Why should roads be free to use at the point of use? We don't expect to use airports or railways without paying for them, but when we're on the roads we forget the cost of building and maintaining them – until we hit a pothole and wonder why the council hasn't done anything to fix it.
Roads are the most vital part of our transport network, and they are under serious strain. Congestion has reached crisis levels in urban centres across the country, 75% of it caused by too many vehicles on the road. The impact of these traffic volumes is felt not just on the road surface but on town centres, the wider economy and the environment, as traffic builds up and idling engines belch out toxic fumes into the air we breathe.
We need a solution – and we may have moved a step closer to finding one through the Wolfson Economics Prize, a £250,000 award for a sustainable new model for road pricing and usage, which was last night awarded to recent graduate from UCL Gergely Raccuja at a presentation hosted by Policy Exchange in London.
Raccuja argues that to restore trust between politicians and motorists, fuel duty and VED should be scrapped and replaced with a simple distance-based charge that also captures road and environmental impacts.
The focus of this year's Wolfson Prize on how we can pay for roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and environment is to be commended. It has provided a welcome focus on a thorny issue which has alluded politicians for generation.
The key question is what happens next.
If we are really to improve our roads we have to tackle the biggest problem facing our road network today – the sheer number of vehicles on the road. Successive Governments have shied away from being seen to be penalising motorists, but we must move to a scenario where motorists cover their external costs, and both carrot and stick approaches are needed.
This can lead to a step change in transportation, with a shift away from private cars and towards more sustainable alternatives. This will be vital not only to tackle congestion but also to improve air quality. Buses have an integral role to play, with a fully loaded double decker bus carrying enough passengers to take 75 cars off the road. The bus sector has invested heavily in clean engine technology, with a modern Euro VI bus emitting 95% less nitrogen oxides than previous Euro V models, and less than a comparable Euro 6 diesel car – even though a bus has 15 times the carrying capacity.
Put simply, future transport networks must actively encourage a modal shift from car to bus and other forms of sustainable transport. Only through policies which acknowledge the burden cars place on our roads and our environment, and incentivise behaviour change, can we ease congestion and move towards a cleaner travel future.