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Might it now become possible to separate road pricing from surveillance?

Road pricing has just got a big push in the Queen’s Speech. Quoth Her Maj:

A draft bill will be published to tackle road congestion and to improve public transport.

More detail here:

The government will press ahead with plans to introduce trial road-pricing schemes across England, in an effort to cut congestion.

The draft Road Transport Bill gives councils more freedom to bring in their own schemes in busy areas and will look at the scope for a national road toll.

It also gives councils a bigger say in improving local bus services.

I am in favour of all this. At present, transport in the entire Western World is a mess worthy of the old USSR, the extra dimension of insanity being that the queues for the products park themselves on top of the products.

To me, this is the most interesting bit:

If the trials are successful, a national scheme could be investigated – with drivers possibly paying £1.34 a mile to drive on the busiest roads at rush hour. Black boxes in cars could work out how far they travel on toll roads.

Once you have “black boxes” in cars, the way is open to start arguing that the black boxes need not provide the Total Surveillance State with a constant stream of surveillance material, but only with information about whether the fees have been paid or not, for that particular black box. Obviously that will not be how the scheme starts by being implemented. The black box will reveal everything about you, your fingerprints, your grandmother, etc.. But nevertheless, these black boxes just might be the thin end of a wedge that separates road pricing arguments from civil liberties arguments, sane pricing of road use (good) from the Total Surveillance State (bad).

I now have an Oyster card for use on the London Underground which I bought, without telling them even my own name. This is just a debitable ticket. Black boxes in vehicles could be like that. Like I say, they won’t be. But they could. Black boxes could merely be the automation of the process of chucking a coin out of your car window into a big bucket and proceeding on your way.

Black boxes will surely also make it possible to have much more precise pricing, of how much road you use, and when. At present, in London, all you are allowed to do is buy the equivalent of a one-day all zones travel card, or not. Those are your only choices, even if all you want to do is pop into the edge of the C-zone for a quick lunch, and then pop out again.

Could it be that those people who have been stealing number plates to pass their London Congestion Charges on to the poor suckers they stole them from are the ones we have to thank for this? Could that be what blew the whole photo-everyone’s-number-plates paradigm for road pricing out of the water? If so, well done them.

Or am I being just too crazily optimistic? But please note: I am not saying that any such separation, between pricing and surveillance, ever will occur, merely that it will become a little bit easier to argue for.

20 comments to Might it now become possible to separate road pricing from surveillance?

  • Julian Taylor

    Black boxes can be rather simply sabotaged. I would hazard that with Labour in deep love with the database state concept that they would rather introduce US-style highway booths (more ways to deal with the unemployed) and use our ID cards to monitor road usage via distance between checkpoints, rather than monitor the vehicle. That way they also get to trace who was driving at the time. Mind you, that might be far too simple for the current Nu-Kafkas we have in charge.

  • Why bother with a black box at all? Once the ID cards have RFID chips in them we can be tracked everywhere we go anyway. It is not necessary for ‘them’ to make it illegal not to be carrying your card, merely inconvenient.

    And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark,…

    Rev. 13 (King James Ver.)
    Not that I’m religious or anything just using the quote to illustrate a point.

  • pete

    By putting all the tax on petrol, that’s how. Not perfect , but better than any alternative.

  • Paul from Florida

    I am reminded of Yogi Berra who said, “Nobody goes there anymore it is too crowed.”

    What is the problem with congestion? As far as I can tell, everyone wants to be on the road, in that direction at that time. It is all free will.

    If the congestion was a problem, or if people truely didn’t like it, then they would drive at different times.

    This sceme is just to raise money, provide jobs for burecrats and to be shaped and gamed by an elite so that they don’t have to be on public roads with the free public.

  • Dominic

    I disagree with differential road pricing because there is often not much element of choice involved, especially at those times which would become most expensive under the new scheme.

    Most people still work in offices and commute there, and unless you both live and work in a large city there are good odds that going by car is as or more attractive than public transport. At my last job, it took more than an hour and a half to get from home to my office, including a change at a wide-open station – great fun in February rain. In contrast, it took just over thirty minutes door-to-door by car, and I got to choose who sat near me, the temperature, the music, etc.

    If it had cost me £1.34 per mile to make that commute, I would have had to switch to the public transport option. As it would have been a direct cost to me rather than to my company, they would have had no more incentive to allow telecommuting than they had before. Effectively, this system limits choice.

    Even then, I could put up with it if the system were taken to its logical conclusion. The road costs more at 08.30 and less at 04.30 because of congestion? Fine, but in that case the speed limit should also be set to 125 mph at 04.30, as there is nobody on the road. The black boxes could even be used to make this dynamic. How about that?

  • If there is to be a ‘black box’, then we need to be free to buy one from a range of suppliers and choose which company will hold our account and perform billing for us (and we should be free to switch company). Without that, it will be a “first past the post” license to print money, and thus a red rag to the Bull of Corruption.

