On Wednesday, March 8th, I was invited to participate to a panel during the 14th annual Road User Charging Conference in Brussels (#RUC17, more details available at http://www.roaduserchargingconference.co.uk/). The panel was moderated by Keith Mortimer from Wyeval (@Wyeval) and two other guests were on stage: Johan Schoups, CEO at Viapass Belgium (@Viapass_BE), managing the Kilometer Charge for trucks of +3.5 tons in this country, and Samuel Kenny (@samkennyis), Policy Officer at Transport and Environment, whose mission is to promote, at EU and global level, a transport policy based on the principles of sustainable development.

The main topic of the panel was to discuss how to meet congestion and environmental challenges, and about the role of RUC in smart cities. Let’s try to report and to develop what was presented during this session.

As mentioned in many other presentations during the day, road tolling is a great opportunity for the cities to get additional revenues. This additional money can be used then in various ways, to improve road and public infrastructure, road safety and various mobility services. Regarding the traditional way to raise taxes on car usage, which is mainly based on fuel taxes, road user charging has many advantages and is a good way to anticipate the changes forecasted with the introduction of electric mobility.

Compared to fuel taxes, road tolling allows to develop flexible and accurate charging policy, depending on location, time, vehicle type and owner, pollution measurement or special events. Incentives and adapted regulations may be designed to foster new behaviours and new usages.

In Norway, the Road Traffic Information Council stated that the sales of electric cars accounted for 17.6% of new vehicle registrations in January 2017, and that hybrid cars accounted for 33.8%, for a combined 51.4%. With such a huge figure for the penetration of electric vehicles, the traditional tax base on conventional fuel will decrease in an inverse proportion to the increase of electric cars. Then Road Users Charging become a fair and convenient way to compensate for the losses in the collection of fuel taxes.

However, there is a logical and big temptation to provide electric vehicles with significant discounts or even exemptions on tolling fees, since it is generally though that it will be a good incentive to accelerate the transition to a clean mobility. From a global tax base point of view it would generate serious drawbacks to have those discounts or exemption, leading to a mechanical decrease of available financial resources for the cities and regional governance bodies. Other incentives should be preferred, either based on the buying price of the vehicle, or on parking fees.

One justification to reject excessive discounts on tolling for EVs is that road tolling is not just about pollution. It is also about congestion and urban planning. A vehicle, whether it is powered by gasoline, diesel fuel, electricity or hydrogen take the same space in the streets, roads or in a parking lot. Tolling can provide good incentives to change behaviours and mobility habits. Fostering practices like car pooling, car sharing, peer-to-peer car rental, biking, walking, use of collective transport means are ways to reduce the number of cars we need in the cities. Autonomous vehicles will provide in the future additional capabilities to diversify our habits. The cars we are using now are parked 95% of the time. Using them during 50% of the time will allow to divide by a factor of ten the number of cars that are needed.

There was a very good question at the end of the panel, asking about the impact on the industry if we divide the number of cars by a factor of ten. This industry is employing so many people that it may have a significant effect on the economy. This s a very good question, and many things can be answered. As a preliminary remark let’s state that I do not consider as a desirable future for me and for my kids, to live in a city crowded with cars in the streets, on the sidewalks, etc, monopolizing almost all of the public space, even if they are electric or whatever. But let’s think from a less personal point of view.

  • First point, the car industry has been highly impacted by automation for the previous decades, and for sure this trend will continue. So, anyway, car manufacturers will have an issue with workers employment due to the increased number of tasks that robots will be able to perform.
  • Second point, if fewer cars are needed, the same, or even increased, number of kilometres will have to be covered by all of us. Even with communication technologies that allow to work from home or in third places, or with e-commerce, there is not a clear decrease in physical mobility requirements. Then, if the number of cars is divided by a factor of ten, each car will have to run 10 times more kilometres, and will roughly have to be replaced at a ten times higher rate. Ratios are probably not so simple to compute, but that’s the general idea.
  • Third point, the vehicles we’ll use in the future will need a completely different design. A car sharing operator buying thousands of cars will need a different design, adapted to multiple successive users, providing a different user experience, allowing an intensive use and an easy maintenance. These requirements are very different from individual car owner requirements. When Bolloré Group launched his Autolib’ service in Paris, they designed a specific vehicle, the Bluecar. Today many important breakthroughs in the car industry does not come from historical car manufacturers, but from newcomers, like Google or Tesla.

So the car industry has to adapt, one way or another way, or will leave the floor to newcomers.

When talking about tolling, a paramount issue is the social and the public acceptance of tolling rules. It seems that a highly shared idea in the panel is that acceptance is linked to the perception of the benefits to the actors of the smart city. More broadly, what is the value created by the urban road tolling for the city users (inhabitants, visitors, workers, economical actors, entrepreneurs), for the city services operators and for the city governance? Less traffic jams, predictable journey duration, less pollution, less noise, less stress, better quality of life, better public health, more economic and touristic activity… Multiple metrics, not only financial, have to be setup since the beginning of the project to measure initial situation, define objectives, follow the progress and allow an agile adaptation versus recorded results and feedback.

Another unanimous idea from the panel is that urban road tolling cannot be considered as a separate and an independent project, but need to be integrated in a holistic plan to improve mobility services in the city and to increase global value creation for the city. If the impact of road users charging, is to transfer people from their car to public transport or to other mobility services, then those alternative services to private car usage must provide the expected service quality and user experience. Which needs investments. Thanks to the revenue generated by the tolling fees, it must be shown that the benefits for the global ecosystem are worth the effort needed for implementing the transition.

Gilles Betis is an Independent Consultant and is the Chair of the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative.

Cet article a déjà été publié sur LinkedIn le 10 mars 2017 – Post originally published on LinkedIn on March 10th, 2017

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