Wednesday 26th Jul 2017 - RUC Magazine

Travelling at sixty minutes an hour

Features

Keith Mortimer proposes to give motorists the time of their life

When I used to work in an office near London, the first twenty minutes of each day were spent dissecting that morning’s car journey to work: A scandalised account of 45 minutes taken to move two miles on the A3. Waiting at the worst road junction in the world, wondering why everybody else had caused the jam.

The time wasted in traffic was followed by a time-wasting workplace debate that could be classed as yet another external cost of congestion.

Recently, while taking part in a Transport Forum in Malta, I was musing on the controlled vehicular access (CVA) scheme in Valletta. The CVA system replaced an existing vignette scheme, aiming to improve general access to the capital without increasing congestion. Vehicles are clocked in and clocked out of the charging zone by ANPR cameras. A bill sent to the registered owner itemises the time spent each month.

Since Valletta is not a huge place, the charge is effectively a glorified parking bill. But the CVA system is somewhat more technically sophisticated than the London congestion zone and is accepted to work well, with high compliance.

Precious commodity

Then I wondered. Why is there such an obsession about accurately measuring and charging for distances driven? The precious commodity is not distance. It is time. Time is actually priceless. Once lost, it can never be regained. I was not sure if this was an incredibly original thought, or perhaps whether I was unaware of a major EC-funded study, or a pilot scheme in some Swedish village.

I wondered what would be the advantage of ditching distance and concentrating on the main parameter of our lives. Time – particularly, time spent at the wrong time.

This time is spent taking up valuable road space. This same time is spent emitting noxious fumes, noise and greenhouse gases. This time can also be spent formulating the stories about the day’s dreadful journeys. Time spent on the road, not distance, is the main factor in generating external costs. The better the traffic flow, the shorter the time, the lower the emissions and delays

Every vehicle has two modes of existence: time spent being driven, and time spent being parked. When parked, there is every justification for charging by the hour for using precious urban space. It can be argued that the time spent on the city’s roads is much more precious – even if the distance driven during that time is woefully small

TP charging

So here is my proposal. Forget about distance. Kilometre pricing might be relevant on uncongested German autobahns, but time is more important in cities.

Bring on TP charging. Bill all drivers for the total time they spend in congested places. One rate for driving, and a lower rate for parking. Each rate can be varied to reflect the current severity of local road congestion. The market value of parking would be democratically equalised across a given zone (unless an especially snooty operator saw fit to separately charge an extra premium).

It does not really matter where a driver parks his car. The same parking charge would be applied by the city authority. If stopped in a commercially run car park, the fee may be resettled to its owner. If a vehicle is privately parked, the city can keep the fee, using it wisely to build park-and-ride facilities, to provide public transportation, or to engage generally in acts of social kindness.

We have invented the universal workplace parking levy, with no need to care about actual parking locations. There would be no incentive for drivers to park in cycle lanes or to risk fines, as it would cost them just the same as a proper car park.

Everyone perceives the value of time. Expected journey times could be posted on roadside displays, or via smartphone apps. A driver who habitually used city roads at peak times would understand that if his journey times vary wildly each day he is not a victim but a part of the problem, and is charged accordingly. A fraction of the charge might be allocated to environmental improvements, and it would be easy to vary the driving rate for heavily polluting vehicles.

Implementation

TP charging would be easily understood by drivers, who would in turn expect local authorities to be energised to do something about improving journey reliability. Rewards, funded from the capture of external costs, could be given to drivers for not travelling during peak times. Credits to the driver’s TP smartcard could be interoperable with public transport ticketing, or exchanged for desired treats with signed-up partners.

Compliance with speed limits might become an issue, but congestion charging is not really justified where vehicles are able to travel at the speed limit, when the driving rate might simply and dynamically be set to zero. In time, the congestion problem might solve itself.

The technology exists and could be implemented at low cost, compared with the complexity of distance-based schemes. All we need to know is for how long a vehicle’s engine is turned on and turned off in a given zone (some latency might be built into the system, so that repeatedly switching off the ignition in heavy traffic is discouraged). Even better, emission-rich idling will cost a driver more.

Privacy is protected, as the only data logged will be the time spent in the zone at the two rates. Zone entry and exit could be detected by cameras in ANPR rich UK cities, by DSRC tags in Ireland, or by GPS cordons in equipped vehicles. Interoperability combined at the back office. Value-added offerings might be packaged readily from third parties, for eCall and bCall security, driver-selected services and optimised travel planning.

Given an appropriate, inexpensive infrastructure, any city could sign up to the TP scheme, with scope for volunteer-led initiatives and Oregon-style driver options.

Is TP charging unfair? Probably, as drivers would argue that they have no control over the costs they would incur. We can hope that drivers would begin to realise that their vehicles caused the congestion that they bemoan, as the office conversations turned from the time they wasted each day, towards considering how they might reduce the costs they caused, both to themselves and to society at large.

Keith Mortimer is an independent consultant, contributing to highway, telematics and tolling projects in the UK and internationally. He is fond of musing about ITS technologies and how their application might have a beneficial social, economic and environmental impact on our lives. He will also be happy to respond to any comments, if he has the time.

Article taken from the November 2014 issue of RUC Magazine