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Congestion charge planned within M25 area

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The Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT), a Government-funded transport think tank, is poised to recommend a congestion charging system covering the roads inside London's M25 motorway ring. The CfIT has been evangelising the benefits of GPS-based nationwide road charging for some years now, and is reported to intend to publish its plans after the election.

Previous publications from the organisation have been enthusiastic about the advantages of switching to a usage-based system of motor vehicle taxation, but decidedly light on the technical details of how it can be done (example - 2002's report, Paying for Road Use). The forthcoming plan, however, is said to propose GPS plus a "tag and beacon" system, i.e. a combination of roadside beacons and in-car tags, with the motorist incurring variable charges depending on the road, time of day and level of congestion.

Such systems haven't been implemented elsewhere using variable charging in large, complex road networks, and GPS' limitations in built up areas make it of doubtful value for substantial parts of London. Current transponder systems tend to operate on, say, selected major express roads with a limited number of entry and exit points, making charging relatively easy to administer. Evaders can be policed via gantry-mounted cameras that snap the number plate of vehicles without a tag, while if the system has to cope with vehicles from outside of the area without tags, then it also needs to have a payment system for them.

An attempt to implement a system of this kind within the M25 area would therefore require a beacon network covering all of the roads to be charged for, together with a camera network and a billing and enforcement system. By a miraculous coincidence Transport for London (whose commissioner Bob Kiley is miraculously quoted in the Sunday Times report) has a public transport network covering substantial swathes of the target area, and also has a billing and enforcement system to back the current Congestion Charge in Central London. This wouldn't be enough to make the infrastructure rollout simple, but might ease it somewhat.

A basic system could possibly be made to work on the larger routes in the London area. If, for example, the charging structure per road were kept fairly static and the system didn't concern itself with particular vehicles and drivers, but just made sure all vehicles using the routes covered had a paid-up tag system on board, then it could be fairly robust. Something of this sort would break down if the tag and beacon system turned out to be easy to subvert, but otherwise there's no obvious reason why it shouldn't operate as specified. The very large number of entry and exit points on the main road network would however present problems if smaller roads weren't charged for - for example, would you charge for simply crossing over a major road? Differential charging depending on road and traffic level might present similar problems, and would require a high level of precision in determining the location of the vehicle. In Germany, a GPS-based charging system was substantially delayed because it had problems identifying which road vehicles were actually travelling on.

The CfIT appears to favour the greater complexity of a variable charging system, and envisages going much further than simply putting the network in on the main roads. Writing in the Scotsman earlier this year CfIT chairman Professor David Begg also suggested that satellite and mobile phone could be used to track movement (a simple tag and beacon network wouldn't be viable across the whole country), and the organisation has previously argued for a nationwide system that offers differential charging depending on greenness of vehicle, and personalised services that include feedback on likely cost of the route chosen.

Such a system pretty much presumes identification of the particular owner. a relatively complex metering device securely locked to the particular vehicle, and highly complex and sophisticated computer systems underpinning the network. It may be a viable long-term goal, but in the short term it's more like ID cards on wheels, and is light years away from the relatively robust tag and beacon systems that have been tried on a small scale elsewhere in the world. It's also a substantial way out from London's current Congestion Charge system, which only covers a very small area of London and is of negligible importance to the city's overall traffic problems (as we think we may have mentioned several times previously).

So the $64,000 question is, how high on the complexity scale will the proposed system be? On previous track records the CfIT will enthuse at the maximalist end of the scale, while TfL (if it is indeed involved) will probably make a lot of noise but put in something decidedly more modest than its PR would tend to imply (although that something might turn out to be more viable than the one it actually did put in a couple of years back). The system will however have to be pitched as a test for a nationwide system if Government investment in the London infrastructure is to be justified.

One major snag with the more modest, more obviously workable approach (and indeed with only running a scheme within the M25) is that it wouldn't be possible to use it to switch from the current transport and vehicle taxation system to one of charging by use, as neither vehicle nor fuel taxation could be cut. So if it happens it's fairly likely it will involve London area drivers just paying more, as opposed to arriving at the happy-clappy future envisaged by the CfIT, somewhere out there in the distance.

Sharp-eyed London readers may also have noticed that in his January piece for the Scotsman Begg said London drivers might incur a peak charge of 54p per mile, whereas the Sunday Times had upped this to a substantial £1.30, with the North Circular, a notable London disaster area of a road, used as an example. Meanwhile the Congestion Charge, which once upon a time was 'fixed' at £5, has gone up to £8 in a similarly confidence-inspiring way. ®

Related Stories:

Munich faces RFID-controlled congestion charge
London's charge zone: blueprint for road pricing 'success'?
Think tank recommends satellite road charging for UK
Report slams London Mayor's car charge zone contract

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