Motorway traffic soars in first year without tolls

Traffic on the AP-7 is growing despite the pandemic by between 20% and 40% where the tolls have been lifted

3 min

The lifting of tolls has a direct effect on traffic, according to data from motorways where the tolls have been removed after decades. On January 1, 2020, several toll sections were lifted and during the first year of toll-free use, car traffic has increased by up to 40% despite the pandemic, according to data from the Ministry of Transport obtained by ARA.

Specifically, in the Valencia-Alicante stretch the increase was 40.3%, while in the Tarragona-Valencia stretch the increase was 20.8%. Even so, the data of this second route does not show a complete picture, since it does not include data from the first five months of the year (between January and May). According to the ministry, this is due to the fact that systems to count traffic were not installed until June.

The sharp rise in traffic also took place when the AP-1 toll between Burgos and Armiñón (Álava) was lifted at the end of 2018. In the first year car traffic grew by 32%. The only highway where the increase was not so significant was the AP-4 (which links Seville with Cadiz and also where the toll ended in 2019). In that case the increase was only 5%.

What the data also show is that, if the rise in traffic was very pronounced, in the case of heavy transport (basically, trucks) it was even more so. The circulation of these vehicles grew by 29% between Tarragona and Valencia, 90% between Valencia and Alicante and over 100% in the case of the other two motorways that have lost tolls in recent years.


On August 31 of this year the tolls on the AP-7 (between Tarragona and La Jonquera) and the AP-2 (between Barcelona and Zaragoza), which are owned by the State, will end, as will those on the C-32 (on the Montgat-Palafolls section) and the C-33 (which connects Barcelona with Montmeló). At this point it is already certain that the barriers will be lifted: both the Spanish and Catalan governments have confirmed this. But it is very likely that new pay systems for the use of the roads will be introduced.

When the Spanish government was in the hands of the PP, there was no debate: the executive repeated ad nauseam that pay-per-use would definitely disappear. But the arrival of the PSOE to power changed things. The new Minister of Transport, José Luis Ábalos, opened the door to keeping some pay-per-use system. Since then he has been testing the waters. In November he floated two proposals: that the payment should be homogeneous throughout Spain (and not concentrated in some areas, as happens now) and that exemptions could be introduced for specific citizens, such as those who use the motorway to go to work.

Moreover, this week the central government has insisted on the idea in the recovery plan it has sent to Brussels, which states that it will develop "a system of payment for use of the network of high-capacity roads". The Ministry of Transport, however, does not want to set a date and provides no detail on how it will be done.

Seopan, the construction companies' employers' association, has proposed to the Spanish government the implementation of soft tolls (i.e. low amounts), given that the roads are already built and only maintenance has to be paid for.

However, the Chamber of Infrastructure Concessionaires believes that it should go further and implement a system of tolls throughout Spain that would allow not only pay for maintenance but also "adapt infrastructure to the future," says Francesc Sibina, president of this institution. "Roads were designed with a certain mobility model and now they need a major transformation to adapt them to the connected car, autonomous cars or electric vehicles," he says. "In Europe there will be more and more electric cars, and what will we do when they come here? Will we find ourselves in long queues to charge them?"

Sibina defends implementing a differentiated payment system depending on the use or how many passengers are in each vehicle, for example. He also says that it would not be necessary to put up toll barriers, but cameras could be used instead, as is done in many countries. "All this is very easy to do, technologically," he says. The most difficult thing, says Sibina, is to decide how to establish who has to pay what. But once decided, implementation could be very quick.

The proposals to generalise tolls on the roads

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. It was the first to take a stance: they wanted a Swiss-style sticker for the whole of Catalonia: a single annual payment allows unlimited driving on toll roads, although this rewards those who drive the most and penalises those who only use it occasionally.
  • Central government The Ministry of Transport wants to implement pay-per-use, but does not give details on how. It only says that it would be homogeneous throughout Spain and that exemptions could be introduced in the case of commuting to work, for example.
  • Seopan. The employer's association of builders defends some soft tolls to pay for road maintenance.
  • Chamber of Concessionaires They believe that higher tolls are needed, in addition to maintenance, to adapt the roads to new needs, such as the electric car.