    If moving house was cheaper and you had a reasonable chance of finding a reasonably affordable, safe place to live with good schools for your kids and a clean well run hospital and A&E in reach and stable house prices then I suspect people would move house more often to be near their workplace and cut commuting.

    Once that is resolved it is free will – you decide that you want to stay near friends at home§ yet work 60 miles away around the M25 and lump it.

    But yet again the Government creates and fosters (or is that festers?) the problems and then have the audacity to suggest “solutions” which are just more layers to relieve symptoms, not fixing the underlying issues.

    § not that you will have much time left to see any of them

  • Novus

    I agree with Paul: this would be a tax, plain and simple. Brian, your PDF, from the admittedly cursory look I gave it, appears to be talking about the funding from road pricing of road-building by private companies, in other words as an alternative to the myriad taxes and charges presently levied on the motorist which fund state road building and maintenance (as well as hundreds of entirely unrelated state schemes and initiatives, naturally – hence the parlous state of many of our roads), which I would happily support. But I find it very difficult to believe that this government is planning such a scheme; rather the tolls will be merely punitive, yet another means of raising funds while continuing to tax motorists at every turn. “[In] an effort to cut congestion”, indeed. It’s completely obvious that it will do no such thing. No-one in his right mind drives anywhere for pleasure at peak traffic times, so everyone will just suck this up. The government will get to trumpet its green credentials while privately hoping that not one driver is discouraged from using the roads lest it eat into the revenue.

  • Manuel II Paleologos

    I have a confession to make – I am a frequent fare dodger. I am driven to this by poor pricing.

    In London, pricing is structured to practically force you to buying an eat-as-much-as-you-can travelcard; a single 5 minute ride is at least £3, a travelcard to ride around all day in much of the Greater London area on tubes, buses and trains is about £5 – 6. There is a modicum of peak-charging, in that if you travel before 9:30am you pay twice. The single rate is more than twice as expensive as anywhere else in the world.

    This infuriates me, because I often travel into work well before peak hour, I cycle through the centre and never get the tube, and 2 or 3 nights a week I run home. I nevertheless pay the same as everyone else. Or at least I should. Oyster cards, a possible solution, are not valid on the trains.

    Now, given that charging for specific journeys on public transport is actually quite easy, why is the pricing so lazy? And given that, why will it be any better for roads? I predict it’ll be a flat rate charge per mile even when travelling on an empty road in Lancashire at midnight, and it’ll suck. And there’ll be a surcharge for anyone driving a car with anything else that marks them out as middle class, such as shiny paint, insurance etc.

  • John K

    Anyone naive enough to hope for a modicum of decency and rationality in this debate need only refer to Red Ken’s plan to charge £25 a day for moderately large cars to enter central London.

    It’s a tax, pure and simple. The last thing they want is to reuce congestion. They want to make money, and in Red Ken’s case, to indulge in his deranged Castro-wannabe masturbatory power urges.

  • Phil A

    Yup. More Tax – Tax – Tax, with the added benefit of keeping a record of where you go.

    Anyone who imagines otherwise is sadly deluded. I avoid travelling in the peak periods if humanly possible and try to avoid congested areas because they are hell to travel in. The same can be said of the tubes busses and trains. No one would travel in the peak periods if they had any choice in the matter.

    On top of that where I live we don’t even have a bus service, apart from the school busses and a ‘special’ on Thursdays to a large well known supermarket in a nearby town. How is additional taxation going to do anything but eat further into my living costs.

  • Perry E. Metzger

    With my computer security/cryptography hat on:

    Readers might be interested in the fact that a large amount of work has gone into cryptographic protocols that permit anonymous payments (untraceable electronic payments could pay tolls easily), and that permit verification of credentials without disclosure of identity (that is, demonstrating irrefutably that you are a member of the group that has paid a subscription for use of a road without disclosing who you are).

    These systems literally cannot be abused if the government were to change its mind about privacy — they rely on mathematics for their security and not on the promises of politicians.

    If there was political will, it would be straightforward to implement all sorts of pricing schemes without reducing privacy.

  • BlacquesJacquesShellacques

    And what competitive measures will be brought into play to keep costs down? May I please buy or lease a piece of road and charge some tolls? May I please build a road right next to some bloated state road and charge what I want? I promise that I will only pay for 4 unionized workers to stand around holding shovels and watching the 5th in the hole, instead of the usual 6.

    Not likely.

    What dismays me is that such concepts are never even raised, not even by supposed conservatives.

    What will happen is that public sector road maintenance costs will rise much faster than inflation. Much, much faster. Oh well, the state will steal from the drivers and the contractors will steal it right back.

  • Nick M

    This is all nonsense.

