Road pricing and Oxford’s Zero Emission Zone

Road pricing and Oxford’s Zero Emission Zone

By Andy Chivers

Vehicle licensing and fuel duty currently rise at £35bn annually, but we expect this to shrink as the number of electric vehicles increase. As those purchasing new electric, or hybrid, cars tend to be financially secure, vehicle and fuel tax rises will largely fall on poorer people and small traders whose overheads are already tight. This exacerbates an already unequal society and all the negative consequences that come with that (well described by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009)).

Road pricing is the obvious response: you pay per mile driven, discouraging the use of certain roads at certain times. London has had its Congestion Charge for many years and other cities are doing the same. Our local response is the Zero Emission Zone (launching on 28th February), which is effectively a road pricing scheme for Oxford’s city centre. But these schemes are also unfair because the people that are able to travel through the zones for free, are the people that can afford to buy a zero emission vehicle.

Local schemes are primarily designed to reduce air pollution and congestion, not to tackle climate change or replace lost tax, so it is important to know what the aim of a scheme is and be clear about the conflicting pressures and unintended consequences of any initiative. 

We don’t want to make poor people poorer or small businesses less secure; the energy price increases and the hike in National Insurance are bad enough already.

We don’t want car drivers to drive more; something that an electric car encourages with almost free mileage costs.

We want to reduce carbon dioxide production and improve air quality.

We want to encourage people to be more active in their day-to-day life.

We want healthy towns and suburbs. 

Electric vehicles are part of our response to averting climate change, but it is a fantasy to imagine that we can all be driving our own e-car. There is a need for greater use of public transport and an increase in cycling and walking.

Oxfordshire County Council plans to introduce Connecting Oxford which will encourage commuters to use buses instead of cars (principally from Witney and Abingdon in order for people to get to the major employers in Headington), reducing CO2 emissions, congestion, and air pollution in one go. The workplace parking levy will subsidise the bus service and the reduced congestion will allow the buses to travel faster.

Putting all these issues together, we need a tax on journeys that doesn’t penalise the poor, encourages a shift to public transport and active travel, frees up congested roads, and raises enough revenue to replace the loss of fuel tax.

Crucially, initiatives need to be easily understood and transparent so that people planning a journey can make informed choices. Simply being billed at the end of a year for the miles driven will not help change behaviour. Taxi meters show the cost clocking up and something like that would probably be quite simple to fit in a car, though agreeing the costing and incentives would be very controversial and of course the device would have to be tamper proof.

What would be the effect if every car journey incurred a fixed baseline charge of £1? Short journeys would be less attractive and it would encourage people to use public transport, walk or cycle. But this would disadvantage poorer drivers and essential workers, so an exemption would be needed. 

In the end we know that changing human behaviour is difficult and need tackling in different ways. Frequent, high-quality, cheap bus services and friendly routes for walking and cycling need to accompany the start of road pricing and constraints to journeys through town. We need to be debating at a national level the challenge of replacing fuel tax with road pricing and finding ways that can help create the society we want.


One Response

  1. […] can’t be done by a simple switch to electric vehicles. Department for Transport (DfT) analysis shows this would be too slow, use too much energy, and […]

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