Revolution on the road: Part 2

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
June 1, 1996

Continuation of “Revolution on the road” (Go to part 1)

GERMANY IS CONSIDERING TOLLING AND PRIVATIZING its famed autobahns. Austria has installed a multilane, free-flow system. Hong Kong and Portugal are testing electronic tolling. Washington state has plans to toll the entire 135 miles of freeway in the greater Seattle metropolitan area. A dozen U.S. states have adopted Express Lanes-style legislation, and others are considering similar moves. The European Union has started a debate through publication of a green paper recommending the eventual setting of Europe-wide road pricing, starting with electronic kilometre charges by 1998. And in the world’s most sweeping road reform, the U.K. government has decided to toll all of its highways. Starting this spring, road trials have begun to choose from among three tolling systems; in two years, after an investment of £1 to £1.5 billion, plans call for 25 million vehicles in the U.K., even those of tourists and business travellers who come by ferry or Chunnel from the Continent, to sport a prepaid transponder, whose stored value will decrease with every kilometre logged.

The British took this daring measure because they, too, were approaching the end of the road. With traffic forecast to double by 2025, and with the same fiscal pressure on its road building and maintenance program as in North America, the United Kingdom knew half measures wouldn’t do. What started as a slow, multistep project that would, once it became technologically feasible some day, lead to automatic tolling, accelerated when the government realized that politics, not technology, was the only obstacle, and that it would face a greater political price by raising taxes than by placing user fees on the roads. At the same time, the U.K. began to recognize that its sweeping plans were not sweeping enough. Yes, tolls would eliminate congestion on the highways, but the traffic would now spill onto local roads, raising the spectre of towns and countryside clogged with trucks its roads weren’t built to withstand.

To minimize the spillover, the British plan to keep tolls low (by European standards) — three cents a kilometre a car and nine cents a truck, or about one-fifth the rates on toll roads in some European countries. To prevent trucks from bypassing highway tolls, the British would either ban them from local roads or fit their axles with hub odometers, as does New Zealand, permitting trucks to be charged on the basis of their weight and distance travelled, and removing any incentive for them to leave the free-flowing highways. But the most far-reaching road innovation, spurred by a U.K. government-sponsored report that found congestion charges would be a clear winner for motorists, the environment and the public purse, involves tolling London and other British cities.

Many local governments, game to acquire tolling powers from the national government if the revenues go to local causes, believe tolls can please the populace. Edinburgh councillors have favored a £1 charge to drive into the city, with revenues promoting public transit. In an experiment, Leicester is giving volunteers cash, which they can pocket or spend on commuting by car or public transit, in exchange for paying a toll on their electronically outfitted cars. The Association of Metropolitan is encouraging local trials of congestion pricing.

Although the prospect of road tolls has drawn predictable opposition from the road lobby — particularly the trucking industry lobby and local chambers of commerce — momentum is building for local tolling by local governments. Oxford University’s Transport Studies Unit has recommended that the national government let local councils pursue road pricing “at their own discretion and their own political risk,” as has an all-party Transport Committee of Parliament. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party plans to halve traffic pollution by devolving control over road pricing, among other measures, to municipalities. The Labour Party wants to toll cities. Preservationists also see virtue in local accountability. As one expert told a seminar organized by the English Historic Town Forum last year, “All the [government] needs to do is pass enabling legislation and make it clear who will get the revenue . . . They should stand aside and let others take the policy risks and reap the rewards.”

Emerging as the chief proponent of universal tolling — on highways, sideroads, and city roads — is Neil Kinnock, the former British Labour Party leader and present European Union transport commissioner. “We start from the fact that there is no single city in the whole of Europe that is not congested, congestion is increasing and the volume of traffic will double . . . we are going to have to use road pricing.” Kinnock envisages a sophisticated electronic road-pricing system that could eventually distinguish between heavy and light vehicles, more and less polluting ones, travel in more and less sensitive areas, and charge accordingly.

Unlike highway-pricing proposals, which operate by time and day and distance, most pricing schemes for urban roads adopt a parking lot approach, generally charging a flat fee to enter a city or a downtown core. This is the approach taken by Singapore, the first city to adopt congestion pricing, and it is the approach taken by others Norwegian cities of Oslo and Trondheim.

Any city can introduce this style of pricing today, without space-age technologies, simply by requiring parking permits for vehicles using its roads at different times of day. But while parking lot-style congestion pricing may be better than allowing congestion to gridlock a city, it’s generally a crude, cumbersome and costly approach that assumes urban roads don’t lend themselves to electronic tolling because, unlike highways, entry isn’t controlled. In fact, all roads can be monitored by the technologies now available, the main issue being the cost of enforcement, which will vary by geography and other local circumstances.

At the high-tech end, one of the United Kingdom trials involves global positioning, a satellite monitoring system in widespread use away from civilization by hikers, sailors and kayakers, and in London by taxi companies, which use it to decide which cab to dispatch. At ground level, congestion meters can track the time taken to travel a kilometre to determine whether the motorist is in congested traffic.

