'Keep it simple, stupid' is an oft-forgotten axiom but in terms of road user charging it is entirely appropriate. So says the ANWB's Ferry Smith
A couple of decades ago, it might have been largely true that the technology aspects of advanced road infrastructure were the main obstacles to deployment. However, 20 years or more of development have led to a situation where such 'obstacles' are often no more than a political fig-leaf. Area-wide Road User Charging (RUC) is a case in point; speak candidly to systems developers and manufacturers and they'll tell you that pretty much any type of scheme is possible, provided that the procurer (typically a government) has a clear idea of what it wants and the courage to proceed.RUC's more widespread adoption is affected to a rather greater extent by its near-inextricable links to public opinion. The presumption that the majority of the public in most countries will react unfavourably to the pay-per-use principle is compounded by the general media's predilection for bad news and outrage; adverse reaction too often encourages timidity and retrenchment among policymakers and the result is statis.
About 18 months ago, the Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders Bond (
"A general survey was combined with online discussions which attracted thousands of respondents," says Ferry Smith, public affairs manager. "It was important to find out in quantity members' opinions and the reasons behind them; 'yes' or 'no' answers would be of little real use." In conjunction with a major domestic research institute, the ANWB communicated to the public that its survey was online. It was aided significantly by an announcement two days before by the Dutch transport minister that the public's opinions were needed on the proposed national RUC scheme - and that if public opinion was against the whole idea, it would be dropped.
The response to the ANWB's survey was dramatic. Over 400,000 people responded in the space of just two weeks and at the peak of interest anywhere between 800 and 1,000 respondents were online at any one time.
"General media interest was significant - something which also benefited us as an organisation," says Smith. "A total of five discussions dealt with two main themes: whether there should be exceptions within any RUC scheme; and privacy.
"The Netherlands' current vehicle excise duty scheme features exceptions for disabled people's vehicles, motorcycles, campers and vehicles over 25 years old. We wanted to see whether people thought that the current system needed revamping in line with RUC's possible introduction.
"When it came to privacy we compared RUC with other activities which have a privacy element, such as using social networking websites like Facebook, carrying mobile phones, or making payments via credit/debit card. In particular, we looked at how to handle information derived from people's driving habits and who should be allowed access to it: should it just be the user when looking to check whether his or her bill is correct, the law enforcement and/or other public agencies, or commercial organisations as well? The RUC scheme proposed for the Netherlands was a very detailed one and we were keen to find the break-even points.
"The major conclusion was that our members, even those who drive longer distances, are in favour of the pay-per-use principle. It is seen as honest and fair. People understand that if they use more electricity or spend longer on the phone, they pay more. Mobility is no exception. However, people did have serious problems concerning the execution of the RUC scheme. Our survey showed that road users had little trust in the government as far as the safeguarding of their privacy was concerned. Moreover, they strongly opposed the idea of a rush-hour tariff, as it is generally felt there are no equal alternatives for travelling by car."
Colouring opinionsSmith notes that the response has to be seen in the context of the Netherlands.
"At present, we have very high levels of taxation - 45.2 per cent of the price of any new car is purchase tax, then there is VAT at 19 per cent. Annual vehicle excise duty can be anything up to e3,000. The promise to drivers was that all annual revenues would be totalled up into one figure and then divided by the number of kilometres driven. At a macro level, therefore, people aren't paying more they're just paying in a different way. At a micro level, things are different and those who drive very low mileages are effectively subsidised. Around 55-65 per cent of the survey's respondents drive less than the annual average, so they would benefit from the introduction of RUC.
"We also have to consider people's attitudes to congestion. The Netherlands has about 7 million vehicles on the road. Around 600,000 drivers use routes which cause them to be in jams at any one time, so less than 10 per cent of the total. In a previous ANWB study, we asked whether people were at all concerned by congestion. Around 70 per cent said that they weren't. The time in the car could be spent listening to music, making phone calls or gaining some separation from the working day. It was seen as quality time. Only among those who used the roads for economic reasons was congestion seen as a big problem.
"That's interesting because it means that most people aren't too concerned by congestion. They're even less interested in paying more than they do now to solve the problem even though it might be important to politicians to be seen to 'do something' about congestion and improving economic conditions. The national RUC scheme has proved difficult for them to position, therefore - a situation that was compounded by confused reporting in the general media."
Simple messagesAnother interesting distinction was that although pay-per-use was deemed acceptable by the majority, the form of the Netherlands' RUC scheme was not. Privacy, and the government's perceived inability to adequately safeguard personal information, was given as a reason by many.
"That wasn't a surprise," Smith continues. "The Dutch scheme was very technically complicated. Accuracies of better than 99 per cent using GPS were quoted and road users, who've seen existing satnav systems malfunction in urban canyons, doubted that - especially as there might be significant differences between the tariffs on a main highway and an adjacent byway. So, overall, the answer was, 'Yes to pay-per-use... but keep it simple'. Fuel excise duty is seen as an option for demand management. Another option might be the use of a high-quality odometer with a simple clock to show distance and time of travel.
"Technologically, I think they were too 'greedy' and set out to develop a system which was too advanced. If you want to market a new idea you have to tempt people to use it. You have to create desire and you also have to keep pace with consumers' developmental pace.
"If you start with something simple, such as an odometer with a clock, you can always add GPS later if people want it. That would allow value-added services such as push-button parking and has the potential to solve a lot of problems.
"With more time, I think this aspect could have been managed better but political realities, as so often happens, overtook technological realities." Unfortunately, the Dutch transport minister is on record as saying that to have undertaken such an information campaign before RUC was voted upon in Parliament would have amounted to leading the witness and resulted in accusations of attempting to skew the decision. Smith, though, feels that this was and is a nonsense argument.
