Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

14 Responses

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  1. Stephen: What do you think would happen to our economy or your lifestyle if there were no roads? The answer is clear so Cayo’s observations and conlusions regarding car users covering the direct costs of highways is worrisome. I would argue that the costs of roads should be borne more equally by everyone (non car owners included). We all need goods and services, emergency services, utilities etc. which require the direct or indirect use of roads by ALL consumers. The idea of user pay and variable user pay is great if 1) the fees the users pay are actually devoted to the cause and, 2) That there is a limited number of requirements for that revenue (rather than the ad hoc levies that exist today that get sent down the black hole of general revenue). Further, I think that if we build roads using at least part of the overall public purse, we should be advocating the efficient usage of those roads. To do anything but that is a sheer waste of money. One example would be the Coquihalla Highway, which is now a main connector to BC’s Interior; engineered and designed for high speeds but one which we slow traffic down artificially through regulation and enforcement. Silly really. Regards, Ian Tootill (SENSEBC)

    Ian Tootill

    September 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm

  2. What a silly premise to start with. No-one who has spent any time reading this blog could think I avocate the elimination of all roads. Indeed, it is the people who think that only roads – and single occupant vehicles – can meet all our needs that are the problem. Transportation is about moving people and goods. Vehicles are one way of doing that – but for many trips (NOT note ALL of them) there are better choices. Sadly since our system is largely oriented towards corporate interests who promote consumption and economic growth (which on a finite planet is simply impossible to sustain) the discussion gets dragged down to exchanges such as this one. The fundamental error is thinking of vehicle movements as a good measure of transportation output. Thank you for joining the conversation. We have been talking among ourselves here for a long time.

    Stephen Rees

    September 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm

  3. I don’t think you are advocating the elimination of roads at all. I simply posed the question to enhance the illustration that roads have utility for EVERYBODY. I’m not ready to get into the minutia of who takes more droplets of gas or how much the occupants or baggage in my vehicle weigh… just yet.
    Cheers, Ian

    Ian Tootill

    September 1, 2011 at 12:27 pm

  4. Stephen: What do you think would happen to our economy or your lifestyle if there were no electricty or telephone?
    The answer is clear so conlusions regarding users covering the direct costs of hydro or telephone is worrisome

    Imagine a world where you have to pay the direct cost of communication or energy, Can you?

    Not sure why socialists have difficulty to grasp a world where motorists would not be subsidized?

    But come to the detail of the post.
    I am not sure about the HOT scheme for Vancouver..
    In Vancouver most of the HOV lanes are in fact queue jumping to a choke point access…
    have a HOT is paying fast access to the choke point, but is doing nothing to resolve the “choke point” problem, and its secondary effect like rat running. Typically transforming the Hwy 99 HOV lane in HOT lane, will risk to make congestion problem only worst for general lane, to access the tunnel, and aggravate rat running (Road number 4 and Steveston Hwy…)

    After that there is implementation reality, the CD Howe mentions potential revenue of $100 million for Vancouver, but a previous study was more on $40 million, half of it coming from Port Mann Bridge, from which need to be offseted the cost to operate and maintain the toll.

    Cordon style pricing probably make more sense where you toll the effective “choke point” (like implicitly suggested by the CD Howe for at least Montreal). You can see more on the topic (cost,… revenue) here.

    that said, it is still good to see agreement on the road pricing idea.


    September 1, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  5. The discussions about funding transportation can get quite interesting, and also frustrating. Road infrastructure is very expensive and is funded by all levels of governments using property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, and occasionally taxes which apply only to road users like gas taxes and tolls.

    Ian makes a good argument that everyone should be subsidizing roads because everyone benefits from them, even if it is an indirect use through the transport of goods.

    The point at which it gets frustrating is when projects like the Evergreen Line require funding, there is suddenly an outcry from all these heavily subsidized road users that they are unwilling to see “their money” go to a “non-road” project. In fact, road users benefit from transit improvements because people who get out of their cars to use transit free up some road space and actually reduce traffic congestion.

    The solution to this might be to simply pass more of the road infrastructure costs on to road users via increased gas taxes and tolls and then fund transit (and cycling) infrastructure via the already-existing tax base (which also happens to include transit users and cyclists). The catch is that this approach could end up costing road users a lot more than the currently proposed two-cent-per-litre gas tax to fund the Evergreen line.

    I did a little math last month to compare the impact on my pocketbook of various transportation projects. One of the projects I looked at was the Evergreen line. I wrote a blog post explaining how I did these calculations and comparing the projects.

    Alex Pope

    September 2, 2011 at 11:10 am

  6. The Albion ferry was operated and funded by Translink, which is funded by Lower Mainland taxpayers. The Mill Bay ferry is supported by user fees and BC Ferries is given subsidies of $200 million+ from the Provincial government, all of which supports the smaller ferry routes. Are the ferry user’s complaint’s valid? Isn’t that comparison a incredible? Lower Mainlanders could retort, “Are taxpayers in the Capital and Cowichan regional districts ready to pay through fuel taxes for this ferry, and contract it to BC Ferries (as BC Transit is not specialized in ferry service) and give these ferry users free service?”

