Why am I still confused by the congestion charge and tolls?


In theory, driving should be the easiest way to travel: no cancelled services, no stops, no changes, no strangers. But it’s not without its complications, particularly when it comes to journeys that involve congestion zones and toll roads.

The current payment systems are really confusing. Take a look at tolls: some require a pre-payment, others only charge you once you’ve passed through them and in some cases you actually have to stop and make a cash payment. How is anyone supposed to know which tolls require which type of payment?

Admittedly, payments for the congestion zone are starting to modernise, with the online service giving the choice of either pre or post payment. However, it’s still far from perfect. An issue which applies to both tolls and the congestion charge, is that even if you know exactly when and how to pay for these roads, the payment system is often clunky and impractical. Even the online payments require all of your credit card details, which is time consuming and inconvenient.

Ubiquitous and frictionless mobile payments are clearly the way forward; everyone has a mobile phone and there is an increasing demand for mobile payment services. But the current system isn’t working, so let’s change it.

What if every time you passed through a toll or a congestion zone, you either texted your number plate to a short code or, if returning, were to receive a message telling you to pay? You could then make a payment by simply replying “yes” to accept the charges. The potential of charging payments to the user’s phone bill, in conjunction with number plate recognition, is not to be underestimated. This sort of system has been incredibly successful in Italian cities such an Milan and Florence, where SMS billing is used for public transport: those who use public transport can accept their charges by simply responding to an SMS with a short message and this is charged to their mobile phone bill.

Think of the issues that SMS billing could solve if it was applied universally across congestion zones and toll roads: it could eliminate the confusion caused by the various methods we currently have. It would prevent people from forgetting to pay, reduce queues at tolls and put an end to the panic of having no cash to pay with at a toll.

It’s 2017 — why am I still confused by the congestion charge and tolls? Let’s make it easier and just use SMS billing.