The emerging consensus for pricing Britain’s urban roads has been furthered by a 1995 study of five cities, which showed road pricing’s effectiveness. It found that a 50 per cent rise in fuel costs would reduce car travel by only six per cent, and that cutting bus fares in half would only reduce car use by one per cent. The key to the ignition, rather, was in how pavement was priced: Doubling parking charges or a £2 urban road price would reduce car use by 20 per cent.

While the U.K. dawdles over whether and when to decentralize control over local roads — an exercise prolonged by, and sure to extend until after an upcoming general election — the Ontario government has done it. This Canadian province recently changed its laws to permit municipalities to toll all of its roads, including city streets.

Although none want the duty so unexpectedly thrust upon them — unlike communities in the U.K., they see the roads as liabilities rather than assets — many will have little choice but to experiment with the growing number of systems tried around the world. In the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, grand plans with agendas into the next century will be debated. In the U.K. and the U.S., the pricing of city roads is likely to proceed cautiously. In Ontario, 800 local governments suddenly have immense obligation over their roads, an inability to tax, and the freedom to toll. Ontario municipalities — from the Toronto megalopolis to backwater villages — may prove to be the road-test incubator for the entire world.

Taking toll of our neighborhoods

WHEN NEIGHBORHOODS, WHICH GENERALLY CONTAIN MORE PAVEMENT than the main thoroughfares separating them, embrace tolling, they’ll solve more problems than the financing of their roads. The automobile today besieges city neighborhoods. Cars taking shortcuts through neighborhoods, frustrated by crawling traffic on main drags, speed along side streets, wheels screeching, terrorizing parents whose children play outside. To discourage through traffic, neighborhoods become mazes of speed-bumped, direction-reversing, one-way streets, that send drivers into detours from which they’re grateful to escape. Neighborhood planners have developed an entire lexicon for this new discipline of neighborhood street management — terms such as traffic calming, raised texturing and chicanes have now become part of the vocabulary in the battle for neighborhoods to take back their streets.

While these measures do slow down through traffic, they also impede residents and confuse those the neighborhood residents value — their friends and relatives, tradesman who tend to their homes, delivery vehicles, ambulances. The ordeal of where exactly to locate these barricades force neighbors either to become resigned to their fate or to involve themselves in interminable, unstructured neighborhood discussions over needless problems. They also have undesirable environmental effects: Stop-and-start traffic over and around neighborhood speed bumps increases air pollution, as does the extra mileage logged navigating the maze. These measures are often expensive, helping to raise the cost of servicing city residents, to increase taxes, and to rob people of their leisure. Each new irritant added to this community’s burdens will be someone’s last straw, will claim a new convert to the simplicity of the suburb.

Neighborhoods should, first and foremost, be designed to meet the needs of their residents, to fill their lives with little graces and simple pleasures. When a neighborhood becomes grimly preoccupied with keeping outsiders away, and its thoroughfares strive for fortress designs through which only insiders can easily find their destination; when we force ourselves to jump through hoops to find our way home, we become a little less civilized, our lives a little stupid and brutish, our community a little less welcoming.

To preserve our neighborhoods and make them function for their residents, we need to tame the automobile, not by throwing more impediments at it, which also harm residents, but simply by making car users pay for the societal resources they consume, making them responsible participants in the community. The existing bodies at city hall that now regulate neighborhoods could continue to do so, or they could devolve that responsibility to neighborhood associations, or even to neighborhood trusts that owned the roads and ran them along the lines of condominiums, with all residents given a voice in their operations.

With new road technologies, a neighborhood can charge cars for the use of its roads by distance travelled within the neighborhood, which in most instances would not amount to much, because distances are short, and by type of vehicle, which would tend to discourage trucks and other heavy vehicles that put much more stress on, and cause much more damage to, the road. Walking and cycling, which would not be tolled because they put no strain on neighborhood roads, would be encouraged most of all.

Express Lanes posts signs at the road’s entrance to warn drivers of the prevailing rates, and neighborhoods could, too, much as they post signs showing local speed limits and times during which parking is permitted. When dashboard displays providing voice-synthesized traffic information become widespread, the signs can come down.

While residents within a neighborhood — especially if they are now paying for the upkeep of their roads — must treat each other equally, they could treat outsiders differently. To discourage those cutting through neighborhoods to avoid higher tolls on main streets, for example, neighborhoods could collect from all users high rush-hour tolls, and then credit only residents’ accounts. Or neighborhoods could set a low rush-hour rate to attract main-street traffic and help defray the cost of maintaining the neighborhood roads.

Because each neighborhood trust would now be financing the maintenance and eventual replacement of its roads, neighborhoods could once again make local decisions about the types of roads they would like, restoring a diversity in urban communities that had been steam-rollered over by road departments. Affluent communities that wish to revert to cobblestones or brick roads, as some are now doing, could do so on their own by a neighborhood vote, much as condominium members govern themselves. Condominium-style decision-making could also let poor neighborhoods save on maintenance costs by assigning street cleaning and other duties to themselves.

