Stephen Rees's blog

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

Road pricing: What’s not to love

with 5 comments

The title is taken from Gordon Price’s blog post and op-ed in the Vancouver Sun today.  He used a question mark, so this post tries to address the question. Yesterday the Sun had another op-ed on the same topic – equally positive – by Michael Goldberg (you may recall I quoted a lot from him at the “Moving the Future” meeting). I won’t link to that since it’s behind the paywall, but I am sure you can find it if you want to. And on Friday I am invited to another meeting where road pricing is going to be debated.

I am not just being contrarian. I have been in favour of moving towards road pricing ever since I read Gabriel Roth’s “Paying for Roads” back in the mid 1960s. I have written about it on this blog often enough. My impression is that there is a movement afoot to persuade us that we will get a say in future road pricing in the referendum. Frankly, I doubt it. And if we do I also doubt that it will win. Gordon does a good job of explaining why it is unpopular in general – but I think that there are some very specific reasons why it will not fly here, now. And that is what I am concerned about.

“The best is the enemy of the good.”

Road pricing is fine in theory, but very difficult to do in practice. Parallels with other places that use cordons to impose congestion charges on central areas (London, Singapore, various Scandinavian cities) fall down very quickly when you compare our geography to theirs. Our commute pattern in not dominated by travel from the suburbs to one central area. Suburb to suburb travel is much more important. We cannot do a simple cordon price system here.

The province appears to be willing to reconsider its tolling policy which means that prices could be applied to existing roads at some future date once it has decided what that policy is going to be. But it will almost certainly be a province wide policy, not one designed to be optimal for this region. That is going to create a whole new set of problems we cannot yet determine, since the new policy is still in vitro. But you can already see that since some roads are provincial, some municipal and some get funding from Translink’s Major Road Network it is going to take a fair bit of negotiation to sort out which roads it will be applied to and how.

The next huge issue is what will happen on the other roads. As Gordon’s other recent blog post about Portugal shows, when you toll the major roads, a lot of traffic shifts to the minor roads.

In London, when the congestion charge was introduced, it was recognized that there would be a shift from driving to public transport. And that would be a problem as the railway systems were already at capacity at peak periods, and it takes a great deal of time to build new railway capacity (though they are doing that too). So the only quick way to add capacity was to increase the bus system. The problem was that the buses were caught up in the congestion themselves. So it would not be enough to just add more buses. The service would have to become both more reliable and faster – to attract passengers and cut costs. So at the same time as the congestion charge zone was being set up, so too were lots of new exclusive bus lanes.

In Metro Vancouver there are very few examples of bus lanes. Most are simply queue jumpers – and many are also open to “high occupancy vehicles” (even where “high occupancy” means only two or more people). On the busiest bus routes, there are parking restrictions but at peak periods only. While there have been short lived examples of bus priority measures (on the old #98 B Line for instance) most have now been removed. Municipalities could – at any time – have demonstrated a commitment to better bus services by their traffic management policies. None have down so in any significant fashion.

If we are to switch to road pricing it cannot happen until we have resolved the issue of how the trips deterred by the tolls can continue to be accomplished. That means significant transit expansion has to be ready to go before the toll collectors are turned on. That means more buses, more operators, more operating and maintenance centres. There is no spare capacity in the present transit system. It has been managed out as part of coping with increased demand without increased funding. There will be some additional trains when the Evergreen Line opens but none are being bought for the rest of the (overcrowded) SkyTrain system. The Canada Line presents its own set of capacity restraints that have been expounded here often enough.

There has been an opportunity to switch on a road pricing like system for some time. Not one that is sensitive to routes or times of day, but would have reduced car use significantly. I refer to distance based car insurance. With mandatory provincially provided car insurance we could have had this years ago. Instead the province has used ICBC as a way of collecting more for general revenues.

Today the province also announced increased hydro rates – for the next five years. This is to help pay for the disastrous policies of privatization, “run of the river” schemes ( sorry that link is paywalled) and settling a legal dispute with  California.

