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Are universal road user charges inevitable?

19/06/2017 by Mark Schneider in Technology

The idea of road user charges - directly charging people to drive on the roads – has long been a favourite of policy wonks and economists, but political anathema to politicians.

Now however there are a few factors at play forcing politicians to at least consider the issue. They're all driven by looming technological change. One is electric vehicles, and the other is autonomous ones, which brings with it the threat of increased traffic congestion.

If you hate the idea of road user charges then you're not alone, but from a purely economic perspective they make some sort of economic sense. Road funding raised from vehicle licencing is inequitable. It doesn't matter how far you drive or don't drive, you make the same contribution through your licensing. If you're an economist it makes sense that if you drive further on the roads you should contribute more to their upkeep.

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles may be few and far between today but it seems inevitable that they'll come to dominate our roads within a few years. They'll inevitably hit that motoring "sweet spot" where price, range, recharging options and recharging times all come together.

Faced with a choice between a conventionally powered vehicle and one that's smoother, quicker, quieter, cheaper to run and more reliable it's a fair bet most will choose an electric vehicle.

The rise of electric vehicles poses a big problem for governments because they miss out on billions in revenue from fuel taxes. Road user charges solve that problem for them.

Autonomous vehicles – more traffic?

But there's another problem looming in the form of autonomous vehicles and traffic congestion. Autonomous vehicles promise to be so revolutionary and disruptive that their impact on traffic congestion is unknown, but it's a reasonable bet that they're more likely to make it worse, than better.

At any rate traffic congestion is already a serious problem in Australia's cities, and one that's getting worse year-by-year. Public transport infrastructure has a major role in fixing the problem, but road user charges also hold great potential.

Managing demand

Demand for roads could be managed by pricing so that higher prices on particularly congested roads could deter people from using them, encouraging them to choose cheaper alternative routes.

GPS and modern communications technology in vehicles and mobile phones promises to make this quite dynamic and responsive to road conditions in real time. If you wanted to go across your city from A to B for example you could check likely routes before hand on your mobile and trade off price, congestion and speed to suit yourself.

The idea clearly has some merit but might be considered pretty hard to sell politically, especially in states without toll roads already.

Despite that some politicians are at least starting looking at the idea. Last year Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher gave a speech in which he put the case for it and the government is clearly thinking about it.

It's a hard policy to sell but one that may get a little easier when you're stuck in traffic drumming your fingers on the steering wheel and thinking "I'd pay anything to get back home quicker".

Written by
Mark Schneider

Mark is a successful copywriter with over 20 years of professional writing experience.

We welcome him as a guest blogger to Fleettorque.

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