Stephen Rees's blog

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

We Can’t Get There From Here

with 6 comments

Much attention in the mainstream media this morning is being paid to Road Pricing (RP). That is because there is a new report out from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission that recommends road pricing as the way to deal with traffic congestion. Reaction has, of course, been swift. The reactions have been predictable – that traffic congestion is actually an indicator of economic success, and also that this new Commission has to be suspect since it is financially supported by corporations like Suncor and TD. Actually, I think these both rather miss the point. By going to the Ecofiscal web site you can easily establish who is behind it. I think it is safe to accept that we are not dealing here with yet another tentacle of the right wing think tank monster. Secondly, the report is aimed squarely at a problem that is daily front of mind for much of the population, and one that has been resistant to most other policy prescriptions.

I have written about RP here quite a lot (75 items turn up in a search for road pricing), and as usual as soon as I start writing a blog post feel that I am repeating myself. I thought that RP was a Good Idea when I first read about it: “Paying for Roads” a Penguin Special by Gabriel Roth that cost five shillings when it was published in 1967. Back then much of the technology that now makes RP technically possible was far into the future. Though there was a brief experiment with license plate readers and a series of cordons in Hong Kong while it was still a British colony: it was one of the first acts of the short lived democratic, pre-Chinese takeover government to kill it.

One of the good things is that you can download both the Executive Summary and the full report for free and read it for yourself. I am going to highlight just a couple of shortcomings, but I am sure others will find more. First, in terms of case studies it seems to me that they have missed the biggest one: London. That is a pity since it misses the single most important lesson.

The report states “Congestion pricing is likely to have its greatest impact when accompanied by complementary non-pricing measures—for example, road and transit improvements that improve alternatives for drivers.”

True but not trenchant enough. RP will fail to get any support in a situation where people feel that they have no alternative. So any RP demonstration project here will fail, simply because the transit system is inadequate for many trips – and there is no ability to fund any significant improvement under the present funding model. In London, when the flat rate cordon around the Central Area was introduced, it was recognised that railway system was already at capacity at peak periods, and there was not going to be any ability to increase that capacity in the short term. On the other hand, it was possible to greatly increase the bus system capacity by introducing an extensive system of bus only lanes and other priority measures. And that this improvement had to be made before the cordon was activated. Yes, RP produces a revenue stream that can be used to support transit, but for the system to work that additional capacity has to be available on the first day the RP bites.

The Executive Summary has this to say about our region

Metro Vancouver has constrained geography bounded by mountains and ocean, polycentric travel patterns with multiple hubs of activity, and a complex governance structure with involvement from multiple municipalities and the provincial government. Applying variable pricing to each of the region’s bridges and tunnels that cross waterways would be one way to price access to key driving arteries to reduce regional congestion.

Again, true so far as it goes but also a recipe for disaster. Bridges and tunnels are an obvious choice, but also a mistake, because there are plenty of trips at peak periods that do not cross a bridge (or use the tunnel). As long as you are driving east-west, you can avoid crossing significant bodies of water.   Coquitlam to UBC for instance. Or Abbotsford to Delta.

RP can be much more sophisticated than a simple flat rate cordon toll system. Indeed, what Roth was proposing all those years ago was a system that was able to price correctly depending on time of day and traffic conditions. So not at all like the cordon charges imposed in London or Stockholm. Something of the sort that has been used successfully in the Minnesota HOT lanes, and in the San Francisco variable parking fee regime. But that means you have to have a system that is less concerned with optimising revenue take, and more to do with improving travel times. The great benefit of RP is that those who can afford the fees get a quicker drive. Which is one reason why it is perfectly reasonable to question why we are trying to tackle traffic congestion when there are so many other more pressing issues like climate change and income/wealth inequality that ought to be concerning us. The optimum is unlikely to be a simple piece of fiscal calculus, since we need to put into a model all those really awkward considerations that are controversial in terms of pricing. Since our income distribution has become so inequitable, price solutions are going to be very unfair indeed. And if we have failed to make adequate provisions for people who cannot drive, as well as those who find it hard to afford to drive, or who simply do not want to, then the whole thing is going to be wildly unpopular before it starts.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 2, 2015 at 11:01 am

Posted in congestion, road pricing

Tagged with ,

6 Responses

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  1. No we cannot. Increasingly to me the best path is looking to be what some European capitals have in the works; namely a plan to establish largely car-free urban islands within the central city. I have no doubt that once these are established, sufficient transit will be in place or follow shortly thereafter and then the car-free area can be expanded in subsequent years as urban development and demand warrants.

