UK gov announces Road Pricing 2.0 - Managed Motorway
'A high level of monitoring and compliance is needed'
The UK government has announced its plans for the national road network in coming years, assigning funding for a variety of different projects. Transport Minister Ruth Kelly has also published plans for a future of "managed motorways", which will require "a high level of monitoring and compliance to make the package work".
"I am determined to get the best from our road network," said Ms Kelly in a statement issued this morning. "The greatest barrier to this is congestion. It is frustrating and has serious consequences for the economy and the environment.
"The £6 billion I am announcing today will allow ... more innovative approaches to the way we use our major roads. This includes measures like opening the hard shoulder when traffic is at its heaviest ...
"Where we add new capacity through measures like this I am also interested to see what role car share or tolled lanes could play in helping traffic flow more smoothly - giving motorists a choice about how they make their journeys."
The government's thoughts were outlined in more detail in a Command Paper, now available for download (pdf). There is a good deal about ordinary widening and construction schemes, and various other measures.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Command Paper is Chapter 5 - "Towards the Managed Motorway". This discusses the various pilot schemes which have been used on busy stretches of motorway to increase the number of vehicles able to flow through. The aspect of these plans the government prefers to headline is the use of the hard shoulder as a temporary extra lane at peak times.
However, much of the schemes' effectiveness actually comes from temporarily lowered speed limits. Forcing the vehicles to travel slowly reduces the amount of sudden braking which takes place, preventing a strengthening ripple effect moving back along a lane of traffic and bringing it to a halt. If nobody is able to drive faster than, say 50 or 40 mph in dense traffic, the stream of vehicles seldom halts and many more will get past a given point in a given time than if drivers were allowed to go faster.
So far, so good. However, even the normal 70mph speed limit is widely ignored on British motorways, and in order to compel a mass of drivers to go slower still you need to take some fairly draconian steps, as the government explains.
Motorists appear to understand the rationale for the regime, enjoy the improved reliability it delivers, and accept the need for high levels of monitoring and compliance ...
While it is clear to road users that compliance is necessary ... experience tells us that effective enforcement back-up is also needed to maintain high levels of compliance ... So, we need to look at the arrangements that would have to be put in place.
The Command Paper doesn't really specify what these arrangements might be at this point. Schemes thus far have tended to use Automatic Numberplate Recognition cameras (ANPR) to monitor a car's average speed along a stretch of road - and incidentally, to log its presence at a given place and time. This can be useful for other things than traffic enforcement, of course: it's well known that the London Congestion Charge ANPR system is now linked in real time to Met SO15 - the UK's secret terror police.
ANPR is equally well known to be easy to beat. Miscreants can simply use stolen or faked numberplates. It's a trivial matter to find out what make and colour of car is registered under any given number, and so ensure that one's ghost car will appear to be legit in a camera picture. Thus, back when the government was still openly considering a national road pricing scheme, it was expected to make use of some kind of in-car electronic tracking or tagging.
Even quite mild libertarians, however, might get a little bit worried about a national database able to reliably locate and track every vehicle in the land in real time and back into the past. So the government doesn't talk about "road pricing" any more. But the Command Paper nonetheless sees the future "Managed Motorway" as charging money, at least in some circumstances. It's not thought that temporary speed limits and hard-shoulder use can provide enough capacity on their own. Simply building more road is expensive, causes environmental protests, and is ultimately seen as a race the government can't ever win. Traffic will always increase to fill any amount of roads, goes the thinking - and then increase some more. Thus, beyond the use of lowered speed and hard-shoulder driving, there remain plans to bring in widespread charging.
High Occupancy or Tolled (HOT) schemes have been put in place in the US and have been more successful at managing congestion than car-share lanes alone ... Users who choose to use the lane and pay the toll typically get an electronic tag ... While the HOT lane approach has proved very successful in the US – experience suggests that it is the tolled element that offers greatest flexibility for managing congestion ... this idea ... ultimately would require new statutory powers ...
Electronic tags are more reliable than automatic number plate recognition cameras, as they are much less susceptible to fraud, but they do require the vehicle to be equipped before it can use the tolled lane. Devices using the Global Positioning System could be used in the future ...
We will work with the Information Commissioner to ensure that our exploration of these privacy issues properly addresses public concerns and conforms with the Data Protection Act ...
In all fairness, the government does seem willing to have a two-tier motorway system, not a compulsory e-surveillance panopticon. You could choose to get tagged up in the new, hard-to-spoof electronic numberplate system and pay your road prices, which would mean you could use the toll lanes and get places on time when you needed to. But tagless diehard-libertarian and/or cash-strapped drivers would still be able to drive in the crammed and jammed free-to-use ANPR lanes. Criminals and others not inclined to let the government log their every journey would only need enough competence to beat ANPR; but they might take forever to get anywhere.
So yes, Ms Kelly is "giving motorists a choice about how they make their journeys". There doesn't seem to be any option to avoid having your journeys logged while remaining compliant with the law, however. And in many ways it might be more honest to call this "optional road pricing and degree of surveillance" - rather than "Managed Motorway" or "Choice and Reliability" as the government has chosen to do. ®