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Road pricing at the IEA

Yesterday, as earlier reported, I attended an event about road pricing. It was typical IEA. Men in suits and ties with irreconcilable beliefs took it in turns to be irreconcilably polite about everything, while other men in suits and ties listened with equal politeness:


There are some of the men in suits and ties waiting their turn to be polite. And look, one man in a suit and a tie is even straightening his tie, James Bond style, although there the resemblance ends. That’s Oliver Knipping, co-author, together with Richard Wellings (the man in a suit and a tie on the right whose face is blocked out by the video camera) of a recent IEA publication entitled Which Road Ahead – Government or Market? Do you see what they did there? Which road, as in policy, metaphorically speaking, for dealing with roads, as in roads, literally.

I am being much too rude. It was actually pretty interesting if you like that sort of thing, which I only somewhat do, hence my rudeness. I went because I knew that although I would be rather bored during the event, I would afterwards be glad that I had attended, and so it has proved. I got a copy of Which Road Ahead for only a fiver, and better yet, I met a man with a blog, called Road Pricing.

I like road pricing, for the same reasons I think that governments shouldn’t give away train tickets to everyone just because the train system is government owned and/or government controlled and people have already paid for it that way. What if some people don’t like trains and never use them? It’s not fair. Without journey pricing, the trains will get even more impossibly crowded. Privacy? That argument was won and lost when they introduced number plates, I reckon. A man called Gabriel Roth was quoted as saying that the road systems of the world are the last bastions of Soviet style central planning. Which isn’t true. What about central banking? But I like the sentiment. This is a product for which people queue for the product on top of the product thereby destroying the product. That can’t be the right road ahead, now can it?

Scott Wilson, the Road Pricing blogger, agrees. But you won’t read many arguments at his blog about why road pricing is good. What you will read is reports about how road pricing is being done in various parts of the world, well or badly, and criticisms of places where it is being done badly, like, surprise surprise, the UK. In that posting there is a picture of people being charged to get across the Thames which makes you think, not road pricing, but: crossing a national frontier, of the sort that is taken seriously.

I ought to have known about this blog two years ago, when it started. But no matter, now I do. This is the kind of thing that you learn if you go to rather boring meetings instead of just staying home glued to a computer, the way I am now. Besides which, a blog is merely a blog. If you actually meet the man who runs it, see his suit and his tie, and hear him talking, quite intelligently, that makes you actually want to pay attention to his blog.

8 comments to Road pricing at the IEA

  • Richard Thomas

    There is absolutely no excuse for road use charges in England with how high petrol taxes already are. Indeed, the road tax should also be done away with altogether. Though it does serve to remind that the government will dip into your pocket in any way it can conceive of.

  • Indeed, and road pricing will never make complete sense until the pricing system you refer to is treated as a pricing system that ought to be replaced by a better one. This was discussed at the meeting. By me as it happens, among others.

    If train travel was financed by a crippling tax on train fuel, passed on to passengers regardless of the cost of the track being used, and in addition financed by an expensive annual ticket that you had to pay to use a train at all, regardless of how much or how little you travelled by train or on what trains or what routes, that system ought also to be replaced also, by a better system.

    Politicians now think of road pricing as a solution to local difficulties, and, as you say, as an extra revenue raiser. Which means that the people who use those little (priced) bits of the system pay all the taxes you refer to, and the road use charges as well.

    I still think that local road pricing, when the alternative is local gridlock which can only be removed by a price system or by rationing, and which is already “solved” by people suffering a time tax, so to speak, can be justified. In other words, there comes a point when travel on the road in question is so ludicrously slow that people won’t pay that time price. I think a money price makes as much sense in the short run, and much more sense in the longer run, because it would encourage politicians (and maybe also private road owners in the future) to think about building more and better roads, if that’s what people want and are willing to pay for.

  • There have been basically no new major roads or significantly upgraded major roads in Britain in the last 18 years. A significant plan for road building did exist until then, but a combination of the government’s budget deficit at the time, and the political damage being done by a number of high profile anti-roads campaigners led the Major government to cancel the whole road building programme. There have been only tiny drips and drabs of new and upgraded road since, and Britain’s road system remains quite inadequate. (Try driving from London the Newcastle, let alone Edinburgh, by motorway, for instance. Or try driving along the A14 from Britain’s busiest port to, well, anywhwere). The sad fact is that car use is taxed very heavily, and those taxes are not going anywhere near road building. On top of that, Britain’s government finances are in such a state that none of the money from those car taxes is going towards road building anywhere soon.

    Given all this, I think I still support using toll concessions to fund some of the more obviously needed roads in Britain. If the choice is the present road network, without pricing, and no new roads or the present road network, without pricing, plus some new roads with pricing, I still think that would be an improvement.

    That’s a few specific new roads though. A more general system of road pricing does require massive reductions in other existing taxes to be justifiable.

  • Godarni

    People should use bicycles, buses and trains if they find cars too costly.

    Essentially, people want more roads built so they can be more lazy and not have to make any effort to travel.

  • Essentially, people want more roads built so they can be more lazy and not have to make any effort to travel.

    Because sitting your arse on a train makes you less lazy than driving a car? Sorry but do you have any idea how inane your comment is?

  • Laird

    I don’t know about other places, but in Atlanta (US) there is a public (free) highway with a limited-access left lane usable only by those who buy a special pass. (This is only near the city, where traffic becomes almost intolerable during rush hours.) In other words, it’s a combination of a toll road and a “free”* road, all on the same highway. Really, not a bad approach: those of us who are cleap pay the “time tax” while those who prefer to save time can elect to pay in actual cash.

    * Sneer quotes because of course we have federal and state gasoline taxes, too, which are supposed to be earmarked for highway construction and maintenance but are routinely diverted to other uses.

  • Laird

    Smited? When talking about highway fees? Sacre bleu!

  • Laird: It’s a variation of Rule 34. Apparently some people (including the smitebot) find talking about road pricing pornographic. 😉