• Steve Melia

Traffic Removal and Charging Motorists: Alternatives or Complements?

Faced with the twin problems of air pollution and congestion, is some form of road pricing essential? Should traffic removal projects be packaged with financial measures, such as workplace parking levies? This article will answer ‘maybe’ to the first question and ‘definitely not’ to the second.

Amongst the problems caused by traffic in cities congestion and air pollution would probably top most people’s lists. Recent court rulings have compelled the UK Government to take air pollution more seriously but doubts remain on whether their plans will work. Local authorities exceeding the legal limits will now have to consider two types of Clean Air Zone: charging or non-charging. The Government clearly regards charging as a last resort but the ‘non-charging’ measures (see Section 2 of DEFRA’s Framework) do not inspire much confidence; most of them are principles that authorities should be following already.

Meanwhile the London Assembly’s recent report London Stalling has called for city-wide road pricing with variable charges – rising on the most congested roads at the most congested times. (I was one of several witnesses who gave evidence to them on that point.) There is a growing consensus that variable road pricing is the most effective – possibly the only –method to reduce congestion and keep it that way. Economists support variable pricing because it would make more efficient use of limited road space; the only obstacle, it seems, is public opinion.

Apart from the political challenges, there is a more fundamental problem with charging mechanisms. A growing body of evidence suggests that where money enters a relationship or transaction it weakens social responsibility; people start to view the issue more selfishly; they become more resistant to any sacrifice required of them. Two traffic removal examples illustrate the point.

In 2014 York City Council trialled the closure of Lendal Bridge in the city centre to general traffic, enforced by number plate recognition cameras. The road layout was confusing, catching many drivers unaware. The original aim, to improve the city centre, became submerged by growing public anger at the 57,000 fixed penalty notices issued. A traffic adjudicator eventually ruled against the Council on legal technicality (a bridge cannot be considered as a bus lane) and the trial was abandoned.

Copenhagen is a pioneering city; it began removing traffic from its inner areas in the 1960s. The results in modal shift have been dramatic; it has one of the lowest levels of car use (29% for commuting) for a city of its size in a developed country. Then as the city continued to grow plans were developed for a congestion charge. This provoked a political backlash, which not only sank that proposal it has also (according to this article) set back the whole progressive transport agenda.

So what are the implications of all this for urban transport authorities? Although variable charging may be the only effective solution to road congestion, there are other ways to reduce air pollution. Traffic removal, through pedestrianisation, closing, narrowing and/or filtering roads, coupled with selective bans on the most polluting vehicles (as recommended by the CiLT) could achieve the same objectives without raising the spectre of profiteering local councils.

The other key message to any authority considering traffic removal is this: emphasise the benefits for everyone and don’t combine your projects with revenue-raising measures. A workplace parking levy, for example, may be used to fund public transport investments (because we already pay for public transport) but don’t mix it with controversial traffic removal or public realm improvements.


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