    This will be true choice; the choice to live without cars in a safe and livable environment or in a car environment. After that the equity question will arise, because I have no doubt where the in-demand area will be, so the poor will be relegated to the outer car dependent suburbs. But then again the taxes of the car-free areas will probably subsidize the suburbs.


    November 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm

  2. I wish I shared your optimism, but this region has a long history of reluctance to fund transit properly, which I think accounts for its auto-orientation everywhere except for downtown Vancouver. As Gordon Price once said to me “The suburbs start at 12th Avenue.”

    Stephen Rees

    November 2, 2015 at 5:13 pm

  3. […] We refer here to the Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission report on congestion pricing, which received very large coverage in the media, but also on Pricetags and the Stepehen Rees blog. […]

  4. Mayor Richard Walton (District of North Vancouver) on the CBC

    Walton said the reasoning behind the report is sound, but takes issue with the recommendation to Metro Vancouver to toll bridges and tunnels.

    “The challenge, as they identify in the report, is that the geography of most cities is unique and ours is probably one of the most problematic,” said Walton.

    He says the plan ignores the fact that someone would be able to drive from Cloverdale to Tsawwassen, or from Port Moody to UBC, without paying any kind of congestion charges for example.

    Meanwhile, commuters from the North Shore who rely on the Lions Gate bridge to get into downtown would be charged for using the bridge during peak hours, according to the plan put forward by the commission.

    Walton is not against tolling points on some of the major highways and roads leading into Vancouver, but says figuring out where those tolling point should be requires consultation from all a parts of Metro Vancouver.

    In order for it to work, he says the guiding principle for any congestion plan must be equity.

    “There needs to be a sense throughout the region that there’s something for everyone,” said Walton.

    “You need to make sure that everybody sees their life is going to improve as a result of a particular process and you need representation in developing it from all areas.”

    Stephen Rees

    November 3, 2015 at 1:19 pm

  5. In this article from The Surrey Leader Peter Fassbender shows that he is unfit to be Minister of anything.

    He says that road pricing might be allowable without a referendum if it was revenue neutral i.e. replaces an existing revenue source. As though the current revenues for Translink could be thought of as “adequate” which clearly they are not. He also stumbles over the proposed new bridges

    “The province wants to see business cases for the new Pattullo and Massey bridges before deciding on any tolling policy change, he said.”

    But Christy Clark has already committed to building the Massey Bridge without any business case at all. Indeed she is on record in response to FOI requests that there is nothing available on the decision. Not even a Post It note can be found! And since the Province is the proponent of the bridge, surely they are the people responsible for producing the evidence that it is both necessary and feasible. And that other alternatives have been fully and fairly considered. None of which is the case here for Massey – though Translink has done a lot of work on the Patullo.

    Worth noting too is how the current provincial absence of policy for expanding transit makes it look like BC will lose out badly when the money starts flowing from Ottawa to other cities which have got their act together.

    Stephen Rees

    November 4, 2015 at 2:59 pm

  6. I would hope that Trudeau won’t hold it against Metro cities if the province drags its feet or demands a predudicial referendum on only the local portion of funding. The proposed infrastructure funding dovetails in so much more than an admirable if inadequate federal agenda for cities, and goes straight towards climate change and emissions reductions. Trudeau has other infrastructure funds that the province would really want, such as for roads. In Trudeau’s shoes I would secure the provincial funding portion for Metro-wide transit first, then seriously consider paying the city’s share from the road portion should the province start parsing.

    It’s only wishful thinking that the Massey bridge project would get triple-deleted by voters peeved with Christy’s arrogance and disdain for public information as a precursor to deleting her government. However, it’s not clear where the NDP stand on transit, cities and climate. After all they support the Surrey coal export terminal because it represents a massive contribution to the economy with all its 21 jobs. Perhaps the best we could hope for is an NDP minority backed by Andrew Weaver and the Greens.


    November 13, 2015 at 12:06 pm

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