Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for December 2nd, 2006

Anton promotes road tolls

with one comment Vancouver

Good, but let’s get it straight. It’s not “tolls” we need but “road user pricing”.

As The Economist pointed out, we distribute road space the way they distributed everything in the former Soviet Union – by making people queue for it. And using the market for this resource makes a lot more sense than giving it away for free and then trying to work out a way to tax people for it. The first book I read on this subject was “Paying for Roads” by Gabriel Roth in the mid sixties and as an explanation of the why and the how it has not been beaten. But for ease of use there is now a better way to access this information, and much else, at Todd Littman’s Victoria Transport Policy Institute which is extensively quoted by the Straight article, and should have been in my blogroll long ago.

The point is not how to pay for more capacity, but how to make the best use of what we have. The roads are currently filled by people with time to waste – or rather, a few such people add themselves to the traffic flow, managing to tip the system into a state which is only just bearable most of the time, and downright awful anytime anything goes sideways. Road user pricing discourages these drivers and leaves the roads to people with money to burn. Yes, it’s not fair to poor people. Neither is Safeway, or the law courts, or (very soon I suspect) healthcare (Canada being the only place I know that professes to provide essential health care for free but sends you a bill for the emergency ambulance). If we had road user pricing we could stop the practice of levying property tax and hydro bills for public transport (which makes no sense at all). We might even have enough in the kitty to provide some decent bus service in ‘burbs for a change. But it is not so much about raising funds as it is about bringing the perceptions of the relative costs of transport modes on a more equal footing. Subsidies distort markets. In transportation, there are now so many that no-one can tell what the effect is supposed to be anymore. Making drivers face up to the social cost of their mode choice will benefit all of us.

And the answer to Paul Landry (asked “should the region bite the bullet and look at road pricing?”)

“That depends on how commercial vehicles are treated in the grand scheme of things. Is there a road-pricing scheme that would provide infrastructure for vehicles that have no choice but to be on the road?”

Trucks do not pay anything like the cost of the infrastructure they use and never have. The damage a vehicle does to a road rises exponentially with respect to axle load. And trucks also contribute disproportionately to traffic congestion, as well as greenhouse gas emissions and common air contaminants, let alone the effects of noise on communities (especially the usually illegal use of exhaust brakes) and the hazards to other road users of spray from unfendered tires. Railways, on the other hand, have to pay for the track they run on (though the government of the day did give them the right of way and a big chunk of property alongside for free in many cases). The choice is with the shipper who is currently able to demand low prices and impossible delivery schedules because of lax regulation and enforcement and very high competition between trucking firms, who respond by downloading much of their costs and risk onto owner operators. In Europe all trucks have tachographs – automatic recording devices which keep track of drivers’ hours and driving – which has done much to make the system a bit more honest. North America seems to rely on log books (easily forged) and spot checks at the roadside which often reveal high levels of substandard maintenance and inadequate regard for safety.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 2, 2006 at 6:25 pm