Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for January 2nd, 2008

Milan Introduces Congestion Charge

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The Italian city of Milan has imposed a charge of up to 10 euros (£7.50) on vehicles entering the city.

That’s $15 in our money. A not insignificant sum for a daily commuter. Hybrids and electric cars do not have to pay.

I have dealt with this issue many times on this blog but to summarize, we do not have much through traffic in our downtown, and we do not have much spare capacity on our transit system. Therefore a simple area fee is not likely to achieve much in terms of redirecting traffic or changing modes. In fact commuting to downtown has been declining – commuting from downtown has been increasing. More people now live in Vancouver and work in Richmond than the other way round. And in cities like London residents are exempt from the congestion charge.

But we do need to think about a region wide system of charging for congested road use, both as a way to get revenue for transportation improvements (more buses first and foremost) and to send more appropriate signals to the travel market place. At present the marginal cost of a car trip is perceived to be low – unless you have to pay for a parking spot. And with most of the cost being incurred upfront and not varying much with use, utilizing as much as you can the vehicle makes economic sense. What we need are more fee by distance charges (gas tax works this way to some extent but is not very effective at reducing congestion) – insurance being the most obvious. But mostly what is needed is a way to pay for roads that charges more for the most scarce and desirable resource – space on busy roads at peak periods. And this needs to be applied evenly all over the region since we do not have one dominant downtown.

This gives rise to all sorts of concerns about data collection and information privacy – since to be effective it is necessary to know where and when every car or truck is being driven. I do not think that we are ready, yet, for this kind of data collection – which may be technically possible but is socially and politically unacceptable. Which is one reason why the province sticks to its outdated tolling strategy, which it knows can be sold to users.

What needs to happen is that there has to be a reduction in other fees and taxes to offset the congestion charge – tax shifting not a tax increase. And no-one at present would believe that. And secondly an attractive alternative has to be available when the new charge is introduced. So that needs a long term strategic plan. And we don’t do those here any more.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 2, 2008 at 11:12 am

Our Greenhouse Gas Challenge

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There are two pieces in the morning’s Sun that I am going to suggest you read.

The first deals with Canadian greenhouse gas figures. Per capita, we produce more than most countries

more than 20 tonnes for each and every Canadian. That is twice as much as Europeans produce, and five times more than the 4.2 tonnes per capita generated by South Asians.

That is because of the oil sands and the rest of Canada’s use of coal fired power stations. Yes we are a big cold country, but other cold places seem to have stepped up to the plate a lot more readily than we have – including countries like Norway which is also arctic and have lots of oil.

But while this is true of Canada as a whole, it does not apply to BC – which does not burn coal to produce electricity here, nor do we have oil sands. So the remedies needed in the rest of Canada will not help to get our ghg emissions down. We do have a lot of coal – much of which is exported for steel making in Asia – and its use for power or gasification is anticipated – and claimed to be “clean”. But in the Lower Mainland our biggest ghg emitter is transportation.

And this is where we turn to today’s lead editorial on transit fares. This very properly turns on Translink’s governance and the “the province’s predilection for meddling in TransLink’s affairs”. It also notes that our transit system has expanded by 30% since Translink took over. What it does not say is that this has made very little difference to market share. That was around 11% of all trips then and still is now. Not only has the population grown but those people make more and longer trips – and they still use their cars first and foremost. And they do that because the places that are growing fastest have still got very poor transit systems – as the Mayors of those areas pointed out when they rejected the South of the Fraser transit plan.

The province’s meddling means we have seen no action on building the Evergreen Line but $2 billion thrown at the Canada Line – which serves an area that already has pretty good transit service (Vancouver) and will help the airport get people too and from its new long term car parks. It will actually reduce transit service quality from South of the Fraser since the people who now get a one seat bus ride will be forced to transfer and stand. What every professional assessment of the region’s transit system has shown is that much more bus service is needed, and if rail is to be used it has to be much cheaper to build than SkyTrain. The Province has ignored that advice – as have many Mayors, let it be said.

But far worse has been the province insisting on fare and property tax increases as a condition of more gas tax. And the decision, made long before any studies were done or any public consultation started, to increase the traffic capacity of Highway #1. As with the Sea to Sky expansion, the environmental assessment was useless, and the pretext (the Olympics) even thinner. Both are driven by the real estate developers. And it must also be noted that Kevin Falcon was a realtor and that the BC Liberals depend on this part of the private sector to get their election war chest. We get the government we pay for – and the huge cut that realtors take from home sales for doing very little means they have plenty to give to political parties – and they get tax relief for doing so!

Since BC cannot reduce its greenhouse gas much by changing the way it generates electricity or produces petroleum products, it has to get serious about transportation. Since Metro Vancouver has little manufacturing and less abstraction of raw materials, transportation is proportionately even more significant as a source of ghg. Yet Gordon Campbell gets angry if anyone suggest he rethink his highway expansion plans, even though in theory the decision making process – consultation and EA for Highway #1 and the SFPR – is not completed yet.

It actually does not matter very much, south of the Fraser, that fares are going up. Because there is little transit – and what there is does not meet the needs of a “many to many” trip making pattern. And that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. But what will change if the BC Liberals get their way is that there will be more road capacity. And as we have seen everywhere else, that will get taken up very quickly indeed, no matter the transit fare might be. Indeed, we know that what determines trip making in the long term is expectations. That is what drives location decisions, which determine trip patterns. And the current expectation is that fares will go on increasing, service will improve fitfully and not by very much, while highway capacity will continue to be added. And since nothing is being done about affordable housing the pressure to spread out onto “vacant” land on the edge of town will continue.

The province’s greenhouse gas policy is just words. Its actions, so far, point the other way. The government’s agenda is what it always has been. Cut government services, privatise first (think afterwards), reduce the debt and where possible throw the rich another tax cut. To the extent there is any economic strategy it is build mega projects wanted by some minor private sector interest group or other and continue to pursue projects like the convention centre which are not needed and have no chance of ever paying for themselves. Nothing is being done about the crisis in housing, or the shortage of skilled labour or our continued dependence on the faltering US economy. The greenhouse gas thing is simply greenwash – yes it has the public’s attention at the moment so make some announcements, but no fundamental change in direction from the standard right wing political play book in use all over the world.

If the province was serious about the environment it would be actively involved in providing housing for the workers we need. It would be concentrating on making BC Hydro more efficient – not less as a way to pump cash to the private sector. It would be calling a halt to port and highway expansion. And it would be buying lots of buses and light rail vehicles for use on existing tracks. It would be dealing with the New Westminster railway bridge – the biggest issue actually facing port destined traffic – not the Port Mann. And it would be looking for ways to make transit more attractive not less. I happen to think, based on long experience, that means service quality. But people do respond to price changes – and expectations of future price changes. So a widely useful transit and other small transactions smart card – that has an inbuilt price guarantee to help its introduction – would be a much more effective strategy. Especially if there was a realistic prospect that the wait for the bus would be shorter and more likely that you can actually get on board when it comes.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 2, 2008 at 10:07 am