Road pricing in the Benelux

BIVEC-GIBET Jubilee conference & book launch

BIVEC-GIBET celebrated its 40th anniversary with a jubilee conference on May 8, 2019. This jubilee conference focussed on the topic of road pricing in the Benelux. The conference targeted a broad spectrum of stakeholders interested in this topic.  

At this conference, BIVEC-GIBET presented it's jubilee book "Road pricing in Benelux. Towards an efficient and sustainable use of road infrastructure: Theory, Application and Policy". In this book, fifteen researchers and experts explain various aspects of road pricing. The book can be downloaded beneath.

Conference leaflet

Report

Steering mobility through road pricing - charging the use of road infrastructure - has been a regular topic in public and political debate in recent years. Due to problems such as congestion and climate change, road pricing has become a very topical subject now. Furthermore, it has always been an important research topic in transport economy. On the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, the Benelux Interuniversity Association of Transport Researchers (BIVEC-GIBET) has organized a conference on road pricing in the Benelux House in Brussels on 8 May.

BIVEC-GIBET chairman Professor Frank Witlox (UGent) opened the conference after which Thomas Antoine, Secretary General of the Benelux Union, welcomed all participants.

Experts in the field presented their most recent research results, and participants and interest groups were invited to react on these presentations.

Professor Erik Verhoef (VU Amsterdam) discussed theoretical principles of economic research on road pricing. He explained why "pricing" in theory leads to optimal use of road infrastructure. With a few practical examples, he showed how pricing also works effectively.

If road pricing is applied dynamically and in a targeted - i.e. smart - way, then the degree of acceptance increases. All road users will then be able to continue using their cars and reaching their destination with less congestion. Pricing stimulates the distribution of traffic over time. A lower price applies to those road users travelling outside peak hours. But road users who want to drive at peak hours will need to pay a higher price.

Professor Verhoef went into more detail about the resistance of road users to this measure. Road users accept road pricing more quickly if it is used to finance (new) road infrastructure. In the long run, this could even result in self-financing infrastructure that could stop the never-ending discussion between "building more roads" and "pricing".

Nevertheless, pricing has a clear negative undertone. Verhoef pointed out that mobility steering can also be implemented by means of positive price incentives, rewarding peak hour avoidance. There is quite a lot of support for this. However, there is also a disadvantage: rewarding costs money, and the governmental budgets are limited in size and time.

If we compare pricing and rewarding, the question arises as to whether a budget-neutral alternative exists combining best of both measures. In this context, Verhoef mentioned the system of tradable. Road users are given a number of "peak hour rights" that are tradable. Anyone who needs additional rights buys these from people who have not yet fully used their rights. Initial experiments on a limited scale show that this can work well in practice.

Professor emeritus Stef Proost (KU Leuven) presented more details on how smart pricing can shift traffic out of peak hours. Smart pricing can also take into account aspects such as vehicle type, income or location. However, road users are also smart and will try to avoid these costs, for example, by using secondary roads or having employers pay the costs of road pricing. If road pricing is to have an important effect, close coordination of the mobility approach between municipalities, regions and even countries is really necessary.

Professor Cathy Macharis (VUB) discussed the external effects of road transport, such as consequences for climate, air pollution, insecurity and congestion. Congestion and transport insecurity have the highest social costs.

Transport is a major CO2 producer, accounting for almost 1/3 of the CO2 emissions in Europe in 2015. Road transport causes by far the largest CO2 emissions of all transport sectors. Road transport is getting cleaner every year, but the effect of this is cancelled out by the enormous growth in road transport. As a result, emission remain far above the targeted CO2 reduction. Additional measures are thus needed to achieve further CO2 reduction by road transport. This could include avoiding to travel (e.g. by teleworking), changing mode of transport (e.g. by bicycle or public transport) or using cleaner vehicles.

Road pricing remains an interesting measure to change things. Professor Macharis explained how such a pricing system could be organized and what the expected effects would be. For private cars in Belgium, a reduction of 8% in CO2 emissions can be achieved by 2030 through road pricing; for road freight transport, this reduction can be 11.9%. Nevertheless, this is not enough if we want to achieve the desired reduction in CO2 according to the European climate objectives. Moreover, there must also be support for such a drastic price increase.

A number of stakeholders and scientists responded to these introductions.

Bernard Piette of Logistics in Wallonia, who represents the interests of the logistics sector, explained how this sector prepared itself for the recent introduction of a kilometre charge in Belgium. Large companies outside the road transport sector were more interested in this problem compared to small companies, including road haulers. However, doubt exist as to whether the kilometre charge has really helped in reducing congestion.

Philippe Degraef of the truck sector (FEBETRA) also has his doubts. The kilometre charge costs a hauler in Belgium many times more than the previous Euro vignette regulation. In practice, however, his lorry has been stuck in transport for much longer than before. The sector is not against road pricing, but only if it is designed in a smart way, applicable to secondary roads as well and to both professional and private vehicles.

Bert van Wee, Professor of Transport Policy at Delft University of Technology, indicated that road pricing has been the subject of debate in the Netherlands for more than thirty years now. But the introduction of road pricing encounters public and political opposition. The problem of congestion is generally recognized, but there is no enthusiasm to pay for a solution. The logistics sector fears higher charges, especially if the external costs are fully internalized, which is not the case at the moment. An important aspect is the use of revenues. If revenues are actually used to improve roads, support for road pricing increases considerably.

Professor van Wee is rather sceptical about a shift from road transport to public transport as a result of road pricing. After all, trains face the same problem as road transport: overcrowding during peak hours. Additional public transport capacity cannot be realized in the short term. Experiments with free public transport may be attractive as a symbol, but in practice they do not offer a real solution and it cost society a lot of money.

Luuk Blom, Deputy Secretary General of the Benelux Union, remarked that cooperation on road pricing in the Benelux only makes sense if all three countries agree on a common approach. Unfortunately, this is not the case now. This does not mean that Benelux is completely absent in this discussion. The Benelux collaboration is actively used to promote hydrogen technology as sustainable fuel, to coordinate criteria in low emission zones, to stimulate electronic vehicle documents and the cross-border use of long heavier vehicles

Professor Frank Witlox concluded the conference. Without a major intervention from the government in the area of managing mobility, the economies of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg will suffer major damage. We should not forget that the Benelux countries have to meet binding climate targets. Without road pricing, this seems to become very difficult.

Professor Witlox asked governments to actively use the knowledge generated and provided by universities and research institutes in this field. We need to understand each other better in this area. This also means: working together across borders. If you want to manage mobility optimally, you have to coordinate policies between municipalities, regions and neighbouring countries.

Road pricing also means change. We live in a rapidly changing society. New technologies, energy transition, changing logistics concepts such as home delivery, e-commerce and also paying for the use of the road are all examples of this. But change often also causes resistance. Resistance should be converted into trust, which is easier said than done. Scientific knowledge will certainly help, yes is often indispensable, to gain this trust.

Reconciliation in the form of compromising between divergent interests of various groups will be necessary. This is not an easy task, although no less urgent given the large social costs of congestion.

This requires knowledge and, above all, courage and binding leadership.

After the conference, BIVEC-GIBET presented its jubilee book on road pricing. In "Road pricing in Benelux: Towards an efficient and sustainable use of road infrastructure. Theory, application and policy", 18 authors guide you through the theory and practice of road pricing.