    Also, are ferries that clean compared to road vehicles? The vessels plying the Pacific with goods have been shown to cause a large proportion of the Lower Mainland’s emissions.

    Thanks for the great post and references that you have provided, something that one would think the professional media would take to heart.


    September 2, 2011 at 11:44 am

  7. I try to keep the thoughtful analysis stuff in the blog posts themselves rather than the comments, and anyway Todd Littman does this economics bit much better than I do.

    One of the arguments in favour of user fees is that if a service/good is subsidized or offered for free, people will “over consume” it. The price is a signal that both users and providers can understand and – to a limited extent – influence. I think users of the GEB are showing that to Translink – who, unfortunately, took the revenue risk not the “private sector partner”. The way our P3s are arranged, there is no risk transfer. In other places silly projects go bust, the investors lose their shirts and the public still have the infrastructure to use at a fire sale price. I am in favour of that. It worked well with fibre optic cables. I am not in favour of using tax revenues to bolster inefficient corporations.

    It is also the case that road space at peak periods is scarce – and therefore valuable – but car drivers do not see that in what they pay to use the roads. So as a way of dealing with congestion, variable peak pricing is effective. But in the name of equity it must be system wide. Any other way of reducing congestion that just makes more space available for free is self defeating. Including building exclusive, grade separated transit rights of way. Traffic in downtown Toronto got worse after the subways replaced streetcars – because the cars now had more room to play in.

    Yes we all benefit from transportation – of people and goods – even if we do not use the system ourselves. The question is about mode choice. One of the reasons there are so many trucks is that the railways have to pay the full cost of their right of way – except in Canada where they were not only given it for free but great chunks of real estate too. But bygones are bygones, and now the railways have to compete with subsidized truckers who pay nothing like the cost they impose on society in travel delays and road damage, let alone air pollution, noise and all the rest. Moreover the distribution system is heavily skewed towards people doing the last few miles of delivery for themselves – hence big box stores at freeway entrances.

    No system is going to be perfect. But Voony’s idea of cordon pricing is inappropriate to the lower mainland. We no longer have a single central place where most work takes place with commute trips radiating out from it. Concentric rings of pricing make sense in cities that work like that – not here. Our trips are many to many, not many to few – and the pattern is highly dispersed employment, which makes the peak multi-directional. So cordons or bridge tolls favour too many and tax others unreasonably.

    Stephen Rees

    September 2, 2011 at 11:49 am

  8. I think I had already answered most of the objection stated by Stephen’s comment above in my blog.

    That said, It could be many trip, everywhere in Lower mainland, but only few of them create severe congestion, and it is the one involving bridge crossing at peak time: that is the point of congestion charge…it is not to charge all the commuter “equally”, but only those creating severe congestion – which due to topography can be otherwise insanely expensive to address, and this cost need to be internalized – what is defacto recognized by the government by tolling enlarged bridges (that is certainly more unfair than a congestion charge model, and I am glad that the Todd litman mentions this as I have did here, thanks for the link ) and not “improved” or new road like SFPR:

    As I have mentioned (in my blog) , an idealized “system wide” model could be fairer to the individual motorists- than bridge toll- but could be unfair to the general interest: It could cost more to operate than the general economic gain it allow.

    And dismissing simple solution on the ground of “unfairness” toward motorist, is what I have previously called “rational for inaction”.

    San Francisco aera is certainly much more decentralized than Vancouver Metro, and still they have toll on all bridges accessing SFO (Ironically the wealthy people of Santa Clara will not pay toll, while the poorer one of Oakland will have a congestion charge to pay on top of regular toll…People have voted for that to support Transit.

    I am not sure, in what it is fairer to increase 2c the gas tax, of the motorist commuting from Langley to Ladner at 4am than a congestion toll in effect from 7am to 10am on Pattullo bridge where and when Transit alternative are at its best. and certainly don’t see cordon pricing as inappropriate in Vancouver…but pretty well the opposite:
    it is a region very well adapted to that in fact.

    And it is also a defacto conclusion, I share with the excellent Todd Littman report which states:
    “Expanding the highway is only efficient if peak-period revenues are sufficient to repay all
    incremental costs”

    That sentence rationalize the fact that bridge tolls need to be much higher than toll on general highway, especially in Lower Mainland where expanding any bridge or tunnel over the Fraser starts anywhere north of $1 Billion…


    September 6, 2011 at 6:22 am

  9. “I would argue that the costs of roads should be borne more equally by everyone (non car owners included). We all need goods and services, emergency services, utilities etc. which require the direct or indirect use of roads by ALL consumers.”

