Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘road pricing

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 ,

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

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

How to pay for transportation

with 17 comments

Yesterday there was a short sound bite of mine on the six o’clock tv news from CBC Vancouver. You might have been blinking and missed it. One of the reasons I have a blog at all is to try and add something to the mainstream media coverage of issues around transportation and land use in this region. As with so many things, the “need” to spend a lot of time on really important topics, like hockey, Justin Bieber and the ability of a computer to answer trivia questions faster than humans means that the CBC really cannot deal properly with other issues.

It started with the news that Translink is going to have to pay the contractor who runs the Golden Ears Bridge a lot of money ($63 million) as the tolls collected from drivers are not as much as expected. Ken Hardie, Translink’s spin doctor in chief got a few seconds prior to this story to assure the taxpayers that they will not be coming to them for more. “…a deficit we will be able to cover through savings, through other capital programs and reserves.” He did not get to broadcast saying what that means exactly. But to give you some idea, there are now a bunch of buses stored at Oakridge out of use. (See my comment below the image for why this is interesting)

Leah Hendry then did a piece about what other places do – with Anthony Perl advocating road pricing, and clips of the London congestion charge and so on. My bit was reduced to the suggestion that we should try distance based car insurance and increasing parking charges – which might seem a bit odd if you don’t read here regularly. If you do, you do not need to read any further, as you know all this, but in case you are new here please stick with me.

Leah and I had an interesting conversation on the phone before the interview. We talked about why the toll had not worked – and why the Golden Ears bridge was fundamentally ill conceived. People grumbled a bit about having to wait for the Albion Ferry  – but it was still better than driving to either of the nearest alternates. Increasing capacity on the ferries would have been difficult – because of lack of space at each end to queue up vehicles. And there was no room to turn a bus around at the Fort Langley end.  Translink had a big capital projects department anxious to be seen to be doing something, but the planners at the GVRD and at Translink did not see this crossing as a huge issue. Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows being outside the growth concentration area, there were many more pressing issues than a four sailing wait for a short ferry ride for a few people. But the very odd tolling policies of the province meant that Translink could build new bridges if they could be paid for with tolls. Tolls could not be applied to existing facilities.

Road pricing has always made eminent sense. Currently we have the “all you can eat buffet” paid for from a variety of sources most of which have little or nothing to do with road use, and none that vary by time of day. But road space is a very time sensitive “perishable” commodity. At peak periods people line up for it. At other times, much capacity goes unused. Prices can be used to adjust demand to fit available space better. That’s what airlines do – and in other countries like Britain the railways do it too. But road pricing is a difficult thing to persuade people to accept, firstly because they confuse construction and use: “We’ve already paid for the road” and secondly because they are feeling the pinch financially. Leah asked me why, and I said it was because while taxes have declined (mostly for the well off) fees and charges have increased. In fact, the way government collects money has become regressive with the majority paying much more to the benefit of the well off minority. Road pricing would fit very well into such an approach: it would hit people with little money but time to waste very hard, and get them to change their road use habits so that those with money could get where they are going much quicker.

On the other hand, if you used the revenues from road user charges for transportation in general rather than just for building more roads, then the impact could be significantly different. We already know that transit uses space much more efficiently than cars. In fact while taxes on things like gas do not come anywhere near the cost of building and using roads, the general belief of road users is that they are not subsidized while transit, bikes and pedestrians are. This, of course, is the opposite of the reality. A strip of concrete 3m wide (a lane of highway) can carry around 1,000 cars an hour – 2,000 if it is a freeway. At current average occupancy that’s 1,300 people per hour (pph) for an urban road with intersections. Surface transit systems easily carry 10 times that number, where there is enough demand. Or, as Gordon Campbell put it so memorably, the Canada Line is the equivalent of ten lanes of freeway. Which makes anyone with their head screwed on wonder why he was so determined to widen Highway #1 – which costs much more and will carry much less. If you count people and not cars.

Transit, bikes and walking are also much better at getting us the sort of place we need – what we used to call “livability” but now call “sustainability”. Even if every car were zero emission, automobiles impose huge costs on society not the least of which is suburban sprawl. We are going to need every inch of available land for agriculture. Indeed spiralling food prices are one of the main drivers of the current unrest seen across the world – most effectively so far in Tunisia and Egypt. Peak oil is now something that even the Saudis (in secret) and Shell acknowledge – and building the infrastructure for cars that don’t use oil is going to require huge amounts of oil!

In this region we already had plans in place that would have been a good start towards sustainability. We were protecting agricultural land, building complete communities in a compact urban area and we were supposed to be increasing transportation choices. But then we elected the BC Liberals and they have been working hard to reverse all that – with visible impacts all over the region. The short period of the winter Olympics last year was merely the Potemkin village for  media consumption: immediately afterwards transit contracted again, and the road building continued.

