian and my ability to get away from the (*&^@# cars is precious to me. Possibly life-preserving, in fact.

Posted by: clew | Oct 4, 2005 12:32:57 PM

Clew -
Yeah, the fact that people would want to check their own records does tend to go against privacy concerns -- which was the point I had intended to make. Sorry that wasn't clear.

On your other (completely reasonable) utopian objection: value pricing will still force people to pay to drive, no matter what the time of day. That will (in the aggregate) tend to lessen driving all the time, not just during rush hours. And over time, it will encourage more people to become walkers and transit riders -- which can only increase the public pressure for safer streets. Hard to know how it all pans out in practice, of course.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Oct 4, 2005 6:36:10 PM

I'm all for increasing transit riding, but we have to have a political system that will pay for it. Today, we have a national system that wants to pay for recent disasters by defunding other programs, rather than having people pay directly for it. Raising money directly is a non-starter for ~1/3 of the population. Until folk make the connection and demand leadership, I doubt transit will be viable for more than a small fraction of our population.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 5, 2005 8:19:43 AM