Why it’s not possible to build our way out of congestion

Wired magazine recently published a good, succinct explanation of induced traffic. It’s worth reading in full as it hits upon an incredibly important, often overlooked fact: it’s not possible to eliminate congestion by building more roads. Here are a few of the more interesting excerpts:

The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.

But before we get to the solutions, we have to take a closer look at the problem. In 2009, two economists—Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania—decided to compare the amount of new roads and highways built in different U.S. cities between 1980 and 2000, and the total number of miles driven in those cities over the same period.

“We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” said Turner.

If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.

Los Angeles: Sitting in traffic after ignoring supply and demand for over 50 years.

In their excellent paper on the topic, Duranton and Turner describe this as “the fundamental law of road congestion: New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same.” Their research also digs into a couple of other related and equally interesting phenomena:

  • Better public transport provision doesn’t actually reduce road congestion – but it does enable more people to move without being affected by congestion
  • Reducing road capacity has no measurable impact on congestion – if less road space is available, people take public transport or active modes instead, or avoid making low-value trips.

Urbanist.co also has some further discussion of Duranton and Turner’s work. The economists go on to suggest economists’ favourite answer to congestion: road pricing. (If you’re interested in reading more about that topic, Stu Donovan and I have written several posts about the economics of road pricing.)

So what can be done about all this? How could we actually reduce traffic congestion? Turner explained that the way we use roads right now is a bit like the Soviet Union’s method of distributing bread. Under the communist government, goods were given equally to all, with a central authority setting the price for each commodity. Because that price was often far less than what people were willing to pay for that good, comrades would rush to purchase it, forming lines around the block.

The U.S. government is also in the business of providing people with a good they really want: roads. And just like the old Soviets, Uncle Sam is giving this commodity away for next to nothing. Is the solution then to privatize all roads? Not unless you’re living in some libertarian fantasyland. What Turner and Duranton (and many others who’d like to see more rational transportation policy) actually advocate is known as congestion pricing.

Incidentally, I like Turner’s “Soviet Union” metaphor a lot – I’ve said on occasion that we’re running our transport system like a Polish shipyard.

Lastly, it’s incredibly important to consider induced traffic when making policy recommendations. As I wrote in my review of Alain Bertaud’s talks in Auckland, keeping commute times down is an important part of maintaining an efficient urban labour market. Some people seem to have taken Bertaud’s recommendation that policymakers focus on keeping average car commutes under 30 minutes (and PT commutes under 45 minutes) as a call for more roads. This is a superficially appealing but deeply wrongheaded idea.

Induced traffic means that building roads to keep commute times down will not work. And it will be expensive. While there is often a good case for specific road improvements to remove key bottlenecks or improve safety – the Victoria Park Tunnel comes to mind – Duranton and Turner’s work shows that a strategy of building lots of roads will not succeed in minimising commute times. An alternative approach is needed.

A targeted transport rate?

An article in last Friday’s NZ Herald provided an interesting insight into where the investigations into additional transport funding options are at. This is the second phase of the project to close the supposed $12 billion funding gap over the next 30 years. The article highlights that effort has been focusing on analysing different forms of road pricing and is perhaps leaning towards a motorway charging scheme:

Evaluating road tolls and fuel-tax rises and traditional funding methods such as rate rises and targeted rates is the job of the group due to report to the council next month.

The Herald understands that the independent alternative transport funding group is leaning towards motorway tolls. It will also provide options for targeted rates and extra rates rises.

On Wednesday, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee reiterated the Government’s pre-election position that there would be no regional fuel taxes or tolling of existing state highways in Auckland.

Auckland Council cannot introduce motorway tolls or a regional fuel tax without government approval.

I think tolling motorways could have some benefits but it also could have considerable downsides and we’ve outlined some of these before. The main problem with them is the potential for traffic diversion from motorways onto local roads. What also can’t be ignored is that a fairly high proportion of money raised from schemes like these goes into the administration of the system itself, this means it’s a fund-raising system that’s likely to be quite a lot less efficient than fuel taxes and rates. Some of the strongest proponents of motorway tolling has been the NZ Council for Infrastructure Development (NZCID) and I suspect this is two fold,

  1. their members want to build, maintain and operate any tolling system
  2. their members want the additional funding that flows from the tolls to help build more infrastructure

One of the key problems with the alternative funding exercise right from the start has been the ignorance of whether we actually need to raise the additional funding for transport. The Integrated Transport Programme, which outlined the full transport programme over the next 30 years, included a huge number of incredibly costly and stupid projects included within its project list:

Knocking out $12 billion from the project list above is a pretty simple exercise – as we highlighted in our detailed analysis of the Congestion Free Network‘s financials. Therefore, based on the Integrated Transport Programme’s list of projects outlined above there is a very valid question about whether any form of additional funding is necessary. In addition even if a funding deficit still exists, if it was considerably smaller it might have allowed for some of the earlier dismissed funding options to be viable once again.

