Two major challenges facing road agencies into the next decade will be dealing with increasing traffic congestion, and securing funding for infrastructure and services – hence the growing interest in road user and congestion charging.
As governments look for alternative sources of funding and give serious consideration to road user charging, then providing quality customer service will require a significant change in focus. Road agencies have limited opportunities for a direct relationship with their customers, the road users.
Congestion used to mean that it took longer to get to and from work in the ‘peak hour’. Now congestion affects more and more trips, extending to more hours of the day, creates even more extra travel time, extends across more of the road network and results in reduced reliability of travel times.
Congestion has real costs for all road users, including trucks (both long-haul and local pickup and delivery), household and business service providers (such as plumbers, computer technicians), emergency services (such as police, fire and ambulance services), and personal travel (such as commuters, students and shoppers), plus road based public transport.
The primary sources of congestion are too much traffic for the available capacity, or as a result of the unexpected capacity reduction, such as caused by a traffic incident. Once the traffic flow breaks down to stop-and-go conditions, a ‘tipping point’ is reached and the capacity is reduced even further. Congestion is not only growing, it is becoming more volatile as well.
Governments are now earnestly looking for new funding mechanisms, as well as reducing debt. Options include privatisation of roads and allow franchisees to charge tolls or government imposed road user charges, such as a congestion charge like in Singapore or London.
So what needs to be done?
A combination of managing supply and demand – i.e. active traffic management, adding more capacity in critical locations and moderating demand through price and non-price measures.
Direct road user charging is currently only used on toll roads in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. At this stage congestion charging is not being actively considered, but is increasingly being referred to in studies and media debate as part of a package of congestion mitigation measures.
Market forces already determine a number of the services we consume, including telephone, internet access, energy and water supply. Extending user charging to road use seems inevitable.
The challenge when a ‘user’ pays for a service is they expect high levels of customer service. Private toll road operators understand the importance of providing a high level of service to their customers to ensure patronage. Public sector road agencies need to address this issue as a strategy to the potential transition to user charging.
A step in the direction of developing that relationship between the road operator and users and building a positive image or brand is providing improved traffic services – quick response to breakdowns, quick clearance of incidents, accurate real–time traffic information and improved management of traffic through and diversions around blockages and incidents.
Providing focused traffic services is an ideal mechanism to provide a very positive image of helping stranded motorists or road users caught up in traffic queues – a win-win situation all round.
Building positive customer relationships with road users provides a pathway for the introduction of road user charging. Worth considering in the search for congestion mitigation and alternative funding measures.
Do you agree?
Photo source: telegraph.co.uk