    Doesn’t driving in heavy traffic use more fuel per mile than driving on an open road? Seeing as fuel is already taxed I fail to see what road pricing is other than a nasty scheme that will end up costing everyone a mint. Even if they don’t have a car you’ll end up paying one way or another.

    I would much rather see the huge sums of money the government would spend on this massive piece of infrastructure spent on building more roads.

    But that’s not “green” is it? Transport “policy” in this country seems to be aimed at encouraging less mobility – not more. Like all green ideas it is about reversing progress. I hate them for that with a passion because sustainability=stagnation. The greenies are a self-appointed elite (with a large number of Swampy-style useful idiots thrown in) who want to maintain their own position and keep the rest of us down. Why do you think they want an end to low-cost flights? They don’t want the places they holiday to end up full of riff-raff do they, spoiling it for them.

    I would like to see Sir Jonathan Porritt practise what he preaches and move to a yurt and eat dung. When I hear Prince “Two Palaces” Charles lecture us on the environment I want to vomit with rage.

    The greens want to make the world poorer and less free. They need to be bitch-slapped for that.

    PS. I don’t think anyone has mentioned that a national road charging system would obviously require another huge government IT project. Oh the joy of NeuArbeit never ends!

  • John K

    If there was political will, it would be straightforward to implement all sorts of pricing schemes without reducing privacy.

    Aye Perry, but that’s the point, there is no such will, and there never will be. From the point of view of Mr State, road pricing is a win win win. It’s a huge project which will employ thousands and thousands of civil servants, it’s a new tax base for them to exploit, and it means the end of transport privacy, and a huge expansion of the surveillance powers of the database state. There is simply nothing for them not to like about it, and no reason whatsoever for them to respect any of our rights to privacy. Altogether now: if you’ve got nothing to hide…

  • towcestarian

    The integrity of any man-made system will always be overcome by the ability of man to find a way to beat the system. The sooner ZanuLab realised this and stopped trying to impose statist systems on us the better.

    For anyone intersted in an alternative to command-and-control systems have a look at the following: http://www.lean-service.com/home.asp

  • Paul

    Why in and of itself is ‘congestion’ a problem? Crowded roads, at particular times, on some days is just occasional, full utilization.

    It is a problem because the government says it is a problem, hence the need of a government solution, which just happens to directly benefit those employed by the government or in want of profitable contracts with the government. Imagine that.

    No one is on the road at that particular crowed time unless they have to be. So, I bet that nothing will change. Charging will just be a tax, taken by force by other means.

    The government and its minions have just recognized drivers as desperate and pressed crypto-serfs and are worse than highwaymen. At least highwaymen never lied about the reason for their thieving.

    (I sincerely apologize to all working highwaymen in comparing them with government.)

  • Julian Taylor

    If there is to be a ‘black box’, then we need to be free to buy one from a range of suppliers and choose which company will hold our account and perform billing for us (and we should be free to switch company).

    Nay, nay and thrice nay. You are referring to something all socialist scum loathe … the idea of competition. If they allowed competition then what would be the point of charging per mile to drive – it is after all a deliberate ploy to drive us off the roads and into the care of (anthing but) social public transport. After all in a true socialist state the only people who should be allowed private transport are those deemed, invariably by themselves, to be more equal than others …

  • Phil A

    Maybe if Ken Livinstone would get rid of a few pointless traffic lights, and a lot of the other roadside traffic control – possibly including bus lanes – there would be less congestion to ‘worry’ about in the first place.

  • Simon Norton

    Road pricing is an unholy alliance between the neo-luddite greens and the incompetent technocrats of nulab. Why is it that for this government the answer to any problem is always an overly complicated IT system that will be over budget, won’t work properly and will invade our privacy for good measure. I would have thought it obvious that the same people who currently get out of paying the congestion charge by using false number plates and fail to pay road tax will in pretty short order have found a way to clone, disable or otherwise interfere with a black box. There are two ways to cut congestion. One is to cut the number of vehicles on the road by making it too expensive for poor people to drive. An MOT system like they have in Japan which makes it prohibitively expensive to MOT a car more than five years old would work but be politically unnacceptable to any party. The simplest way would be to abolish road tax and stick ten pence or so on a litre of fuel (make it tax neutral for the average driver). This would penalise drivers of cars with heavy fuel consumption (including the hated 4×4’s) and since you use more fuel driving in congested traffic than on a clear road it would work obliquely as a congestion charge. But maybe that’s too simple.


    Silly me, i thought that the little round disc that i stick with great difficulty in the windscreen was a reciept for the money that i had paid to be allowed to drive on the road,any road, anywhere,now your readers are telling me that i should pay again for the same thing and that it is a great idea,would any of you consider carrying my large tool kit on the public transportation system for me,and be dropped off two or three miles from the building site,i have tried this,also bycicle and trailer,neither works because these locations are always outside the existing infrastructure,there would not be this chaos if my road fund licence was spent on what it was instituted for in the first place.