A session on Road User Charging (RUC) was held at the 99th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board and discussed a mix of learnings shared by those who’ve implemented RUC and those who’ve been planning for user charging. For those unfamiliar with RUC, also known as road pricing, it’s the practice of direct charges for the use of a road, versus the taxes that are often levied on vehicle fuel or vehicle licensing. You may know RUC by other names such as toll roads, turnpikes, congestion pricing or cordon pricing.
Toll roads and turnpikes are examples of RUC that are often enacted to directly pay for road construction, however, as populations increase in urban areas RUC is being employed more often to make an impact on congestion or environment. The latter effort is not new; Singapore, for example, has been charging for road usage to control congestion since 1975.1 The technology used in 1975 was people and pieces of paper and has since evolved over time to include license plate readers, Bluetooth transponders, RFID, and now connected Global Navigation Satellite System-based vehicle tracking. These new technologies can enable a suite of new capabilities and additional services, much of it based on the capability of the systems to provide much more granular and readily available data.
Volume of data
Current RUC systems, which have been predominantly focused on identifying vehicles and performing billing, process massive amounts of vehicles. The NY State Thruway Authority published that in the month of November 2019 they recorded over 21 Million trips—an average of nearly 500 vehicles per minute—of which 88 percent were passenger vehicles. In 2018 the E-ZPass Group which implements RUC solutions reported that they processed over 3.4 Billion transactions.2 As we see more connected and autonomous vehicles with real-time data reporting, the amount of data available to cities and governments to make informed decisions will become unprecedented and challenging to process.
Making an impact
Many RUC implementations such as in Singapore, the I-405 corridor near Seattle, and Milan’s Area C have been designed to make an impact on vehicle congestion. The impact achieved from reduced congestion can have some follow-on impacts as well, such as improved air quality.
Valentino Sevino reported in this year’s TRB session that the Area C scheme has resulted in significant air pollution reduction: 42 percent reduction in Ammonia, an 18 percent reduction in Nitrogen Oxides, 35 percent reduction in CO2, and a 28-52 percent reduction in Black Carbon concentrations. In a 2011 study of the impact of electronic tolling (E-ZPass), they looked at the health impact from reduced congestion around electronic tolling plazas which reduce congestion by not requiring vehicles to stop.3 The study found that the reduction of congestion within 2 kilometers of toll plazas had a measurable improvement in reducing birth prematurity and low birth weight.
As cities are studying RUC and how these types of solutions may impact their citizens, we find ourselves on the cusp of a technological evolution known as Industry 4.0. This evolution will enable entirely new capabilities via access to near-real-time data. Technology such as IoT, IoT Edge, Digital Twins, 5G networks, and AI have progressed to the point where we can collect and process massive amounts of data for real-time insights and action. These technologies aren’t reserved for manufacturing and can be employed by governments and cities alike.
RUC systems will undoubtedly be leveraged to finance road and public transit projects as we see a reduction in fuel taxes from electric vehicles, but we may soon see systems that, for example, integrate near-real-time air quality sensors to shape traffic. Low-cost connected sensors like those under development by Microsoft Research’s Project Eclipse combined with Azure IoT Hub can enable cities to understand how traffic impacts their residents, whether it’s at the bus stop, on the second floor of an apartment building, or even on vehicles moving around the city. These same data sources which are valuable to public health can be used in conjunction with RUC to make measurable impacts on residents’ health and quality of life.
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