Moscow needs its own congestion charge

One of the first Russian words I learnt was ‘probka’, or traffic jam. It must take longer to get round Moscow by car than any other city in the world. Not only do the big roads lead you in the opposite direction from where you want to go; there are far too many cars on them. Probably the main use of mobile telephones is to ring up in a ‘probka’ to explain why you are going to be late for an appointment. Congestion must cost the city’s economy billions of roubles a year.

Yet there is a perfectly simple, elegant solution to the problem. Economists have known about it for years, though not, apparently, anyone else. It is called ‘road pricing’. The principle is to make motorists pay for using scarce road space. ‘Tolls’ have long been used in many countries to recoup the cost of building motor-ways. But the idea of using the price system to control traffic volumes is still a novelty. It has been tried in only two cities –Singapore and London. Moscow could learn from London’s scheme.

To cut down on what he called ‘chronic traffic congestion’, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has introduced a ‘congestion charge’, or a price for using roads in eight square miles of central London. Motorists have to pay £5 (X roubles) each weekday to enter a central area of the capital between 7am and 6.30 pm. They can pay online, or at some garages and newsagents, for each day or for as many days as they want. Two hundred and fifty cameras positioned in the zone entry points match car number plates against a database of vehicles whose drivers have paid the charge. Any motorist who has not paid by the end of the day is fined £80 (X roubles). Categories of vehicle exempted include motorbikes, taxis, buses, coaches and emergency service vehicles. Residents living within the charging zone receive 90 per cent discounts. The revenues from the charge are earmarked for improvements in public transport.

After exactly a year in operation, the results are impressive. Traffic volume in central London has decreased by almost a third. This has speeded up car journey times by 10 per cent. Each day 108,000 motorists pay the charge, while 8000 penalty notices are sent out. The use of buses and taxis has increased by 15 and 20 per cent respectively. However, revenues from the charge, running at £70m. a year [ X roubles], have fallen short of target, mainly because the scheme has been too successful in discouraging road use.

Road-pricing is the elegant solution to the problem of traffic congestion, not only because the price can be varied to achieve any desired traffic volume, but because it avoids heavy-handed bureaucratic methods for dealing with congestion, like partial bans or diverting traffic to some roads only.

There are many objections to ‘congestion charging’, some serious, some frivolous. The most frivolous is that it will not work in Russia. People will not pay the charges, or the fines, because they know the revenues will be stolen. This is part of the boring argument that nothing that works anywhere else will work in Russia, because the Russians are different.

So let me offer Muscovites an additional argument. Today they live under constant threat of a terrorist attack. Congestion-charging can be used as an anti-terrorist weapon. The police would be able to trace the registration, and therefore ownership and home address, of all vehicles entering Moscow on any given day. This monitoring capacity is what may commend it to the authorities. It would also solve the traffic problem. Any policy instrument which can kill two such birds with one stone deserves serious consideration.