Ramblings & ephemera

Turnpikes, roads, & tolls

From Andrew Odlyzko’s “Pricing and Architecture of the Internet: Historical Perspectives from Telecommunications and Transportation“:

British turnpikes were a controversial response to a serious problem. Traditionally, the King’s Highway was open to all. The problem was how to keep it in good condition. As commerce grew, the need to maintain roads became acute. At first, in Elizabethan times, laws were enacted compelling all able-bodied commoner males to devote several days a year to labor on the highways. (See [1,66,80] for references for the background information as well as other items below that are not attributed otherwise.) The inequitable distribution of the burden this imposed and the lack of effective control mechanisms by the central government led to many complaints. As a result, in 1663, the first turnpike was authorized. A local group was authorized to create a turnpike trust that would borrow money to improve a section of a road, and then collect tolls from travelers for passage over that section of the road. This venture was set up (as were all subsequent turnpikes) as an ostensibly non-profit trust. (There were opportunities for profits there, for example in payment of above-market fees and other abuses, but those were illicit, and in any case were not the high profits that other, more private, enterprises, such as lighthouses and canals, offered.) The reason for the non-profit nature of turnpikes was presumably to allay concerns about a violation of the ancient principle that the King’s Highway was open to all. Still, this turnpike was very controversial (as were many later ones). Apparently largely for that reason, it took until 1695 before the next turnpike was set up [2].

In the early 18th century, the turnpike movement took off in earnest. Although there were frequent protests (sometimes violent, as in the burning of the toll gates around Bristol in 1727 and 1735), by mid-1830s there were over 20,000 miles of turnpikes in England. …

Tolls were usually doubled on Sundays for ordinary commercial traffic, but were eliminated for travel to or from church. They also “were never levied on foot passengers, and were thus unfelt by the labouring poor” (p. 124 of [80]). There were also options in many cases for a flat fee for annual access. Still, there were countless controversies about the toll, “the collection of which led to endless evasions, inequalities and favouritisms of all kinds, arbitrary exactions, and systematic petty embezzlements” (p. 136 of [80]). …

… road tolls are coming back as a result of growing congestion and improved technology. Unlike telecommunications, where technology is increasing capacity of fiber, coax, and radio transmissions, building new roads is increasingly difficult, and making existing ones carry more traffic can only be done to a limited extent. At the same time, electronic means for monitoring traffic and collecting tolls are improving, and we see central business districts in Norway, Singapore, and London imposing tolls. Most of these systems do raise privacy issues, too, since they are centralized ones with information about users, or at least cars. Still, there is a strong tendency to introduce ever more detailed monitoring of traffic, often with the explicit goal of charging users according to their level of activity (whether by governments or by insurance companies).

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