Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘congestion charging

Andrew Coyne at SFU

with 5 comments

There is already a post on this blog announcing the talk this evening and with my initial reactions. I have have attached my notes below. I have also assembled a storify from the tweets that used the #movingthefuture hashtag

The evening was remarkably short, ending at 20:15. Usually these things go on until 21:00. Was Translink paying him by the minute? I also have the strong suspicion that he was reading a prepared talk, so it seems quite possible that a transcript may appear sooner than the SFU video which is promised “within weeks”. I would have thought a talk like this, which used no visual presentation materials at all could have been distributed as a podcast much faster.

My reaction then is what I am going to write first. He opened by disclaiming expertise – in this field or any other. Experts, he said, know very much more about much less. He knows less about very much more. He also has seemed to me, from his opinion columns, a convert to right wing politics, and in particular their love affair with markets and less government. For such people economics is delightfully simple and straightforward, for they only have familiarity with the basic concepts as set out in Economics 101. They seem not to have been listening when told that the market conceived of under Perfect Competition is an abstraction. It is an entirely theoretical construct used for didactic purposes: to explain what would happen under a set of highly unrealistic assumptions. You have to grasp that in in order to understand what comes in the later courses – which deal with the complexities and difficulties of the Real World.

I have been an advocate of Road Pricing myself – and covered that here. (There are 69 results if you do a search on this blog for “road pricing” (without the quotes). It would be a better way of allocating a scarce resource (road space at peak periods) than the one we currently use – queueing. But that is not to say that such a solution can be implemented easily or quickly. Road pricing might be a better way to deal with congestion – but that does not mean we can implement it here and now. Andrew Coyne did not deal with either here or now. He did not reference the provincial fiat: they are the only ones who can price provincial assets including the designated provincial highways. So the Mayors have been told that Road Pricing is effectively off the table at present. Indeed they themselves have said that while they recognize its potential usefulness they do not actually want it for at least five years in the the future. Like St Augustine is supposed to have prayed: Give me Chastity but Not Yet.

UPDATE Breaking News – according to a paywalled story in the Globe and Mail this morning Todd Stone is now willing to consider tolls and regional road pricing in the upcoming referendum (Posted at 09:08 Feb 26)

Secondly he was very selective in some of the evidence he cited. And in some cases I feel that he rather mislead the audience. For example he asserted that London Transport had halved the cost of providing bus service since it adopted contracting out. What he did not say was that this was imposed by a Conservative government at the national level with a stated objective of breaking the power of the trade unions. Most if not all of the savings came at the expense of the wages of those actually performing the service. The profits of the bus operating companies have been quite remarkable. Indeed that is also true of the railways. There the cost to the public purse has tripled. A franchise to run trains – such as that owned by Virgin – is a bit like a license to print money. It has been a lot tougher for the people who build trains. Only one UK manufacturer remains. The users also now complain of very expensive tickets and gross overcrowding due to underinvestment in very necessary additional rolling stock. Outside London Andrew Coyne conceded experience had been “mixed”. He failed to mention the complete absence of service in many rural areas, the dearth of off peak services everywhere and the consequential huge problem of social isolation.

He did concede that introducing prices on services now provided “free” like road space, hit poor people hardest, but that he said was simply an income problem. Easily solved by a commitment to give poor people more money. If anyone has ever come across a conservative politician who is actually willing to embrace this notion, please let me know. As far as I am aware the idea of the guaranteed income is anathema to every conservative and is no more likely to be introduced into Canada or BC than I am to be given a seat in the Senate.

UPDATE Todd Litman has posted to Planetizen that road tolls are fair and benefit the poor – with lots of references. He does not address region wide road pricing in this piece. He argues as follows

While it is true that a given fee is regressive (a dollar represents a greater portion of income for a poor than a wealthy person), road tolls are generally less regressive than other highway funding options because poor people drive relatively little on such highways: many poor people are retired or unemployed, lower-income workers often have local jobs that do not require highway commutes, and if they do commute on major travel corridors they are more likely to use alternative modes, or travel off-peak because they often have off-peak work schedules.

Saying “eliminate the subsidies” is easy: getting that to happen requires the enthusiastic cooperation of Stephen Harper and Christy Clark. They would also both have to support income supplementation for the poor. Does that seem at all likely?


