Traffic congestion reduces the mobility of a working populace, posing an enormous threat to economic growth as well as threatening public health and environmental sustainability, according to a new report. ‘Maximising the Potential of Road User Charging’, compiled by research company Accenture last year, estimated that traffic congestion in 2008 had cost the EU an estimated €100bn a year while in the US, New York alone lost $13bn in foregone economic growth.

Transport authorities worldwide have been aware of such costs and in many jurisdictions road user charging has come in as a way to help reduce congestion in busy zones and periods. When successfully implemented, drivers are encouraged to shift to alternate forms of transport, which improves traffic flow, reduces pollution and raises funds for new transport infrastructure.

Such programmes, however, can easily grind to a halt at the first hurdle. Drivers accustomed to using roads freely often view charges as a threat to civil liberties and an underhanded form of government ‘stealth tax’. The other issue is the technology used must ensure systems can deliver an accurate, user friendly and cost worthy experience.

Both land and satellite systems can be used in road-charging deployments. Automatic number plate recognition systems (ANPR) use roadside cameras to record information, which is then checked against a preregistered database. The London congestion zone, which covers central London from 7am to 8pm Monday to Friday, uses 180 analogue cameras installed at its boundary as well as some mobile cameras within the zone to track cars entering and leaving.

“Drivers accustomed to using roads freely often view charges as a threat to civil liberties and an underhanded form of government ‘stealth tax’.”

Onboard units such as electronic vehicle identification (EVI) have also become popular. EVI requires an electronic device or tag fitted to the vehicle, which can then relay road charging information as well as data for vehicle security, law enforcement, traffic and fleet management. While radio-frequency identification (RFID), which uses tiny microchips containing a unique serial number which can then be read at a distance, have the wider market due to their decreased cost.

Satellite navigation systems are, on the other hand, necessary for more broad-based road user charging systems. From a cost and functionality perspective, satellite technology can cover a large area and with more cars becoming factory fitted with navigation systems, the technology is also starting to come down in price. But GPS and other satellite technologies such as that due to be offered by the Galileo satellite system in the EU has met with opposition from civil libertarians concerned about the tracking of location.

Despite this, Germany has used GPS to supplement roadside beacons in Germany’s heavy vehicle charging system.

London, Stockholm and Singapore have all realised the potential of road user charging by adopting a variety of technologies that are capable of overcoming public suspicions and reassuring local business.

Public distaste in Manchester

One city that learnt the hard way about the affect negative public perception can have on a project is Manchester in the UK. In 2008, the city put forward a proposal for what was to be the nation’s largest congestion charging zone but a referendum saw it overwhelmingly rejected (by 79% of users opposed to the £5 a day charge).

“Voters simply did not want to pay to use roads they where accustomed to driving on for free.”

Voters simply did not want to pay to use roads they where accustomed to driving on for free. High fuel prices and a weak economy did not help Manchester’s cause, and scepticism on how funds raised would help upgrades to public transport helped put the final nail in the coffin for the Manchester congestion zone.

The director of the RAC Foundation – the UK’s main transport research body professor Stephen Glaister says the Manchester project most likely failed due to the politics of public perception.

“The issue with the system is not a technical one but a political one,” Glaister says. “The problem is that a reasonable trade off can’t be achieved in a local situation – a national scheme could be off-set by dropping the national fuel duty.”

It is an example the rest of the UK can now follow as it attempts to grow on the successful London Congestion Zone introduced in February 2003. The system uses a network of cameras to monitor every entrance into the zone as well as journey’s made within. The camera records the vehicle’s licence plate from which it is possible to ascertain whether or not the motorist has paid to be there.

The Stockholm syndrome and Singapore’s success

The city of Stockholm has also benefited by introducing a congestion zone. The city is growing by more than 20,000 inhabitants a year. Being surrounded entirely by water, it has little room to move within its own road network so the city council set up the Stockholm Congestion Tax Charging System in January 2006. The scheme, which is the largest of its kind in Europe, works as a cordon around the city, with all vehicles crossing boundaries being charged a congestion tax based on the time of day.

The remarkable feature of the Stockholm project is that unlike in Manchester a city-wide referendum voted for the continuation of the programme after the average time spent by motorists in traffic dropped by between 30% and 50% and a significant reduction in air pollution was achieved.

Singapore has also managed to curb its peak traffic with one of the oldest congestion zones around. It has had some form of road pricing scheme since 1975, when the world’s first Area Licensing agreement was applied in its central business district.

“Unlike in Manchester, a referendum voted for the continuation of the Stockholm programme.”

Since then the country has successfully managed to curb peak traffic demand, cut congestion, emissions and fuel use by implementing a system based not on technical feasibility but on cost effectiveness and public acceptance.

Singapore’s electronic road pricing (ERP) was introduced in 1998 and works on a pay-as-you-go principle, which uses a dedicated short-range radio communication system to deduct ERP charges from CashCards inserted in the vehicle. Each time vehicles pass through a gantry a charge is deducted based on the location, vehicle type and time of day.

This system is by far the cheapest, most cost-effective model seen worldwide and has been built on a policy of objectives that include clarity and unambiguous specifications of what is required from both government and motorists. It is a clear example of how clear roads can work towards a brighter and healthier economic future, and how the right balance and integration of technologies can help win the heart of motorists in a growing nation.