Another major flaw in many tolling proponents arguments that could have a significant impact on what projects get built is that any tolling or road pricing schemes are going to change demand substantially and as such it is likely to reduce or remove the need for many roading projects. Conversely it is likely to shift many PT projects up the priority ladder.

I guess the big question that we will all need to grapple with over the next few months, as the alternative funding group makes a recommendation to the Council, who then decides what they want to include in the draft Long Term Plan, is whether anything has changed since the ITP came out last year. It’s possible that two things have changed, which could mean a greater need for extra transport funding than we had previously expected.

  1. We know from the agendas for Auckland Transport closed board meetings that a lot of work has been going on to update the Integrated Transport Programme and the list of projects. Hopefully this means a lot of the crazier projects (like $665m on Albany Highway or around $900m on upgrading Great South Road) have been removed or the figures corrected.
  2. We know from the LTP Mayor’s Proposal that a lower level of rates increase means less money available overall for transport from normal funding sources compared to what’s in the current Long Term Plan. At first glance, it seems like most of the good projects can be funded over the next decade but there’s still no word on how much can be spent on things like walking and cycling, or the timing of various bus lanes and interchanges needed for the new network.

So given we know motorway tolling is an idea with many flaws and that the government isn’t going to approve new funding sources like this anyway, but there might be a need for a bit more money for transport, it seems sensible to be looking at other options. Which, returning to Friday’s Herald article, seems to be what’s happening:

Aucklanders could pay a new charge on top of rates to fund transport projects.

A “targeted rate” is one option being considered by an independent group looking at alternative funding measures to plug a $12 billion-plus transport funding gap over the next 30 years…

…Auckland Council cannot introduce motorway tolls or a regional fuel tax without government approval.

The National-led Government changed the law in 2009. Acting Mayor Penny Hulse said the $2.4 billion city rail link had been included in a new 10-year budget and did not need a targeted rate.

It will certainly be interesting to analyse the details of the transport budget as they emerge in the coming months, to see what can be afforded in the baseline transport programme and whether any additional money is required.

Where to now for transport in Auckland?

In some respects Saturday night’s election result changes nothing from a transport perspective. It seems as though the government that will be formed over the next three years will be remarkably similar to that we’ve had for the past three years and there’s certainly no indication of a change in direction for transport policy from what we’ve had over the past six years. However, this has some important implications:

  • It’s almost certain that Puhoi-Warkworth will be built, with construction likely to start before the 2017 election and the project built/funded as a PPP.
  • There will continue to be a lot of discussion around the timing of City Rail Link and whether the Council or Government budges from their preferred start date.
  • Progress on any alternative funding mechanisms to close the so called “funding gap” for transport seems pretty unlikely. This is despite the fact some government departments have also being doing their own investigations on alternative funding sources due to lower than expected revenues into the National Land Transport Fund.
  • There is likely to be more money for cycling projects thanks to the $100 million for urban cycleways around the country over four years

Cam discussed Puhoi-Warkworth in his post yesterday, so in this post I’m going to focus on the CRL and alternative funding, particularly what the election results means for these two key (although not necessarily connected) issues.

Starting with the CRL, a start on the project as a whole anytime in the next three years now seems fairly unlikely. This means hopes of completing the project by 2021 are probably slim unless the Council can talk government into a very big change of position. The Council is keen to progress talks with government about the timing and funding of CRL, but it seems likely that these talks will focus on funding of the section underneath the downtown shopping centre:

Although the council wants to start CRL by 2016, the previous Government indicated no funding before 2020 unless certain rail patronage and employment targets were met. But [Penny] Hulse remains confident of middle ground.

“We’ve been working well with the Government over the last three years and we don’t expect that to change. The start time and funding are things we need to talk to the Government about,” she said.

This section is particularly important as it is key to delivering not just the redevelopment of the downtown shopping centre site but also a whole raft of projects that are part of the Downtown Framework including making things better for buses on Customs St.

