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

Archive for September 1st, 2011

Toll the HOV lanes

with 14 comments

Don Cayo, a financial columnist on the Vancouver Sun, is usually worth reading, I do not always agree with him but his analysis is always sensible and not always driven by an ideological agenda. I wish I could say the same about the C. D. Howe Institute. They are one of the chain of right wing think tanks spread across North America, paid for by the extremely wealthy  and privileged to promote the neoconservative creed which has paid off so handsomely for them. They are the people who produced the report that inspired Cayo’s latest opinion piece.

The idea is that HOV lanes are under-utilized, which is known in the trade as “the empty lane syndrome”. The people stuck in the slow moving or stalled traffic are envious of the shared cars and buses that whiz by them. Indeed, in my earlier days I can recall my bosses chiding me for embracing “the politics of envy” when I had the temerity to suggest that greater income equality would be a worthwhile objective. After all, I had done lots of history for my A levels and it was mostly about revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. “People who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (Who said that, boy?)

It is always quite hard for the people who drive single occupant vehicles to grasp the concept of the amount of public resources they consume. It is even harder for them to accept that those who put up with the inconveniences of car sharing or public transit (the car pool that leaves every 15 minutes) are helping by making better use of the road space available. And, of course the lane looks “empty” because if it was jammed with traffic too, it would not be working. The whole idea is to put some people at the front of the line and make the rest wait a bit longer. They have by now got used to the idea of queue jumping at airport gates – because they have had their ticket paid for by someone else who is willing to absorb the much higher front cabin fare as a cost of doing business and hence a write off against tax. Actually, if you think about it, that is the way that the rest of us taxpayers subsidize them.

HOT (High Occupancy or Toll) has been around for a while, so there is some objective research. Initially, they were dismissed  as “Lexus lanes” but it turns out that given the right sort of sort pricing policy, and a way of conveying variable price information to drivers in the traffic jam, drivers can actually make sensible decisions – and everyone has their own valuation of time. Obviously, there will be days and times when the chance of saving a few minutes will be worth several dollars. Some people, even with limited disposable incomes, are highly intolerant of any delay, and arrange their lives so that they do not have to cross a bridge at peak periods. Others have time to waste and no money to spend at all. They currently happily add themselves to existing traffic jams, not tuning their radios to AM730 but just accepting that at this time of day they will not be going anywhere fast and can listen to their favourite music. And be unavailable, now that texting and telephoning are not permitted. All right I added that out of mischief. It seems we still do not understand that this is a life threatening issue – not just the outside chance of a fine.

I saw a presentation on the success of variable rate HOT lane pricing in Minneapolis some years ago so I was pleased that an early hit on my Google search was the DoT report “In Minneapolis, converting HOV to HOT lanes with dynamic pricing increased peak period throughput by 9 to 33 percent“.

I think it is worth considering if we actually want to increase peak period throughput on freeways. Is that necessarily a Good Thing? Cayo, of course, points to the cost of congestion. But that figure is calculated system wide, not just on one link. And for a good reason. If you solve one bottle neck, all you do is move the queue somewhere else. This was the reason why the Lions’ Gate Bridge was not widened to accommodate another lane. All that would have done is take the line up from Taylor Way and put it on Georgia Street.

Tolling Road pricing works somewhat differently – because it keeps the average generalized cost of transportation roughly the same. All that happens with variable peak pricing is that some trips get an advantage that others don’t, but system wide the volumes of traffic remain fairly constant. That is because there is a trade off between time and money. Road pricing is indeed more efficient ( in the economic sense of that word) – hence the Economist’s famous headline about how we now manage traffic using the same system that the soviets used for everything – queueing as a distribution mechanism (also favoured by the TSA).

So what puts me on Cayo’s side is his observation at the end

“surveys of drivers on highways with HOT lanes find that most users of both free and tolled lanes approve road tolls, and that approval ratings increase as drivers become more familiar with the benefits of HOT lanes.”

Which is a Good Thing if it overcomes the present knee jerk opposition to road pricing. What car users currently pay does not even cover the direct cost of highway provision.

“Gas taxes, vehicle licences and other revenues from drivers, which do little to curb congestion, only covered 53 per cent of roadway expenses.”

He is quoting from the CD Howe report here. We do need more money for the transportation system. But we also need to spend it more sensibly. Building the Golden Ears Bridge (GEB) just because it could be tolled, and therefore user fees would pay for it (they haven’t and probably couldn’t) made no sense to me when I reviewed it – but then it was never, formally, part of any transportation plan. I do not support road tolls to build more and better road capacity. That will simply generate (induce) more traffic. But we can use system wide road pricing to make decision making by trip makers closer to the real costs  they impose on society. Which is a great deal more than the expression “roadway costs” was intended to cover by CDH.  And the “surplus” can be “diverted” to funding a real transportation system that includes more and better choices than driving an SOV.

This region needs system wide variable road pricing. The current political climate makes that a non-starter. But some experience with HOT lanes will start to change that. So I am all for the thin end of this wedge. It is not nearly enough, and if we do indeed manage to increase the throughput of traffic on roads already widened to accommodate  HOV lanes then the impact on neighbourhoods adjacent to the exits is going to become very significant. The BC MoTH/BC Liberals did not pay attention to that when they decided to widen Highway #1, but that new induced traffic has to go somewhere: sure the ride down the freeway and over the bridge will be better – for a while. But the traffic when you get off the freeway is going to be much much worse. And some of those neighbourhoods are swing constituencies. The HOT lanes idea will have an even wider impact.

Maybe then we can consider really effective changes to both transportation and land use.

UPDATE Friday September 2

This morning’s Sun story has the headline “Coastal residents: BC Ferries should operate like marine highways“. They want all the residents of BC to subsidize the ferries just like the do the road system. This, of course, is not a new idea either – and was heard frequently with comparisons of the Albion Ferry (BC Highways – free) and the Millbay Ferry (BC Ferries – not free). Unfair it was said, and it was true, but no-one did anything. One BC Ferry – the one between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy – competes with cruse ships. Somehow I don’t think it is one anyone wants to be free – but I could be wrong about that. And, at weekends, the SeaBus is a great harbour cruise at 90 minutes for $2.75: you just have to get off and get back on again after each trip so they can make sure they have the right number of life jackets. Maybe they would get further with the fairness augment by saying that everyone should start paying the real cost of highways, which would also level the playing field.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 1, 2011 at 9:48 am