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IEverything seems so simple. By the end of this decade, the government will ban the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles. Cars will be greener and cleaner, making it easier to achieve the goal of a net zero carbon future.

Boris Johnson will no doubt impress his fellow world leaders on the speed of Britain’s transport revolution when he hosts the Cop26 meeting in early November. Rishi Sunak could even be persuaded to announce measures to speed up the transition in the budget in October, carefully timed for the week before the international rally in Glasgow.

The government’s plan could run into two problems. The first is if the transition is going slower than expected, because new battery-electric vehicles are too expensive or if the infrastructure to keep them charged is not put in place again.

Alternatively, there is the risk that demand for green cars will be as strong – or perhaps even stronger – than expected, in which case the government will face issues of increased congestion and reduced tax revenues.

The two are linked. One of the attractions of buying a new electric car is lower taxes. As an article produced by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has shown, the cost of gasoline, fuel taxes and excise duties on vehicles is around £ 1,100 per year for a car. average petrol or diesel, while for electric vehicles it’s only £ 320.

This cuts the overall cost of driving by 71% and, as the shift to green vehicles accelerates, will cut a huge hole in the Treasury’s tax revenue – £ 10bn by 2030, £ 20bn sterling by 2035 and £ 30 billion by 2040, according to the institute’s report. report.

As the cost of driving drops, motorists will be encouraged to drive more and congestion will worsen. Traffic jams come at a high cost whether the driver is in a gasoline, diesel, hybrid or battery-electric vehicle.

All of this raises the question of whether technological innovation should be accompanied by new thinking about how motorists pay to drive. Specifically, this raises the question of whether a road pricing system would solve the twin problem of congestion and revenue.

In fact, there is nothing new about the idea of ​​road pricing and it has always had its supporters. In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan’s government was concerned about clashes on British roads and commissioned a study to examine the problem. The Smeed report duly arrived in 1964 and proposed user pricing as a way to deal with congestion.

It was easy to see the reason for the ministerial concern. The number of cars on UK roads had reached 5 million in 1960 and would double over the next decade. As the election approached, however, neither party was going to risk a fight with motorists, and the Smeed report was therefore thrown into the long grass.

Governments on the left and right have sought to respond to increased congestion by building more and larger roads, but this has proven to be an ineffective approach. There are now 35 million cars on the road and traffic jams have increased.

Over the years there has been a strange flirtation with different approaches, of which the congestion charge introduced by Ken Livingstone when he was mayor of London was the most important.

The economic argument for road pricing is that the costs of driving at snail speeds in central London are higher than they are on rural Northumberland roads and this difference should be reflected in the price paid by the car drivers. If it makes sense to have cheaper train fares during off-peak hours and different prices for a movie ticket for a Monday morning compared to a Saturday night, then logically the same goes for the use of roads. Bankers wishing to travel from their West London home to Canary Wharf for a 9 a.m. meeting could still do so, but would have to pay a higher price than the retired couple heading to a country pub on a Tuesday midday. Modern technology in the form of Uber-style apps could cause the cost of driving the same stretch of road to vary depending on the time of day and traffic conditions.

In practice, of course, it’s not as simple as economists claim. The first step is to find a way to prevent politicians from using road pricing like a cash cow. The fees might start out low, but the public would have a right to question whether they would stay low.

Another problem is what happens to people who have to drive on busy roads at rush hour but who are not well off. Auto workers with multiple daily visits to make, for example, could not reasonably be expected to rely on public transport.

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Then there is the question of whether road pricing would deter motorists from switching to cleaner vehicles, as a lower cost is clearly an incentive to buy an electric car.

The list of potential problems is long. Is uberized road pricing, with all the complexity that this would imply, technically feasible? Even if so, what about the privacy issues that would be involved? Granted, the UK already has a lot of surveillance on the roads (and elsewhere), but there would inevitably be a setback against the idea of ​​the state knowing exactly where you are whenever you are on the move.

That said, there could be as many as 25 million battery-electric vehicles on the road by the mid-2030s. That means more traffic jams and a black hole in public finances. It also means that the default political stance – doing nothing for fear of backlash from motorists – is not really an option.


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