I’m still confident the rail patronage targets set by the government – that patronage will track towards hitting 20 million journeys per year by 2020 – will be met or even exceeded, plus of course there’s still another election in 2017 between now and the government’s current preferred start date. But it seems prudent, for now at least, for the Council to just get on with building the section under the downtown shopping mall – like I said in this previous post. Once CRL is started, it will be much easier to “complete” and the section underneath the downtown shopping centre will make constructing the rest of the project much easier – especially if they can get the bit under Customs Street built as part of this first stage:

So I don’t really think Saturday’s election results change things much for the CRL. I would imagine that the main focus to negotiations over CRL between government and the Council is likely to be around whether the government stumps up with half the cost of the first stage of the project or whether they force Council to fund the whole thing – like has happened so far. I think it would be quite a good look for the government to provide CRL with some financial support for the first stage, to show that it’s serious about believing in the CRL project and to show that it values redevelopment of the city centre.

In relation to alternative transport funding, this might be a bigger hurdle to resolve as the government has been pretty clear on its position previously – no congestion charging and no additional tolls on existing motorways. To some extent this may not be an issue, as I highlighted a few weeks back the “baseline transport programme” (what can be afforded without additional funding with 2.5-3.5% rates increases over the next decade) doesn’t actually look too bad, at least in terms of what big projects are in (CRL, AMETI, new bus network stuff etc.) and out (Penlink). The devil may come in the details of what projects can be afforded when and how much additional walking and cycling funding is available, but at least for now it doesn’t seem like the end of the world if there’s no progress on alternative funding schemes in the next three years. Unless you’re a Penlink supporter, of course!

In saying that it also seems government agencies are becoming increasingly interesting in the issue of alternative funding as a way to provide certainty to the revenues flowing into the National Land Transport Fund (the account that collects all of the transport taxes). It may be a few years away yet but I get the feeling the noise surrounding alternative funding sources is just going to get louder and louder so we’re likely on a course to needing a nationwide discussion about them. When this happens the work put in by the council on the matter is likely to come in quite handy.

The last main issue relates to cycling improvements. From a transport point of view this was one of the highlights of election campaign as every major party (and most of the minor ones) all agreed on the need to spend considerably more on walking and cycling than currently happens. For their part National promised to spend $100 million over four years on urban cycleways. Based on Auckland’s share of the urban population that could see it receiving over $40 million over the four years which would represent an approximate doubling in spending. In saying that a lot will hinge on just how much the council agree to in the Long Term Plan. With the government now seemingly on board with cycling there is a risk the council will try to use the enlarged cycling pot as a chance to cut back on some of the council’s spend. Instead the opposite needs to happen and they need to at least double funding to go on top of whatever the government plan to provide.

So overall, aside from the fact we’re near certain to waste three-quarters of the billion dollars plus whatever the PPP costs on Puhoi to Warkworth, I don’t think the election results is too much of an issue for advancing key transport issues in the next few years. It does mean the slower delivery of CRL, but that’s not unexpected and may help ensure key bus infrastructure for the new network can be completed in time. There’s a certain irony that the government’s dislike for alternative transport funding options probably means a delay to Penlink, a project I understand the local National MP has pushed strongly for, but that project’s a waste of money anyway.

Lastly it was disappointing that despite many requests the first time we got to meet transport minister Gerry Brownlee was at the election debate night. I will also be keeping an eye out to see if we get a new transport minister and whoever it is, I hope they become open to meeting with us this term.

How can we make road pricing fair?

Talk to a transport economist for more than a couple of minutes (seconds?) and the issue of road pricing will come up. “If only we could introduce road pricing, all our problems would go away,” says your transport economist. Congestion – gone. Greenhouse gas emissions – significantly reduced. Public transport efficiency – dramatically increased. And so on..

So why is implementing road pricing so difficult and so rare? The most common answer is “politics”, but essentially that’s just a proxy for the concept being considered unacceptable by most of the population. And one of the main reasons why road pricing is so unpopular is that it’s seen as unfair, particularly for poorer people.

In a recent Planetizen post, Canadian transport academic Todd Litman looks further into this assumption that road tolls and other means of pricing are unfair and harm the poor.

A major obstacle to efficient pricing is the common, but often inaccurate assumption, that such fees harm poor people. This is generally wrong, and reinforces automobile dependency (an automobile-oriented transportation system which offers inadequate alternatives to driving and therefore forces people to drive more than optimal), which tends to harm physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people overall.

While it is true that a given fee is regressive (each dollar represents a greater portion of income for a poor than a wealthy person), tolls are generally less regressive than other roadway expansion funding options because poor people drive relatively little on such highways: many poor people are retired or unemployed, lower-income workers often have local jobs that do not require highway commutes, and if they do commute on major travel corridors they are more likely to use alternative modes, or travel off-peak because they often have off-peak work schedules.

