Stephen Rees's blog

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

Road tolls for whom, Transport Canada asks

with 3 comments

Globe and Mail

Transport Canada is one of the sponsors of a conference in Toronto on road pricing. But there is little political interest in actually doing something – or, when there is an election in the offing – even thinking about doing something. But as David Mac Issac says

“If you look at the evidence … pricing is pretty much a guaranteed way to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector,”

But his boss is warning the Tory party not to be “ideological”

Not that be opposed to new taxes around election time or worrying about budget deficits more than the probability of recession (or worse) is “ideological”.  Oh no, that’s just pragmatism.

In reality the sudden spike in fuel prices earlier this year showed that drivers do respond to price signals. They now look for cheaper cars to drive and in places where the transit system has some capacity to accommodate them, use transit more. It has been a good year for bicycle sales too.

Germa Bakker, project manager of Amsterdam’s road-pricing pilot project, said the Netherlands’ planned national road-pricing scheme, expected to start in 2012, will actually be revenue neutral. All other taxes applied to gas and automobiles will be phased out: “The principle is, the people who drive a lot will pay a lot.”

That seems very pragmatic to me too. For all of my career the big issues have really been about the seemingly unstoppable rise of automobile use.  It has alsways been blindingly obvious that as a society we could not afford the car. Firstly becuase of the number of people killed and seriously injured, which would be totally unnacceptable for any other mode of transportation. Then becuase of the impact on our lungs of all those emissions. Yes governments acted to increase control of both vehicle emissions and fuel standards, but the increase in vkt usually made up for any gains in that sphere. We began to be concerned about the impact on cities – of both congestion and the road building that was supposed to reduce it – usually long after it was clear that our politicians really did not have the intestinal fortitude to do what other places have been doing. And the same is true of greenhosue gas emissions which now sem to have trumped all other environmental issues – but of course not financial or economic ones.

Pricing is going to have to be the way that most sectors deal with ghg emissions, not just transport. And we are going to need politicians who are a lot better than Gordon Brown or Stephen Harper at tackling Big Issues. Brown gets some credit for coming up with a package of measures that were adopted in Britain to cope with the credit crunch. The fact that they looked at all good says a lot about what was wrong elsewhere – espcecially in the US. But again that is a short term issue. And painful though it might be, these things will sort themselves out as markets tend to do.

But the change in our climate is happenning much faster than anyone thought possible and all sorts of tipping points are whizzing by like missed deadlines. And what is now being contemplated are not just distant possibilities but inevitable collapse of systems on which we all depend. And you cannot argue with physics.

Of course Canadian cities are going to have to use road pricing.  Of course carbon prices are way too low right now. Of course politicians are going to have to make decisions that will not be popular and no one ever believes that a tax can be “revenue neutral”. But that does not exempt us from the need to do things very differently in future – and now – than we have in the past. And the sooner politicans get that idea into their heads the better.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 9:53 am

3 Responses

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  1. I was reported in the LRTA some time ago that a rather right-wing think California tank (the name escapes me) proposed some time ago that all driving costs, including insurance, be applied to motor fuel prices, with all other road/auto taxes removed. The more one drove, the more one paid. Of course nothing came of it.

    Malcolm J.

    November 14, 2008 at 9:58 am

  2. Sorry, it should read – It was reported…….

    Malcolm J.

    November 14, 2008 at 10:24 am

  3. ^^^

    I’m pretty sure the RAND institute proposed that. Not 100% positive though. In any case, I think the left wing (to use broad strokes) has really shot themselves in the foot by continually advocating for greater government involvement in transportation. Most of the things we now find unattractive (sprawl, wasteful driving, city blocks being replaced by parking lots) are wildly exacerbated by government involvement.


    November 14, 2008 at 1:45 pm

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