A new report from the House of Commons Transport Select Committee has urged the government to introduce road user charging, saying there is “no viable alternative”. The Treasury currently receives £35 billion a year from fuel duty and vehicle excise duty, a figure that will decline as motorists shift to electric vehicles. Road user charging, which sees motorists pay for their use of the roads, could replace this lost revenue.

Dr Gavin Bailey, Sustainable Transport Lead at sustainability consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting, has carried out extensive research on sustainable transport options, and the benefits of active travel for the environment and economy. Reacting to the Select Committee’s report, he said:

An idea whose time has come

“The new report from the Transport Select Committee is a timely reminder of the need to reform how we charge for road use ahead of the government’s plans to ban new sales of petrol and diesel cars in 2030. As petrol and diesel cars are phased out, road user charging is a necessity in plugging the revenue shortfalls from loss of fuel duty, revenues which could be used to support other environmental objectives in pursuit of the government’s 2050 Net Zero target, as well as reducing congestion. We have come a long way since the last Labour government’s attempts to introduce road user charging in 2007 and public opinion is far more open to the idea than it was 15 years ago. It is an idea whose time has come.

Charging by weight

“As the report says, the government should explore implementing a road user charging scheme as soon as is feasibly possible. There are many forms that such a scheme could take, from simply charging road users by overall distance travelled to ‘dynamic’ road pricing, taking account of the location and time of day. However, from an environmental perspective, we would also suggest differentiating the charge by vehicle weight, as this acts as a proxy for energy use. While they generate zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles are on average a fair bit heavier than standard petrol or diesel cars due to the additional weight of the battery used to power them. This increased weight also leads to elevated levels of particulate emissions from tyre wear, a source of microplastics which can negatively affect air quality, as well as enter soil and watercourses.

Missing the point

“However, in the focus on revenue, the Committee appears to have missed a fundamental point about road user charging. The Committee suggested that road user charging should be “revenue neutral” and cost the same or less than fuel duty currently does to car users. It is hard to see how setting the charge at lower than fuel duty, which has been frozen for more than a decade, will incentivise people to use alternative modes of transport. For road user charging to be a truly progressive environmental policy, the price incentive must be there to get people out of cars and into public transport and active modes of travel. Without it, it would likely turn into a missed opportunity.”