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 road pricing rules, putting more emphasis on the ‘polluter pays’ principle and with the prospect of extending the heavy-haul only system to all vehicles. However, Member States are not (yet) obliged to implement road pricing. So what is the situation across the continent?

To be fair, road pricing is a very old idea. In previous centuries, toll roads were quite common. And even today, expensive works such as tunnels and bridges are often financed on the basis of the toll they will generate. But for the most part motorists are used to the idea that the road they drive, unlike their car and the fuel they put in it, is free.

The modern idea that drivers should pay for the road by the time (or distance) they travel has been around since 1949, when the Rand Corporation proposed “direct road pricing to make freight trips more expensive on congested roads, or affect the time of day when freight traffic takes place.

Generalized road pricing – that is, also for cars – was proposed soon after, but naturally met with strong resistance from the car industry and from drivers themselves. As a result, it’s still in its infancy, for the most part. However, the arguments in its favor accumulate:

  • Experts agree that this is the smartest way to finance road infrastructure: those who use the road network more pay more for its maintenance (or extension).
  • In addition, your CO2 emissions can be taken into account. Thus, road pricing also becomes an important lever for decarbonizing transport.
  • Moreover, road pricing appears to be the logical successor to various emissions-based national vehicle taxes, the revenue from which will dry up as electrification takes hold.

For these three reasons, road pricing in one form or another seems unavoidable.

There are, however, many ways to implement the principle.

  • You can charge a road toll using static toll gates.
  • You can use telematics to charge fees based on distance and/or time drivers spend on the road.
  • You can target specific areas with a congestion charge or prohibit the use of certain categories of vehicles in these areas.

All to fight against air and noise pollution, traffic jams and greenhouse gas emissions. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because road pricing is already happening, in so many different forms and to varying degrees. Let’s take a look at the main European markets.

Germany

Until now, road pricing in Germany (Straßenbenutzungsgebühren) is limited to a toll for heavy goods vehicles (LKW-Maut), based on the distance travelled, the emission category of the vehicle and its number of axles.

A national motorway toll for cars (PKW-Maut) was approved for 2016 but was never introduced. The system would have compensated German motorists, meaning that in practice it would only apply to foreign drivers on German roads.

Following lawsuits by the Austrian and Dutch governments, this situation was condemned in 2019 by the European Court of Justice as discriminatory.

Tolling is currently in limbo, not least because some in Germany would prefer to wait for the rollout of an EU-wide motorway toll system, as updated EU road pricing rules suggest.

France

Unique among large countries, France has a well-established, widespread and long-lasting motorway toll system. Called tolls, tolls are the responsibility of all motorists on many (but not all) highways in the country.

The toll system is the unintended consequence of the fact that in France most highways were built by for-profit companies.

In total, the country has about 11,000 km of toll motorways, managed by 11 different companies.

Thanks to telematics – frequent users can install a device on their dashboard – payments are increasingly automated.

UK

The London Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003, is one of the oldest, largest and best-known road pricing systems in Europe. However, it is not the oldest. In 2002, Durham introduced a one-road congestion charge.

Other schemes that have since emerged 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 service 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 started in mid-2021, charges a fee for vehicles with high-emission engines.

Other road pricing plans in the UK, both national and local, have been presented on several occasions, but have failed to overcome strong public opposition.

Italy

Similar but shorter than France, Italy has a network of toll motorways. The Autostrades have a combined length of around 6,000 km and are concentrated in the north of the country.

In addition, many Italian urban centers have implemented restrictions to limit congestion. So-called limited traffic zones (known by their Italian acronym ZTL) are in place in many cities such as Rome, Florence or Pisa – but as they generally prohibit private non-residential traffic (in certain places and at certain times) rather than the reduce via charges or tolls, this is not really “road pricing”.

Milan has two congestion charge zones: Zone C, a smaller zone covering the city centre; and Zone B, a larger area surrounding it. The aim is to reduce congestion and pollution, which were very high in the city before the introduction of Ecopass, the predecessor of the current system.

Spain

Spain also has a number of toll motorways, but these autopistas do not total more than around 3,000 km. In 2021, an important section was not tolled.

Some toll roads are run by 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 the five major European markets indicates, there is great diversity in terms of road pricing in the EU (and the UK). Will the recent update to EU road pricing rules change that?

First of all, the European framework is not mandatory. It simply sets out the rules for countries that choose to adopt road pricing. And on the other hand, it mainly deals with the transport of heavy goods vehicles (for which it prescribes the Eurovignette). Third, although the updated rules open the door to car-based road pricing, the initiative remains largely within the purview of Member States.

So don’t expect us to have EU-wide road pricing tomorrow. For now, the Union remains a laboratory for national road pricing experiments, each eagerly seeking those that produce the most results (in terms of reducing emissions, pollution and congestion) for the least public resistance .

Image: Shutterstock

Mary I. Bruner