EU-wide road pricing is not for tomorrow
Is road pricing an idea whose time has come? The EU seems to think so. In February, the European Parliament updated its rules for road pricing, with more emphasis on the ‘polluter pays’ principle and with the prospect of extending the system from just heavy-duty transport to include all vehicles. However, individual member states are not (yet) forced to implement road pricing. So what’s the situation like across the continent?
To be fair, road pricing is a very old idea. In earlier centuries, toll roads used to be quite common. And even today, expensive structures like tunnels and bridges are often financed based on the toll they will generate. But for the most part, motorists are used to the notion that the road they travel on, unlike their car and the fuel they put in it, is free.
The modern idea that drivers should pay for the road in relation to how long (or how far) they use it, has been around since 1949, when the Rand Corporation proposed “direct road pricing to make freight journeys more expensive on congested routes, or to influence the time of day at which freight traffic operates.”
Generalised road pricing – meaning, also for cars – was proposed soon after, but understandably met with heavy resistance from the automotive industry, and drivers themselves. As a result, it’s still in its infancy, mostly. However, the arguments in favour are stacking up:
- Experts agree it’s the most intelligent way to finance road infrastructure: those using the road network more, pay more for its upkeep (or expansion).
- Moreover, your CO2 emissions can be factored in. In that way, road pricing also becomes an important lever to decarbonise transport.
- Additionally, road pricing seems like the logical successor to various national emissions-based vehicle taxes, the revenue of which will dry up as electrification takes hold.
For those three reasons, road pricing in one form or another seems unavoidable.
There are, however, many ways to implement the principle.
- You could charge a road toll, using static toll gates.
- You could use telematics to charge fees based on the distance and/or time drivers spend on the road.
- You could target specific zones with a congestion charge or prohibit the use of certain vehicle categories in those zones.
All to fight air and noise pollution, traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because road pricing is already being practiced, in those many different forms, and to many different degrees. Let’s have a look at Europe’s major markets.
So far, road pricing in Germany (Straßenbenutzungsgebühren) is limited to a toll on heavy-goods vehicles (LKW-Maut), based on distance travelled, emission category of the vehicle, and its number of axles.
A nationwide motorway toll on cars (PKW-Maut) was approved for 2016 but was never introduced. The system would have compensated German motorists, meaning that in practice it would have applied only to foreign drivers on German roads.
Following lawsuits by the Austrian and Dutch government, that situation was condemned in 2019 by the European Court of Justice as discriminatory.
The toll is currently in limbo, not least because some in Germany would rather wait for the rollout of an EU-wide system of motorway tolling, as foreshadowed by the EU’s updated road pricing rules.
Uniquely among major countries, France has a well-established, widespread and long-standing system of motorway tolls. Called péage, the tolls are payable by all motorists on many (but not all) of the country’s motorways.
The péage system is the unintended consequence of the fact that in France, most highways were built by for-profit companies.
In all, the country counts around 11,000 km in toll motorways, run by 11 different companies.
Thanks to telematics – frequent users can install a device on their dashboard – payments are increasingly automated.
The London Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003, is one of Europe’s earliest, largest and best-known road pricing schemes. It is however not the oldest. In 2002, Durham introduced a congestion charge on a single road.
Other schemes that have since come into being include London’s Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), since 2008, for older or less clean commercial vehicles; and Ultra-Low-Emission Zone (ULEZ), since 2019, for all vehicles with older or less clean engines.
In operation since 2003, the M6 Toll north of Birmingham, also known as the Midland Expressway, is the UK’s only toll road. There are several toll tunnels and bridges.
The Birmingham Clean Air Zone, which kicked off in mid-2021, charges a fee for vehicles with high-emission engines.
Other plans for road pricing in the UK, both nationwide and locally, have been put forward several times, but have not been able to overcome strong public opposition.
Similar to but shorter than France, Italy has a network of tolled motorways. The Autostrade have a combined length of about 6,000 km, and are concentrated in the north of the country.
In addition, many of Italy’s urban centres have restrictions in place to limit congestion. So-called Limited Traffic Zones (known by their Italian acronym as ZTLs) are in place in many cities such as Rome, Florence or Pisa – but since they typically forbid non-residential private traffic (in certain places and at certain times) rather than reduce it via fees or tolls, this doesn’t really fall under “road pricing”.
Milan has two congestion charge zones: Area C, a smaller area covering the city centre; and Area B, a larger area surrounding it. The aim is to reduce congestion and pollution, which were very high in the city prior to the introduction of the Ecopass, the predecessor of the current scheme.
Spain also has a number of toll motorways, but these autopistas total no more than around 3,000 km. In 2021, a significant stretch was un-tolled.
Some toll roads are managed by the central government, others by regional governments. Despite proposals to remedy this lack of a coherent road pricing policy, no change is in sight.
As this sample of Europe’s Big Five markets indicates, there is a lot of diversity in terms of road pricing across the EU (and the UK). Will the EU’s recent update of road pricing rules change that?
First off, the European framework is not mandatory. It merely sets out the rules for countries that choose to adopt road pricing. And secondly, it’s concerned primarily with heavy-goods transport (for which it prescribes the Eurovignette). Thirdly, even though the updated rules open the door for car-based road pricing, the initiative still largely rests with the member states.
So don’t expect we’ll have EU-mandated, EU-wide road pricing tomorrow. For now, the Union remains a laboratory for national road pricing experiments, with everyone eagerly looking which ones produce the most results (in terms of reducing emissions, pollution and congestion) for the least amount of public resistance.