We Can’t Get There From Here
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.