If the money raised from road pricing or tolls is spent on improving public transport or active transport, then the progressive nature of the funding is enhanced further:

As a result, road tolls are generally less regressive than financing urban highway expansion by increasing fuel taxes (which all motorists pay, not just urban commuters) or general taxes (which everybody pays regardless of how much they drive), and can be progressive overall if a portion of revenues are used to improve alternative modes, such as public transit, so lower-income travellers have better alternatives to driving.

Similarly, poor people often benefit from parking unbundling (paying directly for parking, rather than having it automatically included with building rents) and cash out (being able to choose cash instead of subsidized parking) because they tend to own fewer cars and value the opportunity for financial savings.

There are a couple of ares where Litman’s analysis doesn’t necessarily hold true for Auckland, particularly in relation to how the current debate about road pricing is happening – as an additional revenue raiser, rather than as a replacement of existing funding sources.

  1. Tolling or road pricing is probably only fairer if it replaces other, unfair, methods of funding transport – such as petrol taxes (which unfairly charge those travelling off-peak for infrastructure only required at peak times) or rates. If tolling or road pricing is just another tax on people to pay for a bloated transport programme then chances are they will be unfair because it will be the poor who end up suffering the most from the extra charges (as those charges will be the greatest proportion of their income).
  2. Auckland currently has a very different relationship between income and mode choice compared to US cities. In most US cities it seems that the poorest areas have the highest levels of public transport use – therefore improving PT using money raised from tolls or road charges has the potential to play a wealth distribution role. As illustrated by the map below – which shows car modeshare for journey to work trips in the 2013 census – Auckland seems to have the opposite patters, with poorer areas often being highly car dependent.

car-modeshareOverall, it seems as though road pricing could be introduced in a way that’s considered “fair” by Aucklanders – and therefore may be able to overcome political opposition. However, this would require a couple of pretty big changes to how it’s currently being proposed by the Council. Firstly, the money raised would need to be used instead of existing funding sources, rather than just being another tax. Secondly, some dramatic improvements in the attractiveness and affordability of alternatives to driving appear necessary to reduce car dependency in Auckland’s poorer areas.

The new bus network and the City Rail Link (which vastly benefit the south and west respectively) may meet the second hurdle. A whole pile of unnecessary roading projects need to be killed off to pass the first hurdle, reduce some of the regressive existing transport funding tools, and therefore make road pricing and tolling actually fair.

Privatising Roads

The ACT party – or at least its biggest funder – was in the news last weekend for expressing some of his views for the party at their annual conference. Of note was this line

“I’d privatise all the schools, all the hospitals and all the roads,” he told the conference.

Now obviously we’re not in the habit of talking about schools or hospitals (unless it’s about how to get to them) but roads are something on our list. Now in reality I can’t see it happening here – at least any time soon – but it raises the interesting question of what would happen if we were to privatise roads? This post is really just a thought exercise as to some of the impacts of doing so.

I suspect that if we were ever privatise the roads the impact would how we get around and our views on transport would change dramatically. There would be some overall impacts across the entire network but also more local impacts due to there likely needing to be different forms of privatisation.

The key impact would be across the entire network and the true cost of operating, maintaining and building roads would become much clearer regardless of how that’s passed on to the public. A better understanding of just how much roads cost, especially if charged for through forms of road pricing would lead to changes in how people travel. People would likely reduce the amount of driving they do in favour of more walking, cycling and PT use.

Private road owners would also likely seek to reduce their maintenance costs while users of lighter vehicles would likely demand that costs are more fairly distributed to those that do the most damage. That in itself could have large impacts. It would likely see the vehicle fleet get smaller and lighter over time i.e. less people would be driving around in large SUVs unless they absolutely need too (or want too). Truckies would be even harder hit. Due to their weight, trucks cause substantially more damage to road surfaces and so would likely be charged substantially more than other vehicles which in itself would have far reaching impacts by pushing up delivery costs. Those increased costs would of course be passed on to businesses and ultimately consumers.

Perhaps one of the areas most impacted would be in road construction. In short it would kill it dead. Most transport projects simply don’t make sense financially and the toll road troubles in Australia are proof of this. Traffic volumes often don’t stack up and most projects are only able to be justified based on the benefits to the wider economy from improved travel times. Faced with paying for a journey in time through congestion or paying a monetary cost to avoid congestion, many choose the former. What all of this means is that road construction would dry up almost immediately and the costs would shift to making the best use of the infrastructure that exists. That could have some negative consequences as there might be little attention paid to improving roads through projects like this. The flip side of this is that the private road owners would likely become liable for road safety and therefore be a push to improve crash black spots.

Regardless of whether privatising roads