I happen to be reading Sacré Blues by Taras Grescoe (it’s about Quebec) where I came across his assessment of Andrew Coyne – “the knee jerk conservatism of power worship”


Easing congestion in Metro Vancouver: Pricing without subsidies.

Traffic is strangling our cities – he produced a bunch of statistics which I am not a fast enough hunt and peck tapper to record. He did not note that driving in the US has been declining – something which is also evident here.

The costs of congestion are massive and growing

Commuting by car 85% of total nationally unchanged in twenty years

We use the most perverse system to ration road space – time
Building more roads also doesn’t work it induces traffic
Reduction in capacity produces less demand
Induced traffic also results from other measures. To the extent that they have been successful in improving traffic volume/delay that space is quickly absorbed by new induced traffic

Incentive requires rational mechanism – tolls
Smeed Report (UK 1964)
Roads represent a tragedy of the commons – people leave early to try to beat the traffic just as farmers drove their sheep onto the common to crop its loser before their neighbours got there.

Sprawl creates congestion

Many will object “I paid for those roads already”  but you haven’t paid for the space you occupy at peak periods. Each extra vehicle that joins a congested traffic stream has an exponentially worse impact.  Congestion exists on some roads and some times, so the toll that is needed is a congestion price. Willingness to pay for uncontested roads is demonstrated by the success of express highway lanes in California, HOT lanes in Minnesota and tolled autoroutes in France. Toronto has Highway 407 an express toll route that parallels a section of Highway 401 but offers a faster alternative to those willing and able to pay. The prices imposed on these roads are set at a level to deter enough new traffic to keep the flow moving smoothly. 

Do we need new roads? Can’t we toll existing ones? It a toll had been applied to Highway 401 maybe the 407 would not have been needed.

Cordon tolls are used in  London and Stockholm which were initially very successful but
have induced traffic within the cordon. Singapore had its cordon set up much earlier and now also applies tolls within the cordon on arterial roads

Why not toll every road all the time?
UK 2004 white paper for just such a system (summarized on wikipedia)
the netherlans and Oregon are both considering such schemes and trucks already pay this way in Germany and Austria

Many are concerned about the impact of specific road pricing by location and time on privacy. However that is already the case with the use cell phones. (It seems to me that the general reaction to the relevations by Philip Snowden on the use of this metadata by the NSA shows this asserted faith in cell phone companies is misplaced).

The biggest objection  is that prices are unfair to the poor. This is an income problem not a price problem. We do not in general try to fix the  price of food which would help rich and poor alike. (This seems to ignore US and European food agricultural policies) Equity issues can be dealt with through tax credits and other transfer payments

Buses would move better as a result of less traffic on the road. He felt that this improvement alone would be enough to create a beneficent cycle of growth of bus use without diverting revenue from tolls to transit. He felt a better use of the revenue would be to distribute the surplus as a dividend to all

Not same to use revenue to subsidize transit
There is no virtue in transit use
Unnecessary rolling roads produces better transit levelling the playing field

Transit use is still subsidizing sprawl

Not a good way to get to use transit. Better passenger experience, subsidies insulate operators. Value to society exceeds cost of provision. Thicket of overlapping subsidies.

Transit is not a natural monopoly
Experience in UK mixed

People make better choices when they know the true cost

Even a modest rp scheme would have some benefits
No free lunch or no free road

Q & A

1 After a impromptu poll of the audience which I think was supposed to show more people drive than used transit (it didn’t) Test of political bravery. (I think the questioner should have stuck to the track record of politicians unwillingness to try road pricing – there are plenty of examples)

We are at least now talking about this, which was not the case a few years ago. There is a lot of  spadework needed but “the answer is staring us in the face”
Cash grab objection

Political leadership Mayors council says 5 years out

Partial scheme like only tolling one bridge real problems

Eric Doherty:  climate change costs wide range of damage costs of GHG makes congestion cost look trivial

Carbon tax is a separate instrument
Road Pricing (RP) benefits car users

ED: In Zurich all surface transit has exclusive lanes. There even bankers use transit as driving is so slow by comparison

The best thing for transit is take the subsidy out of driving

Clive Rock: we only have a  weak regional entity, and provinces don’t do cities well. We need a
champion for RP who has to have stature. We have to review our institutional structures – municipalities were compared to warring tribes

AC admires the GVRD model and called it  “civic federalism”. He also warned of the penalties of amalgamation and the possibility of getting a Rob Ford instead of an RP champon

The Centre for Dialogue at SFU has been consulting on this issue and found that citizens want fairness and choice. They also preferred that RP be distance based. She also observed that the
capital cost of rapid transit can’t come from the firebox [By the way you can get a pdf file of the report from the SFU Centre for Dialogue]

People will have options and choices
Give poor people more money
Don’t need to subsidize transit
Can borrow or raise on equity markets for private sector transit investment
Transit is only really “needed” if it can be financed commercially

Externalities … Is there a societal benefit from transit use?

