Heavy goods vehicles are not paying their way on the roads. It’s time for distance-based charging

Lorries on the street of London, 2008. Image: Getty.

The poor state of repair of our urban and local roads, which account for 98 per cent of the network, were highlighted in the Asphalts Industry Association’s latest ALARM annual survey issued last month. The survey showed that more than 24,000 miles of local/urban road need essential maintenance within the next year. In particular, the report showed that London roads are the worst in England with almost a quarter in poor condition – twice as bad as the best roads in the country.

What is missing in the debate about funding road maintenance however, is the recognition that heavy lorries cause far more damage to foundations and structures of roads than cars. Yet they are only cover 11 per cent of their road infrastructure costs, despite what the Freight Transport Association claims. The standard 44 tonne HGV, which is the industry workhorse, causes 136,000 times more damage to road infrastructure than a Ford Focus because the damaging power rises exponentially as weight increases – a phenomenon known as the ‘Generalised Fourth Power Law

Local and urban roads, unlike motorways, are not built to sustain the large volume of heavy goods now traffic using them. And yet, the Road Haulage Association complains that its lorries are being damaged by the existing poor state of local roads – a phenomenon, for which they are largely responsible.

Consider a report called Heavy Goods Vehicles: Do they pay their way? - impacts on road surfaces, produced by RepGraph for the Freight Trade Association (FTA). It claimed HGVs pay three times more than their estimated damage costs to infrastructure. But our analysis at the Campaign for Better Transport shows that the FTA-commissioned RepGraph report is based on out-of-date figures and incorrect assumptions. In fact HGVs only cover one ninth of their road damage costs.

The wider problem is that this underpayment by lorries is not confined to road maintenance. In fact our latest report, which uses government values, shows that HGVs are still only paying a third of the costs they impose on the economy and society in terms of road congestion, road crashes, road damage and pollution costs. HGVs are almost seven times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal collisions on minor roads. They’re responsible for 17 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and a fifth (21 per cent) of NOx emissions from road transport, despite making up just 5 per cent of vehicle miles. When the full costs of HGVs are taken into account that equates to a £6bn a year taxpayer subsidy.


This subsidy undermines the incentive for the haulage industry to be efficient. Only a third (34 per cent) of HGVs are full in terms of load volume. Almost another third (30 per cent) are driving around completely empty – a figure that’s been growing for some years. Partially loaded trucks result in unnecessary lorry journeys to feed our shopping habits.

In contrast, the German distance-based charging system incentivises efficiency and has reduced empty lorries by a third, as well as reducing tonne kilometres because of better loading rates; prior to its introduction, Germany had similar empty lorry levels to the UK. In Austria, per km charging for trucks reduced the percentage of empty vehicles from 21 per cent to 16 per cent. Average loads grew by 0.6 tonnes, to 14,7 tonnes, between 1999 and 2004.          

That’s why we are calling on the government to introduce distance-based charging in its current review of the Lorry Road User Levy. This would better reflect HGV’s costs, encourage the use of less polluting lorries, and reduce unnecessary lorry miles by making more efficient use of the road network.

It is the duty of the government to make sure that the adverse impacts of road freight transport on the economy, the environment and society are minimised and that the public purse is not subsidising bad practice.

Philippa Edmunds is freight-on-rail manager at the Campaign for Better Transport.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.