At the same time provincial policies at BC Transit are being shown to have been very badly thought out. Hydrogen buses in Whistler – introduced for the Olympics fuelled from hydrogen trucked from Quebec – are found to be too expensive. There is never funding for dull, boring everyday transit service, but there’s always a ribbon cutting opportunity – and plenty of PR pizzazz for daft ideas like the hydrogen highway – which still doesn’t exist.

In BC – as in the rest of North America – real disposable incomes have been largely static. Reductions in taxes have been matched – and in some cases more than matched – by hikes in fees for services which used to be paid from taxes. 1% of the population has done very well indeed. Most of the rest does not feel better off. Household debt is at record levels. Raising hydro rates will make people feel worse off, especially those who have no way to increase their incomes and who have very little ability to reduce their use of power. We’ve had all the free light bulbs we can use and many of us cannot afford a new fridge.

There is going to be a referendum on increasing the amount we pay for transit. That will come from a combination of sources since that is the way the system is set up now, and there is no current ability to change that. The new revenue stream is need to play catch up to currently constrained demand.

None of the articles I referred to have dealt with inequality – or land use. We know that land use takes a long time to change, but we also know that transportation and land use are inextricably linked.  If we change the way we pay for roads, people will have to reconsider their location decisions. Many will feel stressed by this – there are few more traumatic events in life than moving. But they made their present decisions in a system that closely controlled how much they were allowed to spend on housing but ignored how much they would have to spend on travel. “Drive until you qualify” is actually a terrible strategy – for a two income family especially – but it was what most people did. Change those rules and expect howls of outrage. People on the lower end of the income scale are much more vulnerable to changes of this kind – and more numerous. That matters in systems where votes matter. Like referenda.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 26, 2013 at 11:56 am

5 Responses

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  1. What’s not to love is that when road pricing is invoked, it is as a way to fund transit.

    Road pricing need to be considered under a pure economic lens, that is as a transportation demand management tool aiming to achieve the most efficient use of our road transportation network.

    Rod pricing involve the allocation question of revenue of such scheme.

    It is natural, to allocate it toward instrument able to lower the road usage barrier (price).

    Transit is an instrument, among other, toward that, but it shouldn’t be the reason for road pricing, neither the lack of it invoked against road pricing.

    It is worth to remind that Singapore didn’t have subways at the time of the introduction of its road pricing scheme, and frankly you will always find people saying transit is not good enough/ is already saturated…, whatever the offer is.

    Cordon pricing as in Stokholm apply very well, and may be better to Vancouver, because whetever the amount of suburb to suburb traffic, the network bottlenecks are on the bridges and tunnels, amking them natural pricing points.

    see more here:


    November 26, 2013 at 10:50 pm

  2. On the contrary only considering road pricing under a pure economic lens means that we do not consider how on earth we are expected to implement it. And simply assuming that some way will be found to cope with the disruption of a major change like this will inevitably lead to disaster. Translink has been struggling with straitened financial circumstances for some time, and will need a huge injection of resources before RP can be implemented. But much also has to de done by municipalities and other organizations to make it work. And that cannot just be assumed to happen.

    Stephen Rees

    November 27, 2013 at 7:55 am

  3. The Port Mann and Golden Ears show that road demand is very elastic in Metro Vancouver, at least when free alternatives exist. Tolls might not need to be very high to resolve traffic problems on some bridges. More equal tolling of more bridges would reduce aggregate trip length by eliminating the reason for toll avoidance. Better transit would make demand for bridge space more elastic, but spreading the peak with a peak congestion charge might be enough for bottlenecks that haven’t seen an increase in traffic in decades.

    Vancouver’s congestion occurs primarily on freeways and bridges in the suburbs. A comprehensive system of tolls on chokepoints would require as few as eight toll points, which is remarkable for a metropolitan region of Vancouver’s size.


