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Interview Carl Hamilton: Road pricing is not about car-bashing, but about saving time

Road pricing is a much researched concept. Many researchers have analyzed the effects of road pricing on how it affects traffic flow, congestion, the environment, and social welfare in general. Carl Hamilton, a member of the Management Board of JPI Urban Europe, recently defended his doctoral thesis, which is not about the effects, but rather on the implementation of road pricing.

In what way does this thesis contribute to existing research?

‘My thesis focuses on the implementation process of road pricing. We already know much about the economic and transportation effects of road pricing: demand goes down, people take different routes, congestion eases, but there is plenty still to learn about the practical implementation of road pricing, how to make it work. My research connects the technical aspects with an observation of how political risk, public acceptability, interoperability, system performance, and cost.  All these play important and interconnected roles, in a way that has not been the focus of much research previously.’

Why is your thesis useful for policy makers?

‘I hope that policy makers can learn something from my thesis, because the implementation of road pricing is a complex process. It is difficult to buy something you do not know enough about. On the one hand transportation economists know everything about the effects, but they can not tell you how to implement the road pricing system. On the other hand, IT-specialists will say it is very easy to implement, they want to sell you the system, but they don’t understand transport nearly enough.  This thesis is about connecting the two.’

The difficulties in the implementation process of road pricing are partly linked to attitudes towards congestion, the psychological aspects. Could you explain this?

‘Our attitudes towards road pricing are made up by three main components. First, there is self-interest. We make a simple cost-benefit analysis, weighting the time we can save against the money we may have to pay. Secondly, our moral sentiment also influences attitude, including our view on equity, fairness, the natural environment, and the role of government. Finally, a large share of the explanation is simply whether or not we have experienced road pricing. People who have experienced road pricing are more likely to have a positive attitude towards it. I have looked into the attitudes in Stockholm, Helsinki and Lyon and the pattern is quite clear. The biggest thing politicians can do is to ensure that the design is truly focused on congestion mitigation, and that revenue is spent on something people feel is relevant for the sector, such as public transport. Doing that will have a positive effect on the public acceptance.’

About the doctoral thesis

‘The dissertation consists of five separate papers, each addressing a subset of the topic:

• The first paper is all about costs  to introduce congestion taxes in Stockholm, and describes how public opinion and political risk lead to a system design that in all likelihood was more expensive than necessary.
• In the second and third paper the European regulation on interoperability between road charging systems is evaluated from a benefit/cost perspective, which is found to be overly ambitious.
• Paper four is about cheating. A potential solution is presented for how the practical problems related to enforcement of road charging in an international context or in countries with weak institutions can be solved.
• The fifth and final paper analyses the public opinion of road charges, and especially urban congestion charges, using a survey conducted simultaneously in 3  European cities: Stockholm, Helsinki and Lyon.’

For more information please contact Carl Hamilton.