On the face of it this week’s proposal for charging UK drivers using global positioning satellites makes sense. It is around 10 years since the Department of Transport grudgingly accepted the impossibility of building a way out of congestion. Little progress, though, has been made on alternatives, such as some form of tolling or congestion charging.
Under the Commission for Integrated Transport’s plan, motorists would be charged for travelling on the busiest roads at peak times. The GPS idea attempts to get round the main flaw in early-1990s plans for motorway tolling, which would have used transmitters on gantries communicating with a dashboard-top box in each vehicle, deducting charges from a smart card. The snag was that the gantry sensors would have to detect toll evaders reliably, and photograph their number plates as they passed at speeds of 100mph or more.
Tracking vehicles by satellite would avoid this. But, on closer inspection, it raises as many questions as it answers. Who would pay for fitting vehicles with the technology? How would it be policed, since cars without black boxes would be invisible? Plus it seems that though GPS can spot cars joining and leaving motorways, it is not sufficiently discriminating to track vehicles in towns.
The CfIT is right to try to stimulate debate over congestion. But perhaps its argument would have been better served if it had also explored a lower-tech solution such as that envisaged for the London charging scheme given the go-ahead by Ken Livingstone this week.
Objections to the GPS scheme of the sort outlined are likely to be enough for the government, not wanting to be seen as anti-car user, to justify rejecting the CfIT’s idea. What is needed, however, is farsightedness, a willingness to face up to congestion and the political will to drive through an appropriate technological solution.