My remarks were aimed at what we could have done. I talked about what Copenhagen has been doing for the last forty years – reducing the amount  of space dedicated to moving and parking cars in the urban area. About how improving facilities for movement without cars (more transit, more bike lanes, more pedestrian areas and sidewalks) has to happen before you try to get people to use them more. So that is where the bit about distance based insurance and parking charges come in – those are the easy first steps. Road pricing will take longer and cost more to set up, and could be offset by reducing other imposts  to make it more palatable to introduce. But like the carbon tax needs to bite to have any effect on behaviour. And it has to be part of a concerted policy. Not the current one – which is to make BC more attractive to corporations. But to serve the people of BC better – and to ensure that our children and grand children have a future.

That may seem a long way from not enough tolls to pay for a bridge, but it is all connected, and not in a way you can talk about in a matter of a few seconds. Which is why you read blogs and do not rely on tv news alone.

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

TransLink proposes tolls on all Metro bridges, new vehicle levy

with 9 comments

Vancouver Sun

I am only going to look at what is new in this announcement – not go over again all the arguments about who pays for what.

The vehicle levy has long been an option – but road pricing was regarded as an alternative, not in addition to a levy, mainly because a levy can be put in place quite quickly, but installing tolling technology takes much longer. Since the vehicle levy is at best a coarse tool – one that impacts everyone no matter how far, when and what they drive – it could be replaced by one that varies by type of vehicle, time of day (and day of week) and distance driven, which obviously has much better effect on travel patterns. The suggestion that all bridges get tolled has always stumbled on the fairly obvious – which bridges – and the fact that if there is to a set of “cordons” at which the toll is levied, presumably based on distance from Vancouver in concentric arcs, there are a lot of people along the Burrard Peninsula who escape. A drive from north east Coquitlam to UBC would be toll free, while Ladner to downtown crosses three water bodies. (The story does not say “tunnels” but I would bet the Massey would get tolled but not the Cassiar.) Obviously some places like Richmond get hit much harder than Burnaby – which has a much greater range of destinations available without a bridge on the way. The devil, as they say, is in the details and this announcement seems remarkably light on detail.

Road pricing is one of those things that makes obvious sense to economists (The Economist newspaper endorsed it many years ago) but is very hard for motorists to accept. First there’s the use of the word like “freeway” (which actually refers to the flow of traffic not the cost) and ideas like the freedom to travel where and when you like that is part of the illusion sold by the car industry. And the fact that we pay for roads through our taxes already – even though the taxes directly levied on fuel and vehicles are well below the cost to society of road use. This is also the problem with the levy – motorists in the region will feel even more put upon, especially when compared to those who can register their vehicles outside the region. But secondly, and more importantly, road space is a highly perishable commodity – like seats on planes. For many hours of the day it has very little value – but at peak periods its value soars. That ought to be reflected in road pricing but so far this element seems to be greatly neglected. It is not just the use of the road that causes the problems, but the use of the road when everybody else wants to use it. Without a price system to ration demand, we resort to queues. Just as they did in the Soviet Union for almost everything. Or how they allocate seats at Bard on the Beach.

Without new revenue, TransLink is projected to go into deficit by 2011, as it subsidizes the private operators of the Canada Line and the Golden Ears Bridge for four to five years until they reach projected ridership figures. [emphasis added]

Now that is news. I have been tracking both these projects for a while – and the general discussion about how wonderful P3s are supposed to be and I have not heard of these requirements before. If you know differently than I expect you to provide a citation and a link to the evidence. My understanding of the P3 case was that it removed the need for public sector funding and that the private sector would take on the risk, which obviously includes low revenue in the early years in return for a bigger share of the fat years at the end of the deal. I have always been critical of the way that these two projects have sucked up Translink’s resources since neither should have been such a high priority in a region that is starved of basic bus service.

And that is the second bit of news – that all of this appears to be implemented ahead of transit improvements for most of the region. This is just stupid. In London, when the congestion charge was introduced, bus services – and bus priority measures – were significantly increased when the new charge was imposed. Obviously people have to have some alternative – in London’s case much of that could be satisfied simply by diverting since many car trips through the centre did not need to go that way at all. There were already other, better routes available. Imposing new fees and charges now and promising better service later will not do at all. Because the whole point is to change behaviour at the same time as raising revenue. This is why this plan will once again be characterised as a cash grab. Because there is no alternative but to pay more, becuase there is simply no bus to get on.

