For whom the road tolls

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
October 18, 2006

Traffic congestion costs Toronto an estimated $1.8-billion a year, and a poll of business leaders this month said fixing it should be the new city council’s first priority. Lawrence Solomon argues that toll roads are not part of the solution – they are the entire solution. 

Three years ago, with urban road tolls working brilliantly in London, Toronto mayoralty candidate David Miller mused that tolling promised to be advantageous for Toronto, too. His rivals pounced on his statement and Miller meekly recanted. Road tolls held no promise after all, he decided, if they threatened his candidacy.

How does play-it-safe Mayor Miller feel about road tolls today? “I don’t believe they’re the right solution for Toronto,” he answers, adding that he has thought long and hard about toll roads over the past three years.

Does Miller pooh-pooh the successes that London and other cities have had – an end to gridlock, increased transit use, less pollution – all because of tolling?

Well, then, I ask, would he consider the more sophisticated system for Toronto? “[That’s] not on my agenda,” Miller says, ending the conversation. “You have my position.”

It’s hard to blame Miller for his caution. The last thing a politician wants, as he’s seeking re-election, is a political wrong turn that could give his election rivals an opening. Although public opinion polls show Miller comfortably in the lead, his lacklustre leadership also makes him vulnerable: According to a Toronto Star/Decima poll released last month, Miller has a modest 53% approval rating, including only 17% who are “very satisfied” with him.

What does Jane Pitfield, Miller’s chief opponent, think of roads tolls? “I’m fundamentally opposed,” she blurts, quickly re-blurting that she would consider letting the public decide the issue through a referendum, but (blurt #3) “not at this time.” Moreover, she says adamantly, Toronto should adopt the best practices from around the world, and if road tolls turned out to make sense for Toronto, she’d be all for them.

While Pitfield drives off in all directions, and Miller steers clear of controversy, Toronto’s traffic worsens, harming the economy and the environment. Cities with courageous leaders, in contrast, see solutions to traffic and their civic leaders see electoral success.

No civic leader has been more courageous than “Red” Ken Livingstone, London’s radical mayor, who ran for office in 2000 on what many considered a suicidal pledge to toll private vehicles entering downtown London. To the amazement of a press and political establishment that mocked his campaign, Londoners took his arguments to heart and voted him in. The concept then proved so successful – within a year trips by car declined 30% while those by bicycle rose by 20%, by taxi 20%, and by public transit 23% – that Livingstone ran for re-election four years later on a vow to extend the tolling system. Londoners re-elected him.

Stockholm and its mayor went down a more circuitous road. There, left- leaning Social Democrat Mayor Annika Billstrom ran for office in 2002 pledging to avoid road tolls, then overwhelmingly unpopular with the public. The national government, also led by Social Democrats, thought otherwise: Over her fierce opposition, it forced tolling on Stockholm in what became known as the Stockholm Trials, a seven-month test period from Jan. 1 of this year to July 31. After Stockholm residents had experienced the toll system first hand, they would deliver their verdict in a referendum on election day, Sept. 17.

As soon as the Trials began, and the benefits of tolling began to sink in, public opposition began to change. By June, a majority in the city had swung in favour of the tolling. By the end of the trials, only 40% of Stockholm residents opposed the toll and the merits of tolling had become so clear that even in Stockholm’s suburbs, where the opposition to road tolling had raged most, the public became evenly split – 46% for and 46% against. The public sentiment in favour of the trials was cemented on Aug. 1, one day after the Trials ended, when Stockholm’s streets once again become congested.

Needless to say, along the way Mayor Billstrom became a fierce advocate of the tolling system, and ran for re-election as its champion.

On Sept. 17, Stockholm residents voted to make the tolls permanent. They also voted Billstrom out of office.

The change in public attitudes towards tolls follows the facts on the ground. Facing a charge of 10 to 20 kronors ($1.50 to $3) to pass an electronic toll gate during weekdays between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., some 100,000 drivers per day decided to make lifestyle changes. Traffic declined by 22%, travelling speeds for buses and cars in the inner city increased between 30% and 50%, public transit use increased by 9%, and emissions decreased by 10% to 14%. A cross-city rush-hour trip that once took two hours, compared to 30 minutes in off-peak hours, took less than 45 minutes during the Stockholm Trials. As a side benefit, traffic injuries dropped by 10%.

In Stockholm, as in London, previous attempts at alleviating traffic congestion proved futile. The latest instance occurred several months before the trials began, when the city added 200 new buses to its fleet, boosted the number of rush-hour trains and express bus routes it operated, and installed 1,800 new park-and-ride places at stations. The expenditure – some $200-million – would have been largely wasted had the Trials not increased demand for public services: The additional transit facilities had next to no effect on the number of cars on the streets.

Other traffic-reduction measures, such as bicycle lanes and sky-high gasoline taxes, also accomplished little. Gasoline taxes were also counter-productive in fighting gridlock because they penalized vehicles that are part of the solution – including private automobiles that relieve congestion by operating on uncongested streets.

Once targetted tolls came into place, drivers had meaningful choices. Some shifted their commutes and shopping trips to different times of the day, when the streets were less congested and the tolls lower; others arrived before 6:30 a.m. or left after 6:30 p.m., to avoid the toll altogether. Others changed their routes to avoid areas subject to tolls, or put off trips that could just as easily wait. Some shared rides with others to also share the cost; still others switched to taxis or public transit or bicycles or walked. With the price signal directing traffic, almost everyone became savvier about where and when they would travel.

The savviness grows around the world. It is now the policy of the European Union government to electronically toll roads throughout the EU. In the U.K., where even rural roads are slated to be tolled by 2014, the next Queen’s Speech to Parliament is expected to discuss road tolling. In Milan, road tolling trials begin in 2007. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is soon expected to unveil a historic plan for modernizing the city, with tolling as a centrepiece. Around the world, more than 100 cities are studying how best to implement tolls.

Toronto, David Miller would have us believe, is a special case not suited to tolling. Trust me, he says, “I’ve thought about this for three years.”

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. He is also a director of PEMA, a non-profit with patents on electronic toll road technology.

A reader responds

Mr. Solomon‘s advocacy for tolling in Toronto makes many assumptions and fails to look at the big picture. Although he is probably right in assuming that there would be less traffic if tolls were in place on expressways, he does not describe the detrimental effects it would have on the city. I believe that tolling would further undermine efforts to stop business from relocating to the surrounding 905 area. If ending gridlock in Toronto means driving business out of the core, I guess the mission would be accomplished.

Also, residents in outlying Toronto neighbourhoods rely on expressways to get to work. If they cannot afford this tolling scheme, they would be forced to take already slow-moving roads and arterials. I call this a “two-tier” transportation system; Mr. Solomon calls it “choice.”

As a Toronto city councillor from Etobicoke, residents tell me that tolls are unacceptable. As chairwoman of the Economic Development committee, business has told me that high taxes and other costs are making them consider a move out of Toronto. Combatting gridlock through tolling schemes is not what Toronto is looking for, so no wonder mayoral candidates have backed away from it.

Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, Toronto

Related articles:
Stockholm tries tolls to curb use of cars
Tolls gather speed
Toll roads v. the Canadian Accident Association
London’s green streets
Toll skeptics be damned: London’s rolling

The toll on business
The take from tolls
Don’t tax, toll: Presentation to the Canadian Home Builders’ Association
London unjammed
Don’t tax, toll
Toll today’s roads, don’t build more
How the free road lobby led us astray

Toll road commentary
Road safety
How to cut highways’ human toll

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