Q There are very few places where transit is profitable

By pricing roads you change the options

We are subsidizing sprawl not good public policy

Dense cities built before transit

Make transit better self reinforcing cycle

Affordability guaranteed income without that inequalities

Fixing prices does not target help

Trying do social justice on the cheap

Collective responsibility on the tax and transfer system

Fuel tax does not address congestion

Q BC had a huge amount of trouble getting changes eg carbon tax

This is a local fix and an easier sell than carbon tax
Achievable with a phase in period but there will be life investment upheaval

Richard Campbell: In this region there has been over optimism in tolls on bridges

Which shows the danger of partial solutions It also demonstrates that you can’t be sure of how much revenue you will get, so that is another reason not to rely on RP to fund transit expansion

20: 15 close

Congestion Pricing and Its Effects on the Environment

with 3 comments

The proponents of highway expansion here like to characterize traffic congestion as an environmental problem. Look at all those stalled cars, they say, pumping out pollution into the air. If that traffic was moving there would be less pollution. An article in the Wall Street Journal today takes the opposite view. “Traffic jams, if they’re managed well, can actually be good for the environment

What spurred the WSJ’s interest was the appointment of Jay H. Walder  as chairman and chief executive officer of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He helped design London’s congestion pricing scheme. Not that he admits to planning to introducing congestion pricing to New York – yet. But clearly in London – as in New York – there is a good alternative to driving – an extensive rapid transit network. In both cities most people get into the centre – the major employment area- on trains. The commute pattern in Greater Vancouver is not nearly so centralized. And we do not have much of a rail network. Only part of the region gets the choice of a fast ride on transit.

Induced Traffic

What is important to note is that the arithmetic used by the road promoters ignores induced traffic. The reason that road building does NOT cure congestion is that traffic expands to fill the space available. The author, David Owen, inserts the word “almost” before “always end up making the original problem worse”. I would like someone who thinks otherwise to come up with just one example where this solution worked for more than just a brief period. Gordon Price issued that challenge to the Gateway proponents, and they have never answered.

Who pays?

In 1999, the Australian researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy concluded that “there is no guarantee that congestion pricing will simultaneously improve congestion and sustainability,” and mentioned several ways in which congestion pricing can defy the expectations of its supporters, among them by causing motorists to “drive exactly as they always have if the congestion charge is covered by their firms (e.g., a majority of London’s peak-hour commuters have company cars and perks).”

It is also important to note that the second stage of the London scheme included areas with lots of residents. Most of them are well off – these are some of the most expensive addresses in London – and are car owners. And of course, the jobs they hold also have the same perks of company cars and “free” parking at work. Either the employer pays or it can be set off against tax as a business expense.

Yes idling cars are wasting fuel, but that is much less than the increase in fuel used by increasing the number and length of car trips. Which is what has always been the consequence of highway spending.

Congestion is a more effective deterrent to driving than congestion charges where there is capacity on an attractive alternative. In London, what congestion pricing did was make drivers more aware of their route choices. Most did not need to be in Central London at all but were taking a direct, shorter route as it seemed quicker than using the ring roads. In fact, earlier efforts to persuade drivers to divert from congested areas tended to fail simply because diverted drivers were quickly replaced by others. The M25 – the major motorway around the rim of the metropolitan area – attracts so much traffic that is has been widened several times, but remains as congested as ever. Drivers actually came out of the centre, to enjoy a section of apparently faster driving, before re-entering further around the rim.

Fortunately, planners in London were much more successful in directing employment development, especially for offices, to places served by railways. Major office developments were directed to Croydon or Ealing – both on main line railways – or to the Docklands where much was spent (and is still being spent) on both the underground and the Dockland Light Railway.

