Electronic Road Pricing for Cleaner Air

Air pollution poses a significant threat on a global scale, with urban areas being particularly affected due to the substantial contribution of vehicular emissions to poor air quality. Vehicular pollutants, such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), have been linked to various health issues, including respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, and even premature death.[1]To address this critical issue, governments and urban planners around the world are actively exploring innovative solutions, and Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) has emerged as one promising strategy.

Health impacts of air pollution (Image source: European Environment Agency)

The ERP system utilises electronic toll collection technology to charge vehicles for using certain roads or entering specific zones at designated times.[2] It typically consists of gantries installed at strategic locations along roads or entry points to detect and record passing vehicles. In-vehicle units or electronic tags are used to identify enrolled vehicles and deduct the appropriate fees from the drivers' accounts automatically.[3]

ERP gantries in Singapore (Image source: Singsaver)

One of the primary benefits of ERP is its ability to reduce traffic congestion. By charging fees for driving during peak hours, ERP encourages individuals to consider greener transport options such as public transportation, carpooling, cycling, and walking.[4]ERP helps minimise traffic volume by discouraging unnecessary private car usage, resulting in less vehicular emissions.

Creating a connected, healthy and efficient transport system (Image source: Climate Council)

The implementation of ERP also brings about behavioral change.[5]As individuals become more conscious of the financial implications of driving during peak hours, they are encouraged to adjust their travel patterns. This leads to reduced congestion, improved traffic flow, and ultimately, better air quality.

Several cities worldwide have successfully implemented ERP systems, yielding positive air quality improvements. For instance, Singapore's ERP system--which charges based on road usage and time of day—has significantly reduced traffic congestion and improved roadside air quality since its introduction in 1998.[6]

Singapore ERP In-vehicle Units (Image source: Climate Council)

Similarly, Stockholm, Sweden, implemented a congestion pricing scheme in 2006. The system charges drivers for entering and exiting the city center during peak hours. As a result, traffic volume has reduced by 20%[7], leading to substantial improvements in air quality. Studies have also shown a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels, indicating the positive impact of ERP on reducing vehicle emissions.

Stockholm congestion charging cordon map (Image source: Swedish Transport Agency)

In Hong Kong, traffic congestion is a long-standing problem due to the increasing number of licensed vehicles.[8]Roads like Queen's Road Central and Pedder Street are frequently congested during peak hours, resulting in long queues and extremely slow travel speeds, sometimes falling below 10 kilometers per hour. Recognising the severity of the problem, the Hong Kong government has been studying the potential of implementing Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) as a solution since the 1980s.[9]Separate studies were conducted in 1983, 1997, 2006, and 2019. However, various factors such as changes in the economic situation and concerns over privacy prevented the implementation of ERP.

Proposed designated area covered under the ERP Pilot Scheme (Image source: Transport Department)

Advances in technology, stronger privacy protection laws, successful case studies globally, along with the recent implementation of the "Free-Flow Tolling System"[10]and the planned introduction of the "Time-varying Toll Plan” for the three road harbor crossings[11]have demonstrated that ERP can be successfully implemented in Hong Kong too. By reducing traffic congestion, incentivising sustainable transportation options, and promoting behavioral change, ERP systems can significantly improve air quality and create healthier and more livable cities.

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