Smart money should go on pay-as-you-drive

Alison Payne. Picture: contributed
Alison Payne. Picture: contributed
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In a 2005 referendum, the City of Edinburgh Council asked residents to back its strategy for a congestion charge – commonly known as road tolls. They rejected it by almost three to one. So, it might be asking rather a lot for the people of Edinburgh to react warmly to Reform Scotland’s proposal today for a national and local road pricing scheme.
However, pay-as-you-drive, Reform Scotland’s road pricing proposal, is as different from the 2005 road tolls scheme as chalk and cheese, for three main reasons.

For a start, the Edinburgh congestion charge scheme was an additional tax burden.

Motorists were asked to pay money on top of what they already paid in fuel duty and vehicle excise duty (or road tax), in order to fund public transport improvements which they paid for – at least in part – through council tax.

Conversely, our road pricing proposals would be a replacement charge. Their introduction should be conditional on the abolition of fuel tax and road tax, meaning that motorists would pay around 60p less on every litre of fuel, and would pay no road tax at all.

Secondly, the Edinburgh congestion charge did not price individual roads and had a rather unsophisticated method of differentiating depending on the time of use. So, within the city centre area, there was no incentive to use quieter roads rather than busier ones, nor an incentive to drive at 10am rather than 8am. It was a blunt entrance fee which didn’t allow sufficiently for a change in driving habits.

Our road pricing proposal, on the other hand, would allow the authorities to price busy roads at busy times differently from busy roads at
quiet times, quiet roads at busy times and quiet roads at quiet times.
Thirdly, the Edinburgh congestion charge was just that – Edinburgh only. Only Edinburgh’s motorists were taking the pain. So while the rest of the country was paying petrol tax and road tax, Edinburgh folk would be paying those and a road toll on top.

Again, our proposal is completely different. Every road in the country would have a price from zero upwards, promoting nationwide fairness.

Pay-as-you-drive is based on three simple objectives. Firstly, we want to reduce emissions, and we think road pricing can help. We would expect motorists to change their behaviour when they see the direct cost to them of driving when and where they do. They may consider public transport, car sharing or even walking, which would also be good for public health. They might even shop more locally, which would benefit the local economy and town centres.

Secondly, we would expect to see a reduction in congestion as motorists opted to travel on quieter roads or at quieter times, which would also benefit the economy by moving people and goods more quickly.

Thirdly, we want to see a fairer system in which motorists pay a fair price for the roads they use, at the times they use them. So, in contrast to road tax, which leads to an infrequent driver causing little pollution or congestion paying exactly the same as a regular driver causing lots of congestion and pollution, our pay-as-you-drive scheme would have that infrequent driver paying much less.

Similarly, in contrast to fuel tax, which involves a rural motorist with no access to public transport driving on empty country roads in the middle of the night, paying the same as an urban driver using busy roads during rush-hour, our plan will have that rural motorist paying much less.

The way we charge motorists is bad for the environment, bad for the economy and unfair. It’s time to learn some lessons from other countries and do this better.

Alison Payne is director of Reform Scotland