Smeed Report

Smeed Report

The Smeed Report was a study into alternative methods of charging for road use, commissioned by the UK government between 1962 and 1964. The report stopped short of an unqualified recommendation for road pricing, but concluded that it could work and should be considered for congested road networks. It was named after R. J. Smeed, the deputy director of the British Transport and Road Research Laboratory, who headed the team that studied the feasibility of charging motorists for using congested road networks.

The report [cite book |last=Smeed, |first=R.J. |year=1964 |title=Road pricing: the economic and technical possibilities |publisher=HMSO] was written by a body of 11 economists and engineers, including Michael Edwin Beesley, [cite book |last=Foster |first=Christopher |title=Beesley, Michael Edwin (1924–1999) |publisher=Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] a pioneer of Cost Benefit Analysis techniques whose key innovation was the valuation that people give to their time, and Gabriel Roth, a noted road transport economist. Smeed was also a noted statistician and transport planner: he identified Smeed's law that describes motorists' tolerance towards speed and risk. He observed that drivers would not go out if traffic speeds fell below 9 mph, but if speeds rose then more would drive until they caused more congestion. [cite news|first=Freeman|last=Dyson|title=A Failure of Intelligence|work=MIT Technology Review|date=2006-11-04 |accessdate=2007-11-25|url=]

The report suggested alternatives to the system of road taxation and user benefits that was in use at the time, and which was based largely on the results of the 1933 Salter Report into road and rail transportation.


The results of their revolutionary study were reported into the then Ministry of Transport, indicating that the effect of speeding up congested traffic would benefit the country's economy by £100-£150M per annum. It would be possible and feasible to impose car user restraint strategies by charging through the metering of road usage, "if the government had the will to do so".

The principles laid down were that "The road user should pay the costs that he imposes upon others", namely:
* road costs (construction, maintenance, lighting)
* congestion (the delay the motorist causes to others)
* social costs (risk, noise, fumes)

The operational requirements should be:
* related to the amount of use made of the roads
* costs should vary according to the location, time, and type of vehicle
* cities should be zoned, with costs raising to 10 shillings per hour of driving in the centre of London or Cambridge
* costs should be stable and known in advance
* payment in advance of travel should be possible

Charging zones would be identified by clear signs on their boundaries; these could be electrical and thus be changed at various times of the day. A simple national colour-coded scheme could be used to indicate the charge rate in force at that time, or to allow different charging zones to exist side-by side.

They recognised that traditional toll collection methods would not be practical in city centres where the road layout had not been designed to provide natural gateways into the town, and where the demolition and land take required for toll booths or toll plazas would be unacceptable.Instead they investigated charging through a daily licence system, managed either by a remote wireless automatic identification of the vehicle, or by a meter mounted inside the vehicle, which could track both driving charges and parking.

They recommended a tamper-proof credit or pre-payment meter inside the car, as, with the technology available at the time, any external recording mechanism would require expensive equipment for tracking and book keeping, and would threaten the privacy of the vehicle users they tracked. A single metering system could be used in any British city centre that chose to adopt a charging zones.

There was also an economic analysis that showed that the largest part of the economic benefit from road pricing was not in the relief of congestion but in the revenue collected, which would only be released when the revenue is used. In the arguments that followed, the good that could come about by using the money from such a scheme was frequently overshadowed by a vision of the restraints and penalties levied on the motorist.


The report was received with ambivalence by the Macmillan government which had commissioned it: the Ministry reported back in June 1964 that it would first need to study the implications, and thus "The Government are therefore in no way committed to this form of restraint". [cite news|title=Experts' plan to cut traffic pressure |work=The Times |date=1964-06-11 |accessdate=2007-11-23] It initially withheld release of the full report to the public, and took its time to consider it. It was rumoured that the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home, had said "let us take a vow that if we are re-elected we will never again set up a study like this one". cite web | format = PDF | url= | title = Solving Congestion (when we must not build roads, increase spending, lose votes, damage the economy or harm the environment, and will never find equilibrium) | first = P B | last = Goodwin | publisher = University College London | date = 1997-10-23 ]

Events took over, and two elections were fought in 1964 and 1966 with transport as a major election issue, resulting in a new Wilson government with Barbara Castle as Minister of Transport. A large majority enabled her to bring into law a number of the then-controversial safety concepts that the RRL had been investigating, such as speed limits and breathalyzers. She appeared to become an advocate of road pricing per the Smeed Report and publicly criticised the construction of new urban motorways as "self-defeating", during a tour of US cities, [cite news|title=Mrs. Castle Learns From U.S. Mistakes |work=The Times |date=1966-10-17 |accessdate=2007-11-25] slowing down the UK's future urban road building programme as a consequence. However, the political will needed to establish such a scheme seemed to be slipping away, andcommitment atrophied in the UK as the minister requested more feasibility reports, until, in 1970, the government changed and the scheme effectively died.

