A call for new ideas on funding better roads

What kind of vehicle will we use in 2030? And what kind of road will it travel on? Policymakers can tell you about the shift to autonomous vehicles and electric power – but without the right physical infrastructure we won't get the most out of them. That is why I am pleased to be running the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize, which will award £250,000 to the best proposal for a better way to fund better roads.

Anyone can enter – there is no charge – and we have a judging panel that includes Alistair Darling, the former chancellor, and Sir John Kingman, chairman-elect at Legal & General and before that one of the most senior officials at the Treasury. We have come together because we want to see answers to one of the most fundamental policy choices facing all developed countries: how to shape the future of the road network.

Roads matter. They carry around nine out of ten passenger journeys, and three times as much goods are moved by roads as by water and rail combined. But the network is not functioning as well as it should. Traffic is growing – it reached a record high of 316 billion miles in 2015, up 4.5% since 2010 – and technology is changing. Sales of electric and hybrid cars are rising sharply in the UK. Demand for plug-in hybrids was up 133% year-on-year in 2015. And it is estimated the global sale of electric vehicles will hit 41 million by 2040, representing 35% of new light duty vehicle sales.

These vehicles use considerably less traditional fuels, if any at all, and some are exempt from vehicle tax. It's why the office for Budget Responsibility predicts that fuel duty receipts could halve by the 2030s. Meanwhile the development of autonomous, self-driving vehicles continues apace.

The pressure on bus services, the call for more cycling provision, the shift to things such as ride-sharing and home delivery – all this requires new policy thinking about road infrastructure.

But it is in short supply. Far more effort is put into developing new vehicles than into shaping the roads on which they run. That is why I think the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize is so important. It is asking for ideas on how to rethink the way we charge for road use and invest in maintenance and improvements. It should be possible to do this without increasing the cost of using them.

There have been attempts before to rethink the system of road finance, of course. But they have failed because they have tried to impose costs on road users without winning them over to the benefits that can come from change. That is why this competition is asking for more than theoretical solutions. We hope to see proposals that are practical and might win actual public and political support. As Sir John Kingman says, the biggest challenge in this area for policymakers has often been not technical or financial, but political – so good entries should clearly show how road users will benefit from the new system.

I hope we get entries from around the world because this debate affects every country and not just the UK.

As a former special adviser to the Transport Secretary who helped shape the Road Investment Strategy, I know how complex a subject this can be.

But I also know the time to address the future of our roads is right now, and I would encourage everyone with an interest and knowledge in this area to enter. The deadline is 2 March 2017 and guidelines and more information can be found at policyexchange.org.uk/wolfsonprize

Reference: Transport Times November 2016 Issue

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