    I’m definitely not an economist, but I fail to see how making road users pay for the infrastructure they use would deny us goods and services that require that infrastructure. As Voony so cleverly pointed out, we have plenty of other services that we’re required to pay directly for, and it certainly hasn’t stopped them.

    Yes, if road users had to pay direct costs for the infrastructure then the prices of many goods and services would rise. But our taxes would also fall, and wouldn’t the end result be a “fairer” matching between the consumption of goods and services and their real costs? Wouldn’t this benefit other sensible notions such as “buy locally” rather than paying the cost to transport tomatoes from California?

    I can even see how it might end transit subsidies, since users paying actual costs would make doubtless make transit cheaper than automobile travel. And with the roads emptied of “freeloaders”, commerce would be more efficient because of dramatically reduced congestion.

    It’s a difficult, probably tortuous path from here to there, but I can’t see why “there” wouldn’t work at least as well as what we have now.

    Sean Nelson

    September 7, 2011 at 11:01 am

  10. I have to agree with Voony on this, most of the congestion in the lower mainland is at choke points and most of those choke points are bridges. If you are not using those choke points during periods when the road system is near capacity you are not part of the problem from a congestion point of view. So a commuter from Langley to Hope is not part of the problem even in rush hour but a commuter from Surrey to NewWestminister in rush hour is. Hopefully the congestion charge at choke points would change driver behaviour by reducing the number of people using the choke point when it is near capacity (probably at the expense of more trips during other periods) reducing congestion for those willing to pay the charge.


    September 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm

  11. The problem that Voony and Rico do not seem to understand is that any proposal has to meet some basic level of acceptability with the population impacted by it. One that is patently unfair stands little chance of success. Translink is not actually a provincial agency – and even the province now and again has to admit that it makes mistakes when it imposes a tax unreasonably. Bridge tolls – even as presently proposed – are already attracting fierce opposition from people who have no viable “free” alternate.

    Stephen Rees

    September 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm

  12. people who have no viable “free” alternate.

    at least you put the ‘free’ part in quotations.. 🙂

    assuming that you mean a viable free road alternate, that is a set-up for failure. traffic and travellers will pay for a non-tolled road thru time taken by eventual congestion. a free alternate route would be good (although i would be ok with wide-spread road pricing), but you shouldn’t expect it to be an equivalent fast trip to a tolled route.

    I would agree that having the populace agree to that would be a challenge. but perhaps the first step is to be clear you are dealing with paying either with money or time and that is not an unfair choice, but perhaps an equivalent one.


    September 7, 2011 at 11:02 pm

  13. I guess we still need politicians with leadership but the reality is a congestion tax applied only during congested periods at choke points really is an anti-congestion user fee applied to those who chose to travel in those times and places. Taxes and user fees are unpopular and always will be, doesn’t mean they are the wrong solution. Another quibble, why is charging a congestion (or anti-congestion fee) at a choke point ‘patently unfair?’ Even if someone ‘must’ travel through a congested choke point in theory the congestion charge would reduce the traffic allowing them to reach their destination sooner and cheaper (time and fuel costs). Any ‘solution’ to congestion will cost resources and someone has to pay (maybe just tne faceless taxpayer who does not know it but still someone), why not those who are ‘the problem.’ As for tolling the HOV lanes unless the HOV lanes are extended thru the choke points why bother?


    September 8, 2011 at 11:31 am

  14. People have a deep seated belief that existing taxes more than cover the cost of the current transportation system. Drivers, because they pay so much to own and operate their vehicles, believe it even more strongly.

    It makes the task of getting people to pay more even harder because nobody likes to be told they’re wrong.

    Thus it requires baby steps like offering paid queue jumpers so a very obvious public price is put on time.

    This region may have good choke points for HOT lanes, but some of the existing HOV lanes aren’t particularly good examples. I sometimes drive my family from Vancouver to South Delta during the afternoon rush. Simply getting into the southbound HOV lane is a problem because of all the traffic merging from Westminster Hwy. I sometimes think it takes me longer to reach the tunnel via the HOV lane than traffic in the far left lane that’s least affected by the merging.

    As Rico said, if the HOT lane stops before the choke point then its value is low. The best example I can think of is the Nexus system at the border. The lane starts way back on the Canadian side and extends all the way to US customs.

    Now imagine there was no separate lane until you reached the duty free store and it ended at the peace arch, some 400m short of US customs. If you build your HOT lanes like that the cost of collection could exceed the amount of toll collected.

    Unfortunately that means there are almost no good candidates for HOT in this region. We can’t afford to replace all the bridges with wider ones so the only way to get HOT through the choke points would be to convert an existing lane from general purpose traffic to HOT. I wager the politician brave enough to reduce the Knight Street bridge to just 2 lanes plus 2 HOT lanes would not only fail to get re-elected, he’d likely be assassinated.


    September 8, 2011 at 11:37 pm

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