Posts Tagged ‘tolls’
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.
Once again I got a last minute plea from the CBC to appear on the evening news to talk about the announcement of an increase in tolls next month. It seemed to me that there was little to say, and that over an hour’s travel for a few minutes screen time not very productive, but they sent a camera man to Arbutus Village and I stood in the park. I did not know that the new technology they use relies on the cell phone network, which is why those trucks with dish antennas are no longer needed. When my segment got broadcast it was very obviously cut short as the sign off was missing. I had been asked what the solution was to increasing tolls – and clearly the CBC did not like the answer. I had managed to get in a shot at how the much vaunted lowest income tax in Canada has been brought about by increases in all kinds of fees and charges – tolls, MSP premiums, ferry fares – and how wages were not keeping pace with the increasing cost of of living in the region.
But it was only later that I realized that I had missed on a real solution. My moment d’escalier was the memory of how people coped with tolls (and SOV line ups) on the Golden Gate Bridge by forming last minute car pools. These days no-one has to risk anything by lining up at on ramps. You can – of course – do it on-line. If the increase from $3.00 to $3.15 a crossing is a real issue for you go check out car pool, rideshare and van pool information on Translink ‘s web page. You can easily avoid the congestion on the Patullo and halve the cost of the toll. You can also share rides on Hitch Planet.
There were a couple of graphics that I had sent the CBC producer that did not make it to air, which is a shame. The first is a good effort by Jeff Nagel using recent data to show how people have been gradually getting used to paying $3. I personally doubt the $0.15 will cause much more than a short term blip, but I do think people are right to expect more increases in future. The toll company blames their rising operating costs – but if interest rates start increasing that will be the real stimulus for faster toll rises.
The second one is a bit older, and is from Sightline, and shows how the real traffic data compares to the forecasts
The red line should just dribble across a bit further. It certainly has not been sticking up like the forecasters thought.
The mainstream media is full of the reduction in tolls announced by the Minister of Transport yesterday. Laila Yuile, on Huffington Post, sees it as bait and switch – a blatant and possibly fruitless attempt to get back lost BC Liberal votes. But her opening paragraph really gave me pause
The Port Mann Bridge project has been steeped in controversy from its humble beginnings as an economically prudent plan to twin the existing bridge at a cost of $1.5 billion to what we’ve ended up with today: a completely new bridge and highway project totaling $3.3 billion financed through tolls.
First it was never, ever “economically prudent”. It was based on misdirection – that somehow the traffic jam of cars every day was threatening the competitiveness of the Port of Vancouver. The truckers were always front and centre of this argument. This fiction was fairly easy to dismiss. Most of the tonnage moving through the port is bulk commodities that come in by rail – and pipeline (of course but lets not get distracted). The container imports also move by rail – except for those destined for distribution facilities which tend to be located on cheap land at some distance from the port terminals.
What the intention was – always – was to widen the freeway from the Vancouver boundary to the Abbotsford boundary. The Port Mann bridge was never a standalone project. It might have been defensible if it had simply been a removal of a bottleneck to free up short distance movements between Surrey and Coquitlam (which is what most of the traffic over the bridge does in reality). But all that is planned is to replace a small bottleneck with a bigger bottle. The number of lanes on the bridge was always less than those leading on to it – and that will still be the case afterwards. There will just be more of both.
The Gateway made the idea of freeway expansion palatable because it was wrapped up in rhetoric about economic growth and increased competitiveness. The reality was different.
