Traffic is endemic. It is costing the country £20bn per year. And, in the future, both will rise significantly.
That's the stark finding of a review by independent think-tank Policy Exchange. Headed by former Conservative London Mayoral candidate Steven Norris, the review, entitled 'Towards Better Transport', again underlines what we all know: the UK has Europe's most congested roads, its fewest motorways - and some of the worst public transport. In short, traffic is endemic, both in large cities and, in a notable admission, the core motorway network. On every mile of the UK's road network, nearly 1 million passenger miles are travelled each year - more than twice the European average. And Britain's future economic competitiveness and growth is at risk if something isn't done to tackle this. We need more roads
The most obvious solution is to boost the road network. It's not as if we're not paying for them. Private road users pay £32bn in transport-related taxes, yet only £8bn is spent on the road network. Revealingly, that figure is dissected, too - showing that a big chunk of that figure is spent on road repairs, safety measures and ironically, anti-traffic schemes. The Review compares this to the £6.5bn spent each year on rail subsidies, which is responsible for 6% of passenger travel. Cars account for 84% of passenger travel.
How to finance the new roads, according to the Review? Here's the crux: road pricing. How much, you'll immediately wonder. Well, a charge of 6p per mile could be implemented on designated 'congestion hotspots' during peak weekday periods, says the Review. This would raise over £900k per mile, enough to widen a six-lane stretch to eight lanes, or construct a brand-new six-lane motorway alongside it. Meanwhile, a blanket charge of 3p per mile for cars, and 6p for lorries, on all roads, would raise £25bn per year. This money could, in two years, pay for a doubling of the current motorway network, to 2,400 miles. But who pays for them?
Sounds like a lot of money for motorists to cough up? Here's the interesting part: less congestion would boost the economy, which would increase tax yields - which could lead to cuts in fuel duty and vehicle tax. Going some way to offsetting the expenditure of road charging, with the further benefit of, simply, less congestion. This could help sway public opinion, which Policy Exchange's Chief Economist, Dr Oliver Hartwich, admits is "the greatest barrier to pricing... motorists do not trust government to introduce schemes from which they will benefit." Therefore, the Review adds that road upgrades are conducted now, for motorists to see the benefits, before charges are introduced.
Hartwich continues to say that "Britain's transport infrastructure is, quite simply, not fit for purpose and unable to meet the needs of a modern country." This much we know. He adds that "to ration roads without employing road user charges is comparable only with the Soviet system of queuing. The waste and inefficiency... is painfully obvious to anyone who has sat in congestion and traffic jams." And who would manage the expanded road infrastructure? Network Road, a body analogous with Network Rail, which would simplify the system, improve accountability, and increase the desirability of transport investment to potential investors. What happens next?
Road pricing is increasingly looking to be an inevitability. When apparently right-thinking bodies such as Policy Exchange supports its implementation, we think it can only be a matter of time before a nationwide scheme is mooted. This will be controversial. Our initial reaction is outrage. However, we're even more outraged by traffic, on a twice-daily basis. If road pricing eliminated this, while charging us a similar amount to London's Congestion Charge - which has clearly now been accepted by Metropolitans - would it be so bad? Could it ever work? Would it reduce congestion? Crucially, would you pay it?