Stephen Rees's blog

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

Congestion Pricing and Its Effects on the Environment

with 3 comments

The proponents of highway expansion here like to characterize traffic congestion as an environmental problem. Look at all those stalled cars, they say, pumping out pollution into the air. If that traffic was moving there would be less pollution. An article in the Wall Street Journal today takes the opposite view. “Traffic jams, if they’re managed well, can actually be good for the environment

What spurred the WSJ’s interest was the appointment of Jay H. Walder  as chairman and chief executive officer of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He helped design London’s congestion pricing scheme. Not that he admits to planning to introducing congestion pricing to New York – yet. But clearly in London – as in New York – there is a good alternative to driving – an extensive rapid transit network. In both cities most people get into the centre – the major employment area- on trains. The commute pattern in Greater Vancouver is not nearly so centralized. And we do not have much of a rail network. Only part of the region gets the choice of a fast ride on transit.

Induced Traffic

What is important to note is that the arithmetic used by the road promoters ignores induced traffic. The reason that road building does NOT cure congestion is that traffic expands to fill the space available. The author, David Owen, inserts the word “almost” before “always end up making the original problem worse”. I would like someone who thinks otherwise to come up with just one example where this solution worked for more than just a brief period. Gordon Price issued that challenge to the Gateway proponents, and they have never answered.

Who pays?

In 1999, the Australian researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy concluded that “there is no guarantee that congestion pricing will simultaneously improve congestion and sustainability,” and mentioned several ways in which congestion pricing can defy the expectations of its supporters, among them by causing motorists to “drive exactly as they always have if the congestion charge is covered by their firms (e.g., a majority of London’s peak-hour commuters have company cars and perks).”

It is also important to note that the second stage of the London scheme included areas with lots of residents. Most of them are well off – these are some of the most expensive addresses in London – and are car owners. And of course, the jobs they hold also have the same perks of company cars and “free” parking at work. Either the employer pays or it can be set off against tax as a business expense.

Yes idling cars are wasting fuel, but that is much less than the increase in fuel used by increasing the number and length of car trips. Which is what has always been the consequence of highway spending.

Congestion is a more effective deterrent to driving than congestion charges where there is capacity on an attractive alternative. In London, what congestion pricing did was make drivers more aware of their route choices. Most did not need to be in Central London at all but were taking a direct, shorter route as it seemed quicker than using the ring roads. In fact, earlier efforts to persuade drivers to divert from congested areas tended to fail simply because diverted drivers were quickly replaced by others. The M25 – the major motorway around the rim of the metropolitan area – attracts so much traffic that is has been widened several times, but remains as congested as ever. Drivers actually came out of the centre, to enjoy a section of apparently faster driving, before re-entering further around the rim.

Fortunately, planners in London were much more successful in directing employment development, especially for offices, to places served by railways. Major office developments were directed to Croydon or Ealing – both on main line railways – or to the Docklands where much was spent (and is still being spent) on both the underground and the Dockland Light Railway.

It is often forgotten that other places that invest heavily in highways also invest in railways. “Residents of the New York metropolitan area are extraordinarily committed transit users—they account for almost a third of all the public-transit passenger miles traveled in the United States.” I would have liked to have seen a figure for transit mode share in New York.   We think we do well here at 11% because the Puget Sound area has only 5%. In the US as a whole it was around 1% in 2004. But then my Google search simply demonstrated to me that the whole area of mode share calculation in the US is controversial. But clearly New York and Chicago resemble London more than we do. “Seventy-two percent (4.8 million) of people who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District each workday take public transit”

It is absurd, in New York, that the East River bridges still don’t charge tolls and that curbside parking in much of the city is free.

But again if employers and businesses would pay those fees, all that tolls and parking charges would do is change who drives, not how much is driven. And indeed, congestion charges may well work the same way. I have often used the argument myself – congestion charges replace those with time to waste with those who have money to spend. Like all regressive tax measures (those that take no account of ability to pay) they hit the poor much harder than the rich. In Metro Vancouver there would be significant geographic inequity, since only a few area have anything like adequate transit. So while the theory of getting road users to pay for more transit is attractive, the process of getting there would be very painful, unless there was a very significant upfront investment in much more transit before the new charge is levied.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 12, 2009 at 11:00 am

3 Responses

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  1. No comments to such an important question? yet most people on this blog have cars (I must be one of the very few that chose not to have one). As Stephen noted many other cities have both freeways and lot of transit. Both go hand and hand. Why is it so hard for BC politicians of all stripes to understand it?. I checked Milan, a town bigger than Vancouver yet better for comparison than London or Paris. check all the suburban trains and National rail lines they have, besides the downtown Metro, buses and streetcars. Toronto and Montreal are no slouch either compared to Vancouver…

    Again, there is no point even thinking about tolls, congestion fee etc. until we have a much better rapid transit system.
    Both London and Paris are working on huge projects to bring more transit to areas away from downtown.
    for London:
    for Paris:

    Red frog

    October 14, 2009 at 10:39 am

  2. Stephen writes “congestion charges replace those with time to waste with those who have money to spend.”

    What is wrong with that? that is the raison d’etre of the congestion charge: manage usage of a finite resource by adequate pricing.

    “Like all regressive tax measures (those that take no account of ability to pay) they hit the poor much harder than the rich.”

    This is a classical rhetoric of congestion charge opponent: that hit the poor harder than the rich…
    How a poor can afford to drive to the city? He must be not that poor to have a car, and afford the parkmeter?
    Isn’it scandalous to see all parking lot be paid at UBC when everyone know students are “poor”
    All the user fee tax type hit the poor harder than the rich, starting with the parkmeter, or the carbon tax, translink levy on hydrobill. So the argument is at minimum specious.

    “So while the theory of getting road users to pay for more transit is attractive, the process of getting there would be very painful, unless there was a very significant upfront investment in much more transit before the new charge is levied”

    theory of egg and chicken…

    I believe congestion charge is an economic tool, internalizing the cost of congestion onto the contributors of this congestion…this doesn’t need to be correlated to the public transit offer (it is only a political expedient toward the acceptation of the measure).

    Now you can just say you are against this transport demand management tool, because your political culture tell you that our society should not be ruled by economic principle…(so which one?)…
    without the need to resort traditional argument on the poor versus rich, lack of good public transit (what is debatable: when it is good enough? when bus drive on congestion free road?).

    I have wrote something on the topic at


    October 15, 2009 at 10:26 am

  3. I’m thinking that not doing congestion pricing (or carbon tax, etc, etc) because of its regressive impacts on the poor, does not give poor people credit for being creative in solving the problems confronting them.

    Granted making more tools available like better public transit helps. But given that the dominant form of transportation used, even by the poor, is also the most expensive, wasteful and inefficient (SOV driving) I’m confident that most people will easily find ways to recoup the additional costs incurred due to a congestion price… and may even be better off as a result.

    Actions may even involve writing a letter to the Premier demanding more funding for transit so that they have a viable choice…


    October 15, 2009 at 8:59 pm

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