Worsening traffic congestion in Switzerland's cities has prompted a cabinet minister to call for motorists to be charged a levy to enter major urban centres. The idea has caused outrage among drivers' groups.
The suggestion, by the Economics Minister, Pascal Couchepin, unleashed a media storm - one newspaper even carried a cartoon depicting Couchepin manning a medieval style toll booth.
Katja Mäder, spokeswoman for the minister, says she and her colleagues were taken by surprise at the reaction.
"Pascal Couchepin mentioned road pricing at a cabinet meeting when traffic problems were being discussed. He mentioned it because he feels it could be a more just way of distributing the costs - it's the polluter pays principle."
She added that Couchepin "believes the cost of urban traffic problems should perhaps not be borne by those who live in rural areas".
Anger among car users
But even if road pricing is only a suggestion, the idea has caused anger among car users. Stephan Müller, chief spokesman for the Touring Club of Switzerland (TCS) believes Pascal Couchepin should stick to his own remit.
"When I first heard about it I thought it was a crazy idea," said Müller. "I don't know why he wants to go meddling in transport issues - he's the Economics Minister."
TCS is fundamentally opposed to road pricing; the club believes motorists should be free to drive on any road without restriction.
"It just wouldn't work in Switzerland," said Müller. "The country is just too densely populated. How would you define city boundaries?"
Electronic toll cards
Only two cities in the world currently operate a road pricing system; Singapore and the Norwegian capital, Oslo. Analysts say the system works well: there are no long queues at toll booths; instead motorists have electronic toll cards in their cars, from which money is deducted each time they drive into town.
Hans Werder of the Swiss Transport Ministry agrees that road pricing could be a solution. "The beauty of road pricing is that it is very flexible. We can raise the price in the rush hour, and lower it at other times. So if people really want to bring their cars to town they can, but they have to pay for it."
However, Werder points out that road pricing could not be introduced overnight, and in the meantime other solutions will have to be found.
"One thing we would like to do is use some of the tax revenue from petrol for the expansion of public transport," said Werder. "At the moment the revenue is used for road improvements."
Petrol price rise
What seems inevitable is a rise in the price of petrol. Perhaps surprisingly, the TCS supports this. "We think there should be a five centime rise in the price per litre of petrol," says Stephan Müller. "We want a special fund for the needs of the cities."
The TCS wants the extra money to be spent on roads rather than public transport. And there is little sympathy for Pascal Couchepin's point that rural drivers should not have to pay for transport improvements in urban areas.
"I think we have a fair system now," says Müller. "It's one in which people show solidarity with one another. I don't think people should be taxed differently because they live in different areas. The TCS believes that it is the right of every citizen to use any means of transport without regulations."
One major obstacle to introducing any system of road pricing is the Swiss constitution, which states that all citizens have a right to use public highways. Under Swiss law, any constitutional amendment must be approved in a nationwide vote.
"It's clear that road pricing would take years to introduce," says Hans Werder. "I don't think we could get it off the ground inside 15 years. And we have to accept that at the moment a large section of the population is very opposed to the idea."
by Imogen Foulkes