How do we transition to road user charging?

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? 

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8 thoughts on “How do we transition to road user charging?”

  1. So now we have the solution…
    Admittedly it is unusually attractive in the respect that, unlike most other schemes, it is at least theoretically – very easy to moderate supply and demand and thus balance and optimise any road zone to which it is applied.
    But there is a huge an inconvenient truth that the technocrats that push this barrow rarely bother to confront. The very serious problem with the scheme is that the having used the public purse to pay for these assets, the plan is now simply to close the doors to the bulk of people and allocate the entire resource to “those who can afford to pay”.
    Of course the real effect of this regime is to delete the troublesome serfs that are currently “getting in the way” and thereby to leave it for the important people.
    Unfortunately responsible transport planning requires a much broader examination of the full range of effects. Before we rush to allocate even more of the collective resource to the upper echelons, I feel we need to satisfy ourselves that this is a fair and decent way to share an existing public facility? To my mind the answer is no – Its elitist nonsense.
    Transport Planners should focus on providing quality transport for all rather than being suckered into reallocating resources to the wealthy by denying access to such resources on the basis of class.

    • On the other hand governments with enormous debt – so a lot of this infrastructure hasn’t yet been paid for! Also the issue being faced is how do pay for operation and maintenance? Consideration would need to be given to give and take – should excise on fuel be reduced at the same time user charges are introduced? Yes this is not a simple exercise, but we need to start having the debate.

  2. I agree with Phil Charles … the debate we need to have must educate our decision makers by informing all motorists about the real costs of their daily travel. Only when drivers start to understand the full cost of their travel choices, will we have any hope of introducing road user charges across a broad region or State and convincing our political leaders to bring on the debate.
    Road user charges must be capable of sending price signals that are sensitive to time of day, location and vehicle type. Drivers should be rewarded for sustainable travel choices eg fuel efficient hybrid driven off peak on an uncongested road Vs fuel guzzling V8 in peak hour traffic. It is a matter of choice.
    So in theory, a time and distance based road user charge should equate to a similar cost incurred by an average efficient vehicle driven responsibly ie combination of fixed and variable vehicle costs from fuel, including the excise, registration and stamp duty etc.

  3. The issue about congestion charging is that it needs to incrementally develop across the road transport network. Having worked for a State Transportation Agency in the US when we started to mature the concept into congestion charging, it took 10 years prior work to build up the strategy. Yes, it was a long term strategy. Not an overnight magic bullet to congestion or some special ‘’partnership’’ between government and the private sector. There was even the need to wait for new technologies to catch up!

    My issue with professional transport planners in Australia is that they want to jump to the conclusion of congestion pricing without taking both the general and business community with them. There are many examples in Brisbane of overzealousness in this regard. The community will boycott the infrastructure if they believe it’s being ‘driven’ down their preverbal throat.

    The best strategies have been developed which include a strategic view. Think 10 years, than add another 10. Yes, a generation to adapt to travel behavior changes. What we found was that congestion pricing was not just about congestion! surprise…it was about managing people travel behaviors both in terms of intermodal and socially.

    • Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to solving the growing congestion delays we are facing. We have all been brought up in a society where we take for granted the road infrastructure and the right to travel when and where it is convenient for us using that road asset. We all know that the fuel excise does not cover the existing job of maintaing the existing transport asset or let alone build any new infrastructure. The fuel excise helps fund education, health and other social services, so if more is put into transport where does the money for these other important services come from. So how do we fund new transport infrastructure whether it be public transport or new roads?
      The NTC recently released a discussion paper on Cooperative ITS (see where they state “A recent study estimated that a combination of sensors and V2V communication in all vehicles could allow highway capacity to be increased by as much as 273 per cent.” (see P Tientrakool, Ya-Chi Ho and NF Maxemchuk, ‘Highway Capacity Benefits from Using Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication and Sensors for Collision Avoidance’ Vehicular Technology Conference 2011, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, This is certainly a way we could increase the capacity of our road network, however how does Government regulate or encourage through incentives get this technology adopted by all vehicles public and privately owned. We again face the social inequality of those that can afford new technology and those that cannot, like Bruce Anderson’s position regarding congestion charging.
      There needs to be a bipartisan approach to solving the transport problem, both State and Federally, it will not just be by technology it will need funding for new public transport, smarter roads and smarter vehicles that will have to come from somewhere. We are still killing and seriously injuring too many people on our roads. We are not tackling what I call avoidable congestion in a coordinated manner. The NTC paper referenced above is a good start but it only deals with one aspect of the transport problem. Let the debate continue…..

  4. Road Network Infrastructure improvements must be network wide or they simply move the issues from one part of the network to another. We should not be encouraging the increased use of private vehicles (4 wheel versions) at any rate. PPPs have not shown to be overly successful in this field and there are issues on both the private and public sector sides that have caused this but I suspect that private enterprise will be a lot more careful in future before stepping into that arena. I know the answers are out there but I strongly expect that we will continue to build, build and build all to no avail.
    Safe, reliable affordable PT must be a big part of any congestion reduction planning, particularly any strategic plan.

  5. *lmao @ affordable PT* PT faces a similar problem to road-use, in that PT patronage drops off at a certain “ticket cost” threshhold which is usually far below the real cost of PT service provision. Moreso than the gap between road system cost and the amount of revenue contributed by motorists to public coffers via various mechanisms.
    this creates a macro affordability issue for [mostly public sector] providers and funders, in that PT probably soaks up comparable public resources to road capacity, while only catering for a single digit percentage of overall trips.
    for this reason, PT will probably be as ineffectual a tool for managing congestion as it has been for reducing carbon emissions.
    De Bono rightfully suggests that the only way to stop someone travelling from A to B is to persuade them to travel to point C instead. That is, by the time you’re dealing with disfunctional travel patterns you’ve largely missed the boat, as the problem was embedded at the land-use decision stage.
    Back on the actual topic, a fundamental matter is the impact on people’s sustainable wellbeing of any transport-system user-charging regime. I perceive some difficulty in the public discussion on the transport-user funding issue as we haven’t quite gotten a handle on what sustainable wellbeing looks like, let alone how transport benefits and transport costs impact on that wellbeing. Instead, transport technocrats may be predisposed to considering transport issues in isolation from the wider frame within which transport occurs. This distances transport policy discussion from what matters most to the voting public and, therefore, Government decision-makers.
    IMHO, of course.

  6. What about road user charges for the road freight industry, the effect of ESA and overloading on accelerated pavement deterioration is well documented.


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