Translink has been put into an invidious position – partly by the province’s unreasonable demands and policies but also by its own decisions to press ahead with expensive capital projects and then noticing too late that it dod not have enough to fund even existing operations let alone new ones.

It is also the case that the province has always stuck to the policy that tolls can only be applied to new infrastructure – which was why the Golden Ears got built and the ferry was not replaced because only the bridge could be tolled. So all of this simply puts Translink at loggerheads with long established provincial “principles”.  Nothing new there then.


TransLink must look for in-house savings before passing on transportation costs to taxpayers said Premier Gordon Campbell at a press conference today.

“I think that before people start talking about tax increases, they should start talking about savings in their own organization,” said Campbell.

This just in on the Sun webpage. In other words even before the review he commissioned has started, he has determined what the outcome will be.  Of course he does not just talk about tax increases – he has just brought in a big one under the guise of “harmonisation” – and pretends that will reduce costs. Which it will for the province and some businesses but will cost taxpayers plenty. I don’t see him rushing to pay big chunks of his own compensation either – something Maggie Thatcher liked to boast about (without mentioning the wealth of her husband of course).

He also said the transit authority overstepped their boundaries in planning tax increases.

“What I’ve heard of the report is that it is outside the framework of their legislation. …and I think everyone’s disappointed they haven’t acted within their legislation and they have a responsibility to do that,” Campbell said.

This is called being disingenuous. If they act “within their legislation” and also try to implement his “$14bn transit plan” the books don’t balance. In fact they don’t balance if they just keep on going as they are. Pretending this can all be sorted out by cutting Board members compensation and a few mythical savings is assinine. As is the provincial requirement to install faregates on SkyTrain which will be a huge money losing proposition.

Campbell can find $3bn for Highway #1 widening  but he can’t find any money to keep the buses running. And this is called ” a balanced plan”.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 31, 2009 at 9:18 am

Road tolls for whom, Transport Canada asks

with 3 comments

Globe and Mail

Transport Canada is one of the sponsors of a conference in Toronto on road pricing. But there is little political interest in actually doing something – or, when there is an election in the offing – even thinking about doing something. But as David Mac Issac says

“If you look at the evidence … pricing is pretty much a guaranteed way to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector,”

But his boss is warning the Tory party not to be “ideological”

Not that be opposed to new taxes around election time or worrying about budget deficits more than the probability of recession (or worse) is “ideological”.  Oh no, that’s just pragmatism.

In reality the sudden spike in fuel prices earlier this year showed that drivers do respond to price signals. They now look for cheaper cars to drive and in places where the transit system has some capacity to accommodate them, use transit more. It has been a good year for bicycle sales too.

Germa Bakker, project manager of Amsterdam’s road-pricing pilot project, said the Netherlands’ planned national road-pricing scheme, expected to start in 2012, will actually be revenue neutral. All other taxes applied to gas and automobiles will be phased out: “The principle is, the people who drive a lot will pay a lot.”

That seems very pragmatic to me too. For all of my career the big issues have really been about the seemingly unstoppable rise of automobile use.  It has alsways been blindingly obvious that as a society we could not afford the car. Firstly becuase of the number of people killed and seriously injured, which would be totally unnacceptable for any other mode of transportation. Then becuase of the impact on our lungs of all those emissions. Yes governments acted to increase control of both vehicle emissions and fuel standards, but the increase in vkt usually made up for any gains in that sphere. We began to be concerned about the impact on cities – of both congestion and the road building that was supposed to reduce it – usually long after it was clear that our politicians really did not have the intestinal fortitude to do what other places have been doing. And the same is true of greenhosue gas emissions which now sem to have trumped all other environmental issues – but of course not financial or economic ones.

Pricing is going to have to be the way that most sectors deal with ghg emissions, not just transport. And we are going to need politicians who are a lot better than Gordon Brown or Stephen Harper at tackling Big Issues. Brown gets some credit for coming up with a package of measures that were adopted in Britain to cope with the credit crunch. The fact that they looked at all good says a lot about what was wrong elsewhere – espcecially in the US. But again that is a short term issue. And painful though it might be, these things will sort themselves out as markets tend to do.

But the change in our climate is happenning much faster than anyone thought possible and all sorts of tipping points are whizzing by like missed deadlines. And what is now being contemplated are not just distant possibilities but inevitable collapse of systems on which we all depend. And you cannot argue with physics.

Of course Canadian cities are going to have to use road pricing.  Of course carbon prices are way too low right now. Of course politicians are going to have to make decisions that will not be popular and no one ever believes that a tax can be “revenue neutral”. But that does not exempt us from the need to do things very differently in future – and now – than we have in the past. And the sooner politicans get that idea into their heads the better.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 9:53 am