Kevin Falcon was a developer before he became a politician. There has always been a strong lobby against the regional plan which was seen as restricting what developers could do south of the Fraser. In fact, it made very little difference, as Doug McCallum ably demonstrated when Mayor of Surrey – and Chair of Translink. He easily duplicated the spread of big box retail along Highway 99 to replicate what was already in place in Whatcom County along I5. Junction “improvements” on both Highways 1 and 99 were funded by deals with developers on what had been land reserved for highway expansion adjacent to the intersections. And the sprawl of supposedly “affordable” housing (“drive till you qualify”) continued unabated. Kevin ran for election using funds raised at breakfasts attended by the real estate community who he encouraged to “get on board”. The highway expansion would enable them to build more of what they has always built and they knew they could sell. What made them really nervous was talk of transit and transit oriented development – for they were unfamiliar with both. Rail for the Valley was pretty much a hopeless case. Not that it could not have been done physically or financially – just that it was a hard sell to the money men. The people who fund the BC Liberals and pick their preferred candidates.
To those of us who travel the bridge, it had been clear for years something needed to be done to address the gridlock on both ends. Public transportation south of the Fraser is horrific during the week and nearly non-existent in some areas on the weekend, making vehicles mandatory for most.
At least she declares her interest. We know that the only effective way to address “gridlock” is to reduce peak demand for single occupant vehicle travel. In the short term the only way to do that is to price car use, and increase transit supply. In the longer term, denser and more mixed land use – served by walkable and bikeable routes – is the way to break the linkage between growth and sprawl. Again, really attractive transit has to be part of the mix. The provision of billions of dollars of provincial funding for highway expansion – and the new bridge – is one of the reasons why there is a crisis in funding for transit. It does look like there will be a rapid bus service of some sort when the new Port Mann opens but the only way that can be funded is by cutting service elsewhere.
There are options – there always are – always were. Just most of them get rejected. The BC Liberals kept dancing around insisting that there had to be more local funding – mostly because they always wanted to tap into property tax some more. And the insistence on looking for more efficiencies was always a good distraction. As was fare evasion: actually only 4% of riders have no ticket and the revenue loss is less than that. But somehow much money and attention can be thrown at that “problem” – but nothing to deal with overcrowding other than diversion of existing resources. And the idea of increasing transit service were it is currently inadequate or non-existent just does not get onto the radar because the places that already have good transit want more.
I can understand Laila’s anger – and her choice of target. It is just all too short term. I do not expect the BC Liberals to win – as the latest polls confirm. The problem is that afterwards it is going to be very hard to reverse the land use changes already in train as a result of the decision to widen the freeway. The type of development we are seeing – and will see – is not going to be sustainable, transit oriented or readily convertible. Land uses in Coquitlam and Vancouver will change a bit once the Evergreen and the UBC lines open – but not by nearly enough to shift the region’s mode split by very much. South of the Fraser is car country now – and still will be – and all of the emphasis is going to have to be how to make those cars less of a problem. So expect a lot more attention on car sharing, alt fuels and electric vehicles – none of which individually has much impact and even collectively is little more than a band aid. The systemic problem of car dependance will remain even if we can overcome some of our fondest held beliefs – like car ownership and not sharing rides (not getting into cars with strangers) and the need to limit access to the public transport market.
The tolls – which after a year will go back up to $3 a crossing – will have some impact on restraining demand for car trips between Surrey and Coquitlam. They might even get better at pricing strategies than they have so far on the Golden Ears, which has plenty of underused capacity at peak periods. But it will have no impact at all on car use on the rest of the Highway. There will be no toll for a trip between Vancouver and Burnaby, New Westmister or Coquitlam. No-one will pay a toll between Surrey and Langley. And there will be a lot of lane space that will quickly fill up – even if some people will be making longer (but perceived to be “faster”) trips to use that new space. Yes, car use in the region has declined a bit – but mostly in places where there is an alternative. Along Highway 1 – until it fills up again – car use will grow. And that means a lot more traffic on the local road network that feeds the freeway. And more pressure from neighbourhoods to spend money on frustrating the through traffic, rather than spending money on better alternatives for local trips.
Laila is, I think, right in that this obvious tactic will misfire. But that is not the real issue. How do we now persuade people that it is worth spending more money on a transit system that is so blatantly organized to favour part of the region at the expense of the rest?
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.
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.
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.
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.