For a more sustainable mobility future, let’s free up our roads with open road tolling

Date: Friday June 17, 2022

In the last decades, the tolling industry has been embracing significant change with the introduction of open road tolling (ORT). This started back at the end of the 1990’s in a few place such as North America and Australia. First introduced as a new technical concept, it quickly became a new way for operating toll roads and started a successful and targeted journey.

Today’s world is being shaken by unprecedented, unpredictable, and above all disrupting factors such as pandemics arrival, rebound of war, price surges and the climate emergency worsening. Transitioning toll road operations towards open road tolling appears very attractive, as this approach to mobility would enable a new paradigm driven by a ‘we all win’ approach.

What technologies are used in ORT?

Let’s first have a look a few years backwards on the introduction of electronics transponders, called ‘tags’. Use of these tags in open road tolling started back in the 1990s, being provided to motorists as a complementary way to proceed to toll payment at toll plazas and avoiding the use of cash. The operational benefit for road concessionaires being also to bring efficiencies by avoiding operations of people and processes to manage cash at the plaza.

Various technologies emerged and the remaining most popular ones are Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC). The first one, RFID, is using a passive, cheaper electronic. The second, DSRC, is using a more powerful battery-based signal mechanism. Other technologies attempted to compete in this space, like Infrared, and found less success.

Tag-based tolling at this stage was providing ease of going through the plaza, helping road operators and concessionaires also to develop further pre-paid and post-paid business models, while gaining efficiencies and safety by removing some of their employees from the plaza gates.

Nevertheless, it took mankind about 10 years of tag-based toll operations at the plaza level to realise there was further potential, and that this was only the beginning of a new, fundamentally changing era to conceive road operations.

Indeed, the idea emerged soon to remove the beam gate, enabling ‘barrier-less’ access and further down, removing the plaza itself leaving an immaculate road with no visible physical constraints to the traffic flow. Of course, the idea had to be supported by strongly revised technologies and business procedures.

First the detection technology had to be updated providing the ability to capture motorists account information at full speed, under various conditions; speeding, low speed, changing lane, backing up in traffic jam, in clear, dark, cloudy or heavy rain weather situation, etc. Second, opening the road made it necessary to engage a shift in considering all motorists using the road as customers and using the data detected from each and all of their road usage into a customer transaction, actively managed by a customer account management and relationship system.

This shift meant there was a need for all companies to transform from a cash collection company operating at the plaza, to a software company engaging remotely with motorists. Obviously, this transition was possible only in places and countries that found a strong support from the regulator, helping and supporting road operators to operate under such new circumstances and recover from violators based on strong legal and regulatory support.

What is interesting in this transition not only lays in the technological achievement, but also in the total transformation of a business into a new avenue. And the benefits are impressive since they are positioned at various levels and help all players across the entire value chain; from the government and the regulatory bodies to road operators, whatever their business model (concessionaire, etc), to motorists as individual travellers to fleets and commercial vehicles and, last but not least, the planet itself.

What are the benefits of open road tolling?

First, moving towards open road tolling is providing safety benefits that are immediate, removing obstacles from the road and therefore hazard potential for motorists (it is statically proven that every year car accidents occur at or around toll plaza around the world), but also for road operator personnel working at plaza level, at booth, supervision, etc.

Second, moving towards open road tolling typically provides traffic benefits that are also immediate. Travelled time is usually improved, and time spent in traffic, congestion, and slow down are also typically being lowered. Of course, each case is very different and very dependent upon the local nature of the infrastructure network, some highly congested or interfaced networks being more or less eligible for such benefits. Successful implementations of open road tolling across the world however normally see very strong congestion improvements.

Third, moving towards open road tolling usually generates strong customer engagements. Countries that have implemented such schemes are being recognised as advanced and future driven by their motorists who see tangible benefits in the overcoming of our decade-long issues around traffic congestion. Road operators as well as states and governments usually benefit from an improved image once they have been able to implement open road tolling and prove the benefits for the citizens.

Fourth, and last (even if other benefits can also be found on top of these), moving towards open road tolling also helps achieve a much better carbon footprint, by reducing congestion, slow-down and acceleration. Some road operators have been able to observe their carbon footprint literally zeroed after they transitioned to open roads. Maintaining our planet by improving air quality, reducing emissions and noise is also a huge benefit as the mobility sector still accounts for a substantial part of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion (24% according to IEA report).

Convincing arguments, aren’t they? However let’s face reality, the successful implementation of open road tolling can never be a given. For various reasons that are each time very specific to each environment, some players have failed dramatically in the transition, splashing a rain of collateral issues onto motorists, government, concessionaires, brand image, etc. Accumulated experience of managing the change towards open road tolling helps to ensure success, and most notably, such change must be addressed holistically, involving all stakeholders for a start towards a successful journey.

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Image by mailer_diablo – Self-taken (Unmodified), CC BY-SA 3.0, Link