Smart tolls the best solution to our traffic woes

(July 11, 2012) It’s always hard to get people to pay for things they are used to getting for free. But the roads aren’t free. We’re paying more and more to use them every year.

Gerry Kahrmann/Postmedia News
Traffic congestion in Vancouver on July 10 2012. GPS-based tolls are the best solution to our traffic woes, Andrew Coyne says.

By Andrew Coyne for the National Post

A new study confirms what everyone already knows: Canada’s biggest cities are clogged with traffic. The study, sponsored by a company that makes GPS systems, puts Vancouver first (as in worst) in Canada, with the average trip taking 30% longer due to congestion than it would if traffic were flowing freely. But Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary were not much better.

The study’s methodology can be questioned, but it’s in line with previous studies, federal, provincial and municipal. They show commuting times getting steadily longer (they now average more than 30 minutes each way), traffic moving ever slower (average rush-hour speeds declined 24% in Toronto, for example, between 1986 and 2006) and higher levels of congestion at all hours of the day.

And this is heaven, compared to what it is going to be like 10 or 20 years from now, as population grows and incomes rise. I make this prediction, not because it is inevitable but because, if experience is any guide, nothing will be done about it. Or rather, all sorts of things will be done, none of them effective. The one solution no one will try is the one we know works: road tolls. I can see you wrinkling your nose at the idea, so let me first eliminate the alternatives.

More transit. Along with car-pooling, telecommuting, and other changes in driver behaviour, this is often invoked in the name of “getting people out of their cars.” It won’t work, for the simple reason that people like their cars. They like the convenience, they like the comfort, and they like the (relative) speed: as slow as car traffic has become, transit is even slower (commute times, for example, are nearly twice as long). No matter how much you subsidize it, you won’t persuade many of the 85% of Canadians who now take the car to work to give it up.

More roads. Along with synchronized stop lights, roundabouts and other traffic management devices, this is the approach favoured by those who think in terms of “getting traffic moving faster.” It won’t work, either, because faster traffic flows soon beget more traffic: People respond by driving more. The phenomenon, known as “induced traffic,” is as often observed in reverse. Take a major artery out of commission, and the result is never the “Carmageddon” predicted. Instead, people drive less.

This reflects the fact that the demand for road use — traffic — is not a fixed quantity. Like anything else, it fluctuates with the price. And the price to use the roads, under present policies, is denominated in time: that is, by how long people are prepared to stew in traffic. This is, when you think about it, perverse. The people who get first claim on the roads are the ones who put the lowest value on their time. Or in other words, the people who need them the least.

That’s why analysts have long recommended pricing roads in more conventional terms, i.e. dollars and cents. But there are lots of ways of getting even this wrong, so we need to eliminate a couple more alternatives, such as:

More taxes. Many people’s first response to the notion of pricing roads is to say “but I already pay a gas tax.” The more knowledgeable will point to statistics showing that revenues from gas taxes more than pay for the cost of building and maintaining the roads.

But these are far from the only costs at issue, or even the most important. As far as congestion is concerned the cost that matters is not the cost of building the road, but the cost of using it. Every time you use the road, you impose a cost on other drivers, so far as you make the roads that much more crowded — as they, of course, do you. Add up those costs over millions of drivers every day — costs measured not only in delays, but in more collisions, more wear and tear, more pollution, and so on — and we are well into the billions, according to several estimates.

It’s always hard to get people to pay for things they are used to getting for free. But the roads aren’t free. We’re paying more and more to use them every year

Simply raising the gas tax doesn’t address this, however. That’s because congestion is a phenomenon, not of how many cars are on the road, in total, but how many are on a particular road at a particular time. Enter road tolls.

But which roads to toll? Even road tolls won’t work if improperly designed. For example, several cities around the world, among them London and Stockholm, have experimented with “ring tolls,” charging drivers a fee to enter the city core. They work, in the sense that they reduce the number of cars coming into the core from without. But there has not been as great a reduction in congestion. Why? Induced traffic, again. People inside the ring responded by driving more.

What’s really needed, then, is a more comprehensive approach. With modern technology, there’s no reason to toll only some roads and not others. Using GPS-style in-car transponders and satellites, it’s now possible to charge drivers to use the roads generally, with the highest charges applying in downtown centres and at rush-hour — just as you pay a higher charge to use your cellphone depending on the location and time of day. You’d even get a monthly bill in the mail.

Far-fetched? Britain and the Netherlands have each been on the verge of adopting similar schemes in recent years. That each backed down in the end tells you something of the political sensitivities involved: It’s always hard to get people to pay for things they are used to getting for free. But the roads aren’t free. We’re paying more and more to use them every year.

Pay in congestion, in time and noise and aggravation — or pay by credit card. Once you think of it that way, the choice should be easy.

Andrew Coyne sits as a director on the board of Urban Renaissance Institute’s parent organization, Energy Probe Research Foundation.

The original version of this article appears here.

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