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.