If the trend towards road user charging continues then that relationship and providing quality customer service will require a significant change in focus for these agencies.
Highway agencies have limited opportunities for a direct relationship with their customers, the road users.
Two of the major challenges facing highway agencies into the next decade will be dealing with increasing traffic congestion, and securing funding for infrastructure and services – hence the growing interest in congestion charging.
Is congestion getting worse? Congestion used to mean that it took longer to get to and from work in the ‘peak hour’. Now congestion affects 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.
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, recreation, and shoppers), plus road based transit.
The primary sources of congestion are too much traffic for the available capacity, such as a bottleneck, or as a result of the unexpected reduction capacity, 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. Traffic incidents can have major impacts., resulting in gridlock for hours. Congestion is not only growing, it is becoming more volatile as well.
There has been a flurry of interest in traffic congestion in Australia recently. The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission (VCEC) published their 530 page draft report in April 2006 titled ‘Making the right choices: Options for managing transport congestion’.
The VCEC concluded that ‘transport congestion (affecting road, rail and public transport) is an increasing problem for Melbourne that, if not addressed, will impose increasing costs on the community’. The Commission put forward a number of options to improve efficiency, including better management of existing road space, better interchanges with rail, efficiency measures relating to freight movements, and location-specific use of peak–period pricing to improve congestion.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) published a report in December 2006 titled Review of Urban Congestion: Trends, Impacts and Solutions. The report concluded that ‘Congestion pressures are forecast to rise appreciably’ as indicated in the commissioned Bureau of Transport and Regional Economic Working Paper No 71, Estimating urban traffic and congestion cost trends for Australian cities (published in April 2007).
The COAG report discussed a range of potential congestion measures including traffic management, encouraging use of transit, integrated land use and transport planning and road demand management through charges, levies, taxes, infrastructure and service pricing. COAG has agreed jurisdictions will develop a proposed package of corridor and location-specific congestion management initiatives.
A clear message is that congestion is a major challenge facing Australian road agencies.
So what can be done? A combination of managing existing infrastructure more efficiently through active traffic and incident management, adding more capacity and moderating demand through price and non-price measures.
Direct road user charging is only utilised for 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 higher levels and quality of service – customer service.
Private toll road operators already understand the importance of providing a high level of service to their customers to ensure patronage growth. Public sector highway agencies need to address this issue.
A step in the direction of developing that relationship between a road operator and road users and building a positive image or brand is providing incident response services.
The public sector operated Florida Turnpike in the US and the Highways Agency in the UK and private operators such as Transurban on their Citylink toll road in Melbourne are examples of road operators that have moved in this direction.
Providing traffic incident response 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.
Using traffic incident response services to build positive customer relationships with road users, increases the level and quality of service and provides a pathway for the introduction of road user charging. Worth considering in the search for congestion mitigation measures.
Would you like traffic incident response services with that?