"There are facts about RUC that could have been readily communicated by the Ministry of Transport. The ANWB is a big organisation but informing a population of over 16 million, and 7 million drivers is a big task. Nevertheless, we did a good job and people's opinions changed."
Forward thinking"Consumers are now seeing that there are alternatives to government financing of infrastructure. But private mobility can only survive if we have intelligent financing schemes. Southern Rotterdam, for instance, has plans for an infrastructure scheme which is privately financed. This can only be introduced when there is an intelligent charging system. More of these will appear in the future but it's important that any such schemes are robust, support different pricing strategies and get away from the need to queue to pay on a per-journey basis; we need drive-by processes which accommodate the motorist.
"Motive and trust cannot be dismissed. In the US, for example, we see politicians wanting to introduce new schemes and at the same time raise the income of individual states. When I've spoken about RUC in the States I've warned that if they want trust, they have also to be clear about the need for more income. Road users and voters need to be told, 'If you want better roads and better accessibility during bad weather, it'll cost.' You can't try to introduce a new tax scheme and use technology to cover up the fact that you need to increase revenues." At present the Netherlands' national RUC scheme remains frozen. Smith is clear that it is not dead, however.
"The political climate makes it impossible to talk about it for the next four years but we have a couple of challenges which will need to be addressed. The first is that if the Netherlands is going to meet its targets for CO2 reductions, it's going to need RUC. Without RUC, it will have to find another solution.
"The second is that until 2014/15, the country can keep up with demand by expanding the existing road network. Out to 2020 and beyond, however, we will start to see degradation in network performance. 'Mobility management' is the current buzz-phrase and in time I'm convinced we'll see RUC back on the agenda."
What the people said
The most important conclusion from the ANWB's member survey was that the pay-per-use principle is regarded as fair. Its translation into concrete measures aroused serious concerns, however. The major concerns were the peak-hour charge, registration system and transition phase. The outcomes of the member survey were presented to the ANWB's General Assembly, which noted that:
1. Paying for use was assessed positively
Paying for use is still regarded as a fair way of calculating costs. A majority accept that this would lead to higher costs for those who drive a lot. It is understandable that drivers who use their car a lot are less enthusiastic.
2. People should not pay more for road mobility
Apart from the redistribution effects of the introduction of paying according to use, members do not want to pay more. This confirms the starting point that was set down in the recommendations of the Different Payment for Mobility (Dutch national RUC) platform.
3. Revenues should improve traffic flow
A majority of members argue for investing revenues from road pricing in roads or other solutions for improving the flow of traffic, such as improving public transport. In this way, a clear link is made between revenues and costs that have to be incurred to improve road mobility. Insight into expenditures could assist in getting rid of the image of the car as something to be 'milked' financially.
4. Cleaner cars should pay less
Members believe it is reasonable for cleaner cars to pay less. If the introduction of such a principle means that the costs for existing cars rise, the increase should be gradual. Not everyone is able to immediately purchase a cleaner or more economical car, so there needs to be a clear perspective for action.
5. Peak-hour charge was emphatically rejected
Motorists faced with higher charges for driving in peak hours perceive their options to be extremely limited. They will have to deal with higher costs which in their view are unavoidable.
Public transport is often seen to be too limited in capacity or entirely absent, so the peak-hour charge becomes punitive and is not regarded as a way of distributing costs more fairly or improving accessibility.
6. Opposition to location registration
The registration of movements is seen as complex, costly, fraud-sensitive and invasive. Despite attempts in the bill to safeguard privacy, many members do not trust the security of the data. Many are wary of technical functions that could provide insight into movements. System complexity also gave rise to worries about the management of related costs.
7. Paying double in the transition phase conflicts with a fairer payment system
The lack of clarity about car costs in the transition phase is causing great concern. The conversion of one tax (vehicle purchase tax, BPM) into another fixed road tax (MRB) is hard to understand. Members are aware that in the transition phase part of the BPM that has already been paid would have to be paid again via the MRB. That the MRB will rise significantly (often doubling) in the transition phase is in conflict with the image of a fairer payment system. The transition phase will therefore have to be designed more from the perspective of road users and not, as is currently the case, be based on minimising government shortfalls.
8. No or very few exemptions
Members indicated that if the principle of paying for use is introduced as few vehicles as possible should be exempt. This could result in the feeling of fairness being eroded. Exceptions would only be accepted if there are very clear reasons and members only feel somewhat inclined to accept that vehicles for the disabled would be entirely or partially exempt. The necessity for any other exceptions should be examined very critically.
9. Lack of clarity leads to opposition
The member survey shows that a lack of information plays an important role in the formation of opinions. A lack of clarity regarding specific consequences leads to uncertainty, which gives rise to opposition. People will choose the 'unknown' path when they know where it leads. Where there are large, complex system changes, those who will be affected must be included in the change process. Within the political decision-making process the possibilities for this are limited because communications about matters yet to be decided is easily viewed as propaganda. A solution must be found to this problem.
10. Government plans are viewed with distrust
For a number of points, for example doubts over privacy, the survey shows that a large degree of distrust prevails in respect of the government. This is in large part the result of past experiences. Past issues caused by government changes to vehicle tax rules have affected credibility among ANWB members. The fact that plans are constantly changed and then not completed reinforces this distrust. Communication that only truly begins once the policy has been approved comes too late and once again adds to the distrust. Transparent communication of the problem that needs to be solved, as well as the intended goals and solutions is necessary. This is a problem that only the government itself can resolve.