    November 28, 2013 at 10:59 pm

  4. Exactly Mike0123

    I wrote in the link above, and what still stand true:

    The today municipal politicians mood, is to not oppose to the road pricing idea, though for some, it is to rationalize the inaction toward it: that is

    Anything other that the “ideal” road pricing is not “fair” to the motorists

    [by “ideal” road pricing, understand a really complicate model tracking all movement of all vehicle, everywhere at anytime…what raise potential privacy concern]

    The model could be fair to the individual motorists, but could be unfair to the general interest: It could cost more to operate than the general economic gain it allows

    …What is almost what is happening in London (a very expensive model to operate):

    See cost/benefit of various system here:

    When you take account the economic benefit/cost of a road pricing scheme (what I called “road pricing under a pure economic lens”), you will see it quickly that for Vancouver, the solution by Mike0123 is by far the most efficeint one…

    It could have some fringe effect, but again those should not be invoked as a stopper, but just addressed effectively at a political level (like daily price capping, free trip bank…)…


    November 29, 2013 at 10:16 am

  5. What I like about Gordon Price’s op-ed is his promotion of invisible taxes / fees applied modestly to roads. It seems antithetic to consensus democracy, but funding transit adequately has largely failed even though lots of options have not been tried. So why not consider a new option when al else fails: the political stratagem used today with omnibus bills in the House of Commons, i.e. bury additional fees and taxes incrementally a buck at a time in with road projects?

    In 2010 Voony posted on his blog the regional bridge traffic volumes (using 2006 data) and recommended a toll / congestion charge structure that would generate a little less than $200 million a year on the bridges controlled by TransLink.

    The volume of all traffic across nine bridges and one tunnel (the Golden Ears Bridge came after the data set), based on Voony’s data, is 345,655,000 trips / year (947,000 / day). I assume this is based on actual counts averaged over a set of working, weekend and statutory vacation days, and not just peak volumes. If tolls were applied to all bridges and vehicles equally (the simplest and most democratic method) at a reasonable rate of, say, $2.50 per crossing (less than the one-zone bus fare, I have to say), then a new annual revenue stream in excess of $864 million would be available. Playing with the toll rate to make it more palatable to drivers and the commercial sector should not result in anything lower than about $1.75 per trip and ~$600 million each year in revenue.

    Of course, there are variables and complications, such as folding in the new Port Mann tolls and any other new bridge tolls devoted exclusively to their associated construction debts, so come kind of revenue division agreement with the province has to be negotiated to maintain a basic toll flat rate for all vehicles while also paying off the debt. But this may be acceptable to drivers and the province if they end up paying less than the current toll on the Port Mann and the Golden Ears. Bridges are part of the regional transportation system and should be considered as a whole rather than as individual components when toll and new construction funding is reconsidered.

    When Naheed Nenshi ran for mayor of Calgary he posted several well thought out and finely edited “issues” on his Web site, and provided links to previous essays that were published in the media on more fleshed-out urban topics. His campaign was underfunded compared to the establishment candidates, but the Web site provided a lot of good information compared to the other’s fluff, and his candidacy attracted youth in droves. He won, and has become one of the best mayors they ever had, which was proven late in his first term with his outstanding performance helping Calgary recover from the worst urban flood in national history, which also led directly to his sweeping re-election. The fact a Muslim liberal urbanist could twice win the top office in a conservative suburban town indicated how our old stereotypes are falling to the wayside.

    Nenshi has written quite a lot on the suburban subsidies that plague sprawling towns like Calgary, and he nailed it down to almost $10,000 per home in the peripheral neighbourhoods. A hefty part of that sum is embedded into roads and the utilities that come with them; they cost the same per kilometre to build regardless of how many (or few) people they serve. The other major part of the subsidies is public services like fire, police, transit and schools.

    My point is that subsidy is hidden and should be uncovered and charged to each household accordingly if they do not accept greater efficiency in urban design, otherwise the suburbs need to be incrementally reconfigured for greater density using transit as the primary tool.

    There exists a myriad of ways to raise funds for transit (Stephen touched on a few of them), but one of them would be to enlighten communities that transit requires a certain form of urbanism and the old models that converted open fields and forests to low density, car-dominated subdivisions is no longer acceptable from a public finance and environmental viewpoint.


    November 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

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