Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for February 17th, 2011

How to pay for transportation

with 17 comments

Yesterday there was a short sound bite of mine on the six o’clock tv news from CBC Vancouver. You might have been blinking and missed it. One of the reasons I have a blog at all is to try and add something to the mainstream media coverage of issues around transportation and land use in this region. As with so many things, the “need” to spend a lot of time on really important topics, like hockey, Justin Bieber and the ability of a computer to answer trivia questions faster than humans means that the CBC really cannot deal properly with other issues.

It started with the news that Translink is going to have to pay the contractor who runs the Golden Ears Bridge a lot of money ($63 million) as the tolls collected from drivers are not as much as expected. Ken Hardie, Translink’s spin doctor in chief got a few seconds prior to this story to assure the taxpayers that they will not be coming to them for more. “…a deficit we will be able to cover through savings, through other capital programs and reserves.” He did not get to broadcast saying what that means exactly. But to give you some idea, there are now a bunch of buses stored at Oakridge out of use. (See my comment below the image for why this is interesting)

Leah Hendry then did a piece about what other places do – with Anthony Perl advocating road pricing, and clips of the London congestion charge and so on. My bit was reduced to the suggestion that we should try distance based car insurance and increasing parking charges – which might seem a bit odd if you don’t read here regularly. If you do, you do not need to read any further, as you know all this, but in case you are new here please stick with me.

Leah and I had an interesting conversation on the phone before the interview. We talked about why the toll had not worked – and why the Golden Ears bridge was fundamentally ill conceived. People grumbled a bit about having to wait for the Albion Ferry  – but it was still better than driving to either of the nearest alternates. Increasing capacity on the ferries would have been difficult – because of lack of space at each end to queue up vehicles. And there was no room to turn a bus around at the Fort Langley end.  Translink had a big capital projects department anxious to be seen to be doing something, but the planners at the GVRD and at Translink did not see this crossing as a huge issue. Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows being outside the growth concentration area, there were many more pressing issues than a four sailing wait for a short ferry ride for a few people. But the very odd tolling policies of the province meant that Translink could build new bridges if they could be paid for with tolls. Tolls could not be applied to existing facilities.

Road pricing has always made eminent sense. Currently we have the “all you can eat buffet” paid for from a variety of sources most of which have little or nothing to do with road use, and none that vary by time of day. But road space is a very time sensitive “perishable” commodity. At peak periods people line up for it. At other times, much capacity goes unused. Prices can be used to adjust demand to fit available space better. That’s what airlines do – and in other countries like Britain the railways do it too. But road pricing is a difficult thing to persuade people to accept, firstly because they confuse construction and use: “We’ve already paid for the road” and secondly because they are feeling the pinch financially. Leah asked me why, and I said it was because while taxes have declined (mostly for the well off) fees and charges have increased. In fact, the way government collects money has become regressive with the majority paying much more to the benefit of the well off minority. Road pricing would fit very well into such an approach: it would hit people with little money but time to waste very hard, and get them to change their road use habits so that those with money could get where they are going much quicker.

On the other hand, if you used the revenues from road user charges for transportation in general rather than just for building more roads, then the impact could be significantly different. We already know that transit uses space much more efficiently than cars. In fact while taxes on things like gas do not come anywhere near the cost of building and using roads, the general belief of road users is that they are not subsidized while transit, bikes and pedestrians are. This, of course, is the opposite of the reality. A strip of concrete 3m wide (a lane of highway) can carry around 1,000 cars an hour – 2,000 if it is a freeway. At current average occupancy that’s 1,300 people per hour (pph) for an urban road with intersections. Surface transit systems easily carry 10 times that number, where there is enough demand. Or, as Gordon Campbell put it so memorably, the Canada Line is the equivalent of ten lanes of freeway. Which makes anyone with their head screwed on wonder why he was so determined to widen Highway #1 – which costs much more and will carry much less. If you count people and not cars.

Transit, bikes and walking are also much better at getting us the sort of place we need – what we used to call “livability” but now call “sustainability”. Even if every car were zero emission, automobiles impose huge costs on society not the least of which is suburban sprawl. We are going to need every inch of available land for agriculture. Indeed spiralling food prices are one of the main drivers of the current unrest seen across the world – most effectively so far in Tunisia and Egypt. Peak oil is now something that even the Saudis (in secret) and Shell acknowledge – and building the infrastructure for cars that don’t use oil is going to require huge amounts of oil!

In this region we already had plans in place that would have been a good start towards sustainability. We were protecting agricultural land, building complete communities in a compact urban area and we were supposed to be increasing transportation choices. But then we elected the BC Liberals and they have been working hard to reverse all that – with visible impacts all over the region. The short period of the winter Olympics last year was merely the Potemkin village for  media consumption: immediately afterwards transit contracted again, and the road building continued.

My remarks were aimed at what we could have done. I talked about what Copenhagen has been doing for the last forty years – reducing the amount  of space dedicated to moving and parking cars in the urban area. About how improving facilities for movement without cars (more transit, more bike lanes, more pedestrian areas and sidewalks) has to happen before you try to get people to use them more. So that is where the bit about distance based insurance and parking charges come in – those are the easy first steps. Road pricing will take longer and cost more to set up, and could be offset by reducing other imposts  to make it more palatable to introduce. But like the carbon tax needs to bite to have any effect on behaviour. And it has to be part of a concerted policy. Not the current one – which is to make BC more attractive to corporations. But to serve the people of BC better – and to ensure that our children and grand children have a future.

That may seem a long way from not enough tolls to pay for a bridge, but it is all connected, and not in a way you can talk about in a matter of a few seconds. Which is why you read blogs and do not rely on tv news alone.