Scotregen asked Napier University’s Professor Ron McQuaid, an expert in transport issues and a member of SURF’s Academic Panel,for his thoughts on the wider implications of the rejection of the City of Edinburgh’s proposals.

Despite the ‘No Vote’ in Edinburgh, congesting pricing in the UK is not dead – as with the Monty Python parrot, it is ‘just resting’. A broad spectrum of political and ideological views support congestion pricing. The Edinburgh vote will cause some rethinking about the tactics of introducing road pricing, but probably not about the basic direction of local and national policies.

One issue that the Edinburgh situation highlights is the role of national versus local approaches. First, a national approach often makes more sense – much of Edinburgh’s worse congestion is actually on the trunk roads leading to and from the city, and the same is the case around many other cities such as Glasgow. Second, politically it may be easier for road pricing in a local area to be introduced by national bodies, where the danger of a voter backlash may have relatively less importance.

Even though the voters convincingly rejected the scheme on offer, the City of Edinburgh Council are to be congratulated on having had the courage to try to introduce road user charging in order to help combat the problems of increasing congestion.

We need to unpack why the voters said ‘no’. How much of their antagonism was due to the characteristics of the scheme itself? Was it the consultation process, with equity issues in their various guises; or the belief that the actual future public transport improvements would be delivered? Was there a partial breakdown in trust with accounts of ‘traffic lights being set to reduce traffic speed’ or ‘extra’ road works being done in the run in to the referendum (all anecdotal, but evidence suggests these may have increased peoples’ suspicions, no matter how unwarranted). Or was it people fear of their local streets becoming ‘rat runs’ etc.? Whether or not each of these complaints had real foundation, if they were perceived to be issues then they must be dealt with fully and openly.

What are the lessons for elsewhere? Asking people to vote for an extra ‘tax’ (for that is how it was often perceived) is always going to be hard. Being totally honest and open with all the evidence (for and against) and convincing people that, on balance, this is the best solution is essential. Getting the media ‘onside’, or at least not being antagonistic, is crucial.

The debate on road user charging has a long way to go and, while being first to hold a referendum has had its drawbacks, Edinburgh provides useful and positive lessons into how we can better approach it elsewhere. We need to learn these lessons now.

Ron McQuaid

Employment Research Institute and Transport Research Institute

Napier University, Edinburgh