Public roads create collective action problems because rivalry in consumption makes them a common resource requiring regulation rather than a public good that is free to all. Tolls, which can be traced to antiquity, are a common solution - for example, when imposed for using a busy road or for crossing a cordon around a throbbing city centre. Other regulatory schemes are zonal congestion pricing (as in London) and distance-based pricing (as in some American states). These nudge people and businesses to adjust their travel so bunching can be mitigated during peak hours and along certain routes for the good of all.
Traffic congestion pricing has been here long enough - 40 years since the start of the Area Licensing Scheme - for the public to accept this as a practical way of avoiding urban gridlock. Managing travel demand in other ways, like perceived need, could have led to discord or frequent changes and, in turn, to travel delay that might have raised the marginal economic and social costs involved. Singapore's Electronic Road Pricing, a hybrid of two pricing models, is not perfect, of course. It is limited by the current technology and lacks cost-benefit transparency. However, the next-generation ERP system, based on satellite technology, will see off all gantries by 2020 and provide island-wide coverage to a finer degree.
Would Singaporeans be better off, from the broad perspective of efficient and affordable urban mobility? The enhanced tracking capability of ERP 2.0 might spark fears of a loss of privacy and higher overall charges. However, data collection can be anonymised and pricing calibrated for the benefit of low-rate road users. The system can also facilitate coupon-less parking and the automatic charging of off-peak cars.
Of course, road users will not be enthralled merely by more sophisticated ways of extracting payment from them. What would be appreciated is tracking technology that can effectively rechannel traffic so jams and bottlenecks can be ironed out. It can also overcome problems of fixed gantries, like the extra charges when vehicles cross two gantries in the same vicinity. When such technology is integrated with "smart city" infrastructure, car navigation systems and smartphones, it can help reduce congestion by providing real-time road information and travel options.
Together with an efficient public transport system, that could take the nation closer towards a "car-lite" future where people have versatile travelling habits, rather than an attachment to private cars after having spent a hefty sum on them. In a better-connected Singapore, more might be disposed towards using a mix of buses, trains, taxis, private hire cars, driverless cars, or shared cars to zip around as one's needs and external conditions require. Of course, technology can enable this but only people can make it happen.