It is often forgotten that other places that invest heavily in highways also invest in railways. “Residents of the New York metropolitan area are extraordinarily committed transit users—they account for almost a third of all the public-transit passenger miles traveled in the United States.” I would have liked to have seen a figure for transit mode share in New York.   We think we do well here at 11% because the Puget Sound area has only 5%. In the US as a whole it was around 1% in 2004. But then my Google search simply demonstrated to me that the whole area of mode share calculation in the US is controversial. But clearly New York and Chicago resemble London more than we do. “Seventy-two percent (4.8 million) of people who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District each workday take public transit”

It is absurd, in New York, that the East River bridges still don’t charge tolls and that curbside parking in much of the city is free.

But again if employers and businesses would pay those fees, all that tolls and parking charges would do is change who drives, not how much is driven. And indeed, congestion charges may well work the same way. I have often used the argument myself – congestion charges replace those with time to waste with those who have money to spend. Like all regressive tax measures (those that take no account of ability to pay) they hit the poor much harder than the rich. In Metro Vancouver there would be significant geographic inequity, since only a few area have anything like adequate transit. So while the theory of getting road users to pay for more transit is attractive, the process of getting there would be very painful, unless there was a very significant upfront investment in much more transit before the new charge is levied.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 12, 2009 at 11:00 am

Transport: City faces fork in road on tackling congestion

with 2 comments

Sean Ross Financial Times

Los Angeles “lacks a convenient citywide alternative to travelling by car, such as a subway or light rail system, so gridlock is common. Despite years of worsening congestion, city authorities have had little success in alleviating the problem.”

So they are going to vote on a proposal to raise the sales tax – to build a subway (among other things) and congestion charging is also on the table. It they process LA will get the federal funds that would have gone to New York if they had not ducked out.

Pointing to Los Angeles as the fate we wanted to avoid has been the common touchstone of planning in this region. It was not enough that Vancouver fought off the downtown freeway, we also created an alternative strategy, called the Livable Region Strategic Plan. The trouble is that although it is the legally mandated growth strategy, and the revision slowly grinding its way through the process (the Sustainable Region Initiative) looks like building on the LRSP, not scrapping it, that is precisely what is happening here now. And mainly because of the actions of the province and a few unelected “professional” boards at key transportation providers.

Please click on the link and read what is happening in LA. It is a pretty good indication of what will be happening here in future. For after the Green Zone has been hacked to bits to satisfy developers, the ALR reduced to a minor inconvenience to sprawl, and the “Gateway” and the Golden Ears Bridge have done the intended jobs and allowed for low density suburban growth across the outer parts of the region, then we will have to deal with the problem LA has had since they cut up the last of the Big Red Cars fifty years ago. Building freeways did not make Los Angeles livable – and it won’t here either. “Get Moving BC” and the BC Liberal Party are well aware of this. Both Gordon Campbell and Kevin Falcon are on record as stating “We cannot build our way out of congestion” yet there is no funding for the “transit plan” (which anyway has very little for the growth areas). They are also determined to push ahead as fast as they can with the SFPR and the Highway #1 widening and Port Mann twinning, but refuse to even consider congestion charging.

I have been called to task for stating that I think that this plan is “stupid”. So perhaps I should reconsider. How about deceitful and wicked? That probably fits better. Stupid implies that these people do not know any better – but it is clear they do. But they think that developers profits are much more important than a compact urban region with complete communities, a protected green zone and increased transportation choice.  But they can get away with it since regional plans in BC are just like our environmental assessments. Toothless and useless.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2008 at 10:04 am

From freeway to feeway: Road congestion and tolls

with 11 comments

Pete Wightman in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun

Pete Wightman is a graduate of the master’s degree program in public policy at Simon Fraser University.

In research on Metro Vancouver’s road congestion, I investigated whether pricing structures could reduce congestion and queuing in our most gridlocked areas.

By applying market mechanisms to the George Massey Tunnel and Alex Fraser, Pattullo and Port Mann bridges, I found that we can all waste less time in traffic and have more efficient roads.

It is well written and well thought out article. I will bet the the research document is worth looking for too, if you have time. I am  sorry that my recent relocation has reduced the amount of time I have available for this blog, so I missed this yesterday.

Of course, most people, including Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell know for a certianty that this would not work here, just as they know that barriers on SkyTrain will work. Having really thorough and objective research based on actual facts is not good enough to sway either argument – but nice try and I hope Mr Wightman does not become as cy niccal as the rest of us about public policy making.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 19, 2008 at 11:18 am

Posted in congestion, Economics

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