Rory Williams

For a government agency, introducing a direct fee on something we have always had for free – or paid for indirectly – is never popular. That’s one of the challenges with road tolls. They are a new form of tax on something that we expect transport agencies to provide as a basic service. So, Sanral tries to convince us that this is the only way to increase capacity on national roads.

But what if transport agencies actually provided something new? In fact, they do.

Transport planners missed an opportunity to initiate user charges when they established lanes for buses, taxis and other vehicles with more than one or two people in them (high-occupancy vehicles).

These HOV lanes on the highway are a premium service because they allow some vehicles to “jump the queue”. (Which, by the way, is one of the things you are paying for when you ride a MyCiTi bus on a trunk line: the ability to avoid the delays experienced in general traffic.)

If HOV lanes had e-tolls, enforcement would be easier, and because you would be paying for added value, not just another basic lane, drivers would have fewer grounds to object.

If Metrorail can charge more for more comfortable Metro Plus service than for standard service, it should not be too much of a stretch to imagine roads differentiated according to the level of service they provide.

And if we can take that step, we can even say they wouldn’t need to be for HOVs only, they could be for anyone willing to pay for a quicker commute, and the toll price could be dynamically set at the level where not too many drivers used the lane.

If it starts to get congested, just increase the price, and some drivers will leave the lane.

New technologies might kick-start this change in outlook.

The UK will soon be testing road lanes that charge electric vehicles (EVs) as they drive.

These EV lanes, like HOV lanes, would be a new service; and a new service means the opportunity to establish a new user charge.

And just as prices set on an HOV lane could be dynamically varied to manage the volume of users, prices on an EV lane could be varied in response to the availability of energy. If you are driving during periods of peak demand for electricity, you pay more. When demand is low, you pay less.

If the energy for EVs comes from Eskom’s coal-fired plants, it isn’t strictly “clean”, but the carbon emissions can still be half the amount produced from a conventional car.

However, the real benefit, regardless of how environmentally benign an individual vehicle is, is an expanded range of options for producing and consuming energy – and managing it.

As more people buy EVs, encouraged by new infrastructure and appropriate financial models, the entire energy system begins to shift in ways I have written about previously, with homeowners installing solar panels not just to power their homes, but integrated with their vehicle batteries.

Transport is already part of the energy system, but this will become more obvious in future.

The other benefit of this approach to infrastructure is the ability to cross-subsidise: create value in one place to use somewhere else.

A lot of businesses have higher margins on some products or services that allow them to provide others below the cost of producing them. Government does the same.

We might feel that speed traps are scams that allow the traffic department to rake in the money, but that is one way they pay for everything else they do. They are not making a profit, after all, they are just covering costs. If they didn’t do it that way, they would need to find more funds somewhere else.

Whether it’s charging for the use of a road lane, levying higher property rates when land price increases, or collecting more for first class train service, the value can be managed.

Not just financial value, either. When a traffic officer stops a car, it’s an opportunity to educate a driver about road safety.

When water flows through a pipe, there is energy that could be captured. When wastewater treatment plants produce sludge, that’s potential nutrients for plants.

Those are all ways to capture value from things that happen anyway – value that would otherwise be lost. The challenge is to look for it, and turn it into a public good.

@carbonsmart