The Smeed committee members had already become frustrated and moved on, Smeed leaving the RRL for a new post under Professor Sir Colin Buchanan in University College London in 1965, and Roth acrimoniously leaving the country to join the World Bank in 1967, citing the delays and the mutation of the pricing scheme from an enabling investment-raising mechanism into a method of restriction. [cite news|title='Frustration' over road pricing |work=The Times |date=1967-07-03 |accessdate=2007-11-25]

It remained influential elsewhere, with economist Maurice Allais following up this work in 1965 with a report [cite news|title=Options in Transport Tariff Policy. |work=EEC, Brussels |date=1967] for the EEC that recommended rail and road privatisation to allow the operation of free market forces across Europe's roads and railways, and with the Adam Smith Institute who encouraged Roth to revisit his earlier analysis in 1992, when he noted that "the idea of charging for the use of congested roads is still hypersensitive, and many politicians avoid the subject studiously." [cite news|last=John Hibbs and Gabriel Roth|title=Tomorrow's Way -Managing roads in free society|work=The Adam Smith Institute |date=1992 |accessdate=2007-11-25]

Although Singapore adopted Smeed's approach (after Roth analysed its congestion problems for the World Bank) it was not until 2002 that the principle was re-adopted in Britain, with legislation passed to allow the first schemes to be implemented in Durham [cite news |url= |title=Toll road lawyers in award hope |publisher=BBC News |date=2006-04-09 |accessdate=2007-11-23] and then London, [cite news |url= |title=Smooth start for congestion charge |publisher=BBC News |date=2003-02-18 |accessdate=2007-05-26] with consideration given to a national road pricing system. [cite news ||title=The real cost of road pricing|publisher=BBC News |date=2005-06-07 |accessdate=2007-11-25] Research by the likes of Lewis and Mogridge were better able to formulate the observation that the more roads are built, the more traffic there is to fill these roads. Combined with the visible effects of growing levels of traffic, this developed the intellectual argument upon which to consider introducing new methods of charging.

Comparison with today's schemes

Most of the features and considerations identified in the Smeed Report were consistent with those of the British congestion charging schemes implemented 40 years later.

Perhaps the biggest change relates to the method of charging and collection, as the available technologies have changed over time. Thus the Durham scheme uses an automated toll booth, [cite news |url= |title= Drivers charged to cut congestion (Durham)|publisher=BBC News |date= |accessdate=2007-11-25] while London uses a remote system based on CCTV and automatic number plate recognition.cite news |url= |title=Preparing for Congestion (London)|first=Tom |last=Symonds |publisher=BBC News |date=2003-02-11 |accessdate=2007-05-27]

As predicted, the costs of tracking and billing are very large; for the remote monitoring of the London scheme the majority of the income raised is absorbed by the costs. There are suggestions that a wireless "tag and beacon" scheme could be introduced as a potentially better and cheaper alternative.cite news |url= |title=C-charge plans 'will waste £166m' |publisher=BBC News |date=2003-02-11 |accessdate=2007-05-27]

There are no multiple zones in operation in the UK; when it was decided to extend congestion charging from central London to include the West End of London, there was some discussion about having two zones running side-by-side. However, the Western zone was introduced by simply extending the area of the earlier London zone and use the same charges and conditions for simplicity.

Although the more recent Data Protection Act now gives a framework for the responsible collection of personal data in the UK, the privacy concerns identified in the Smeed report were not addressed by the London scheme, with fears expressed over mass surveillance [cite news | url= | title = London Congestion Charge CCTV privacy concerns |work=Spy Blog
date=2003-02-11 |accessdate=2007-05-27
] and abuse of the systems. [cite news | first=John |last=Lettice |url= |title=The London charge zone, the DP Act, and MS .NET |work=The Register |date=2003-02-21 |accessdate=2006-04-08]

Edinburgh seriously considered a two-cordon road pricing scheme but rejected it in 2005 after a public referendum. [cite news |url= |title=Congestion charges: issue that split a city in two |first=Ian |last=Johnston |date=2005-01-25 |work=The Scotsman |publisher=Johnston Press plc |accessdate=2007-12-02]

Singapore has adopted many of the ideas originally identified in the Smeed Report, since introducing its first Restricted Zone in 1975. [cite news| url= | title=Road Charging Scheme: Asia - Singapore|work=UK Commission for Integrated Transport |date=2006-06-21 |accessdate=2007-11-26] It uses a variable Electronic Road Pricing structure on expressways and through gateways into the central business district with pricing based on time and congestion levels. It aims to reduce congestion, encourage the use of public transport, car pooling, less congested alternative routes and different times of travel. Since 1998 it has operated through a wireless In-vehicle Unit which communicates with the overhead gantries, and makes electronic payments through an electronic CashCard. [cite news| title=Singapore Land Transport Authority |url=
] A cordon based charging scheme has also been running in the city centre of Oslo, Norway since 1990. [ cite news| title=Fjellinjen A/S, Oslo toll operator|url=|accessdate=2007-11-26] However, this differs in some key respects from Smeed's scheme, as it relies on a system of 19 wireless AutoPASS-enabled entrypoints with toll booths, and it was not designed as a congestion charge. Instead it is a hypothecated tax or fund-raising mechanism to pay for new roads, in the first instance, and public transport more latterly. [cite news| url= | title=Road Charging Scheme: Europe - Norway, Oslo|work=UK Commission for Integrated Transport |date=2006-06-21 |accessdate=2007-11-25]


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