Along the way, taxes would drop dramatically under the user-pay system, with the poor being the main beneficiaries. In many cities, road costs represent a city’s single biggest cost. In a poor city like Milwaukee, spending on the road system eats up more than half the total property tax revenue — money paid by property owners and their tenants to the users of the automobile. If car users paid their costs directly to allow property taxes to be halved, those who relied on public transit would pay less than those who relied on one or two cars, stopping the current car-inspired inequitable distribution of wealth. On average, each Milwaukee vehicle costs the government $315 a year in road services, one-quarter of which is paid for through fuel taxes and three-quarters through property taxes. Under a user-pay system, the property tax on a $50,000 Milwaukee home would fall by almost $300. If indirect costs, such as those that stem from a car’s exhaust, are accounted for, the property tax on that modest home would drop by $500.

Instead of paying for road use directly, motorists pay myriad of license fees, registration charges, gas and diesel taxes, truck charges, special transportation sales taxes and development district taxes, all topped up by generous revenues from general taxes. Instead of making each road pay its way, the vast pool of road building levies allow roads to be built to suit politically powerful constituencies, forcing poorer districts represented by less powerful politicians to make do with less. In all cities, suburbanites use city streets more than city residents use suburban streets, leading to another transfer of wealth through the property tax system from city dweller to suburbanite, who, again, also tends to be better off. In fact, because the poor tend to have fewer cars, drive less, and take public transit more, any user-pay system for the automobile would tend to make the rich pay more, the poor pay less.

The Highway Users Federation, representing the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, General Motors and large trucking firms, purports to champion the interests of the poor. “The receptionists and the secretaries who can’t change their hours would have to pay but the CEO, who can work whatever hours he wants, could afford these steep prices,” protests the federation’s spokeswoman, Jami Diese. But a study conducted for the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul shows only three per cent of peak drivers had low incomes, letting the poor escape high toll charges. Overwhelmingly, user pay and reduced congestion would benefit the poor, and often be a wise investment for them. As one insightful soul put it in the Los Angeles Times last year, “Anybody who thinks that a [toll lane] project is discriminatory and only for the Lexuses and Mercedes of the world isn’t a single working mother who has to pay a $5 penalty for every five minutes she’s late picking up her child from day care.”

End of the road, start of a new journey

ONCE WE HAVE A DIVERSIFIED HIGHWAY SYSTEM, OPERATORS can provide lanes to meet the needs of its customers; not the bus lanes or high-occupancy lanes, which pretend to solve congestion but only add to it by operating at low capacity, but lanes for low-cost, lightweight vehicles that don’t need to accommodate a truck’s width or weight (in building the Express Lanes, for example, which don’t allow heavy trucks, the owners saved on construction costs), lanes that let you travel at higher speeds and with more safety than today’s fast lanes.

Road operators will be able to give you weather reports, make or change your motel reservations, recommend restaurants that suit your palate, and give you spoken directions to the destination of your choice — as the Oldsmobile Guidestar and Cadillac Onstar systems already do. Your parking spot, of course, will be reserved. Your car will also be able to call for help, not just a tow truck should your car give out on you but an ambulance in the event of a heart attack or other medical condition, and the police in the event of other trouble. To keep their own insurance premiums low, road operators will prevent drunks, lane weavers and other reckless drivers from riding their roads and endangering your welfare, and to lower your insurance premiums, they will team up with insurance companies eager for the business of steady toll road customers, with their predilection for driving on the ultrasafe tolled roadways.

Once we have tolling of highways, it will dawn on us that our demand for them is not insatiable. This realization is beginning to dawn on the British government, which has been redoing its cost-benefit analysis with breathtaking results. Without government guaranteed financing to artificially lower road costs, with the private sector factoring into its calculations the risks of forecasting traffic patterns 30 years out, and with toll charges on roads of the future to dampen demand, the government has stopped believing the conventional wisdom of old — that more roads inevitably attract more cars. Despite the £1 billion a year it soon expects to collect from tolls on the nation’s highways — tolls dedicated to maintaining existing highways and building new ones — the government’s road-building program is slowing, not speeding.

First, a few roads designed to reduce congestion west of London were cancelled, so were a major relief road to Manchester and almost all plans to widen motorways beyond four lanes. While the U.K.’s current road-building plans continue at a reduced rate, most of the 67 road schemes in the government’s “longer term” program have been cancelled. A quarter century after Margaret Thatcher pronounced that nothing must obstruct “the great car economy,” economics has. The Conservative government has done a U-turn — as the Sunday Times put it last year, the government has “abandoned its love affair with the car.”

Joining the call for fewer roads — and for road pricing — is the U.K.’s most influential business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry, which concedes for the first time that road growth cannot keep pace with economic growth without damaging the competitiveness of its member companies.

In Britain, and soon on this side of the ocean, the end of the road, for the first time, is coming into view.

Go to part 1

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