Road-pricing demise: reactions and alternatives
Road-pricing in Flanders seems to be dead and buried. But how did it come to this and what are the alternatives to reduce car traffic and congestion?
While almost all political parties seemed to agree road-pricing was a good answer to rising traffic in Flanders, the support has completely evaporated over the past days. In the run-up to the elections, politicians have seen there is little comprehension for the idea among their constituents.
“When we heard that road-pricing would cover the entire road net, we knew it was a lost cause”, says Flemish mobility organization VAB’s spokesman Maarten Matienko. “This would have had big consequences for the people of provinces at the extremities of the Region, where there are little alternatives for cars.”
VAB pleads for a budget-neutral intelligent road-pricing system in areas with a lot of congestion and viable alternatives. In and around Brussels, for example. Investments in public transport and bicycle infrastructure would also help.
Belgian mobility organization, Touring, wants Flemish Mobility Minister, Ben Weyts (N-VA), to gather all stakeholders. Evaluating the situation should bring a common view. Touring is against road-pricing if it would just be a tax increase. “A base of support for road-pricing should be created. And measures for people without alternatives for the car, so they won’t have to pay”, says Danny Smagghe, spokesman for Touring.
Belgian car manufacturer and importer federation, Febiac, feels the political world has not brought enough nuance in the road-pricing story. It has not reacted to experts saying that driving should become expensive. Febiac is, however, a believer in a road-pricing system. “It is a fair system to make people pay for use of the car”, says the organization’s spokesman, Joost Kaesemans. “The goal is not to empty the roads, but just take the top off. With just 5 percent less traffic, you can achieve 10 to 15 percent less congestion.
Without road-pricing, the fear is congestion will remain a problem. So what are the alternatives to solving the mobility issue? Different stakeholders have different views that might or might not work.
One suggestion is to build more roads. For certain bottlenecks, like the peak hour lanes near Leuven and Antwerp, this strategy could work. But roads alone won’t solve the problem. Better roads would create less traffic, but could also generate more traffic and congestion because it lures people back into their car and out of alternatives.
Convincing more people to live in the city would also be an alternative. The typical Flemish style of living in decentralized villages with ribbon development leaves little alternatives for car use. But the government postponed the proposed building stop again until after the elections. And fiscal stimuli to encourage people to live in the city are a touchy subject with many people in the countryside.
Company cars and public transport
Abolishing the system of company cars is another suggestion. Last year, companies registered 293.844 cars. The system is said to stimulate commuters to use their car, a problem for mobility and climate reasons. The Belgian Federal Planning Bureau recently published its findings on the matter. Removing the fiscal benefits of company cars would decrease the number of driven kilometers by car by 3,6 percent. Public transport use would rise 6,7 percent, as well as more transport by foot or bicycle.
Investing in public transport could be a solution. The current offer is too slow to be a real alternative. On average, commuters need 78 percent more time by public transport than by car on popular routes. But to realize this, the different regions of the country need to cooperate. Around Brussels, for example, much needed investments have been delayed for years. Limiting the number of parking spaces to encourage people to use public transport instead of their car is also proposed by some specialists.
A cost shift from car ownership to car use remains the most efficient way to combat congestion, according to experts. Depending on the system adopted, road-pricing could shrink congestion 10 to 30 percent. It is not excluded that political parties again make a U-turn after the elections and introduce the system anyway. After all, road-pricing was already agreed on in the Flemish Climate Plan.
Much will depend on the modalities of the system. A system of road-pricing around big cities, and only during peak hours, for example. This way, there is less disadvantage for provinces at the extremity of the territory.
But even if road-pricing is agreed upon, the government will have to clarify a lot of points. Who will drivers have to pay, how will evasion be avoided and most importantly: how much will drivers need to pay. All these practical and legal discussions will make that it will take years before anything will happen.