Road Pricing Losing Support, Warns RAC Foundation

Attitudes are hardening against road pricing, warns the RAC Foundation, on publication of a unique new study comparing changes in motorists’ attitudes to road pricing since 2002*. The Foundation claims that motorists are not being swayed by the current debate and that Government needs to agree to certain safeguards if it is to persuade motorists that the concept will be of national benefit.

The study shows that motorists still accept the principle that it would be fairer to pay for the roads according to the amount of time spent driving in congestion rather than the current system of taxing fuel and vehicle ownership: the proportion agreeing to that has increased by two points to 62 per cent. But the proportion of motorists who support any particular application of road pricing has declined, and there is suspicion about how pricing would actually work. The RAC Foundation is therefore warning that the window of opportunity to persuade motorists of the benefits of road charging is closing.

The RAC Foundation believes the Government needs to change the way the debate is presented. Road pricing is not an end in itself but may in some places be one element of a package of measures required to give the UK a transport system fit for the 21st Century.

Young people between 17 and 24 are bucking the trend as the only group showing consistently increased willingness to pay road charges. Overall, motorists have become less willing to pay charges, and less likely to be persuaded by concessions such as reduced motoring taxes, increased investment in the road network, or investment in public transport.

The RAC Foundation believes that any scheme would have a much better chance of success if motorists can be persuaded that road pricing is of long-term benefit to the country, and that they themselves will see an improvement in travel conditions. They suspect that road pricing would be just another charge on top of what they pay now. That suspicion could only be allayed if the Government were to hand over supervision of the scheme to a genuinely independent body.

David Holmes, Chairman of the RAC Foundation, said, "Motorists struggle every day with rising congestion, and every time they fill their tank, high fuel prices dent their wallets. Many of them recognise that road pricing could be one of the weapons for tackling congestion, but they are worried about the impact of charges on their own work and family journeys. They do not trust Governments to operate charging fairly.

"Our study shows that scepticism is increasing, not decreasing, with time, so it is vital that the Government takes a stronger lead. If the motorist is to be won over, Government needs to demonstrate that pricing will be part of the solution to their needs, along with investment to make the roads better and safer, and not just another means to raise money and price them off the roads

"There has to be an open dialogue with motorists, whose support is essential."

Almost eighty per cent of motorists are so anxious about the situation that they want an independent watchdog to stand up for their interests.

The study, based on surveys** carried out by GfK Automotive, part of GfK NOP, shows that there is less than 50 per cent support for road pricing on its own, and that support has fallen since 2002:-

  • In city centres: the number of motorists willing to pay a charge to drive in city centres has fallen by 7 per cent since 2002.
  • On all roads: the number of motorists willing to pay to use the whole road network has fallen by 5 per cent since 2002.
  • On motorways: the number of motorists willing to pay to use motorways has remained broadly the same, falling by just 1 per cent since 2002.

In 2002, the survey found that more than three quarters of motorists would accept charging if there were equivalent reductions in fuel duty, and over 70 per cent would accept them if part of a package of transport improvements. But the 2005 survey shows that motorists are now less willing to be persuaded by concessions in these areas: -

  • The number of motorists agreeing that tolls would be acceptable if other motoring taxes came down has fallen by 3.5 per cent but is still supported by 71 per cent.
  • The number of motorists agreeing that tolls would be acceptable if roads were improved to guarantee better journeys has fallen by 11 per cent but is still supported by 60 per cent.
  • The number of motorists agreeing that tolls would be acceptable if they were introduced as a package including better roads, better public transport and better traffic management, has fallen by 10 per cent and is now supported by 61 per cent.

One of the aspects that appears to worry drivers, according to the study, is that of privacy. More motorists are now concerned that the use of satellites to monitor the location of cars to calculate road charges could be an infringement of personal liberty than when the research was first conducted.

Motorists do not want to see low-income drivers priced off the roads: opinion on this has held steady, with 58 per cent of motorists considering that any scheme should include protection for people on low incomes.

The RAC Foundation surveyed motorists’ attitudes to road charges and tolls in 2002. Since then the Government has made a manifesto commitment to evaluate road pricing as a solution to congestion, and agreed to fund seven pilot schemes. The London Congestion Charge has been in operation since 2003, and motorists may pay to use the M6 Toll Road. The Foundation therefore re-polled motorists with the same questions to find out whether attitudes had changed as the issues become more familiar to UK motorists.

David Holmes, Chairman of the RAC Foundation, added: "These results show much has to be done to convince motorists of the merits of charging. In the interim, Government and local authorities need to step up the rate of road improvements to avoid gridlock. Road improvements are an essential part of the package approach which will be necessary to tackle congestion, yet the present rate of improvement is well below what is necessary to provide a decent road system for the country."

The RAC Foundation supports the principle of road pricing on a limited proportion of the road network - but not if it is simply an extra tax on the motorist. The Foundation has proposed five key conditions for any scheme:

  • The charges must be fair, must be accompanied by reductions in other motoring taxes, and be overseen by a genuinely independent body.
  • At least part of the proceeds must be re-invested in road transport, and be additional to current spending commitments.
  • There must be a clear timetable for implementation, and time to allow people time to adjust their travel routines.
  • There must be protection of privacy.
  • There must be protection for the least well off - road pricing must not be used to drive those on low incomes off the roads.

However, the poll also shows that if the Government agreed to the RAC Foundation’s conditions of acceptance then support for pricing would grow.

Seventy nine per cent of motorists now think there should be an independent body set up to safeguard the interests of road users. If such a body were in place a majority of motorists would be confident that the Government could deliver a fair scheme. Without such guarantees 87 per cent of motorists would not trust the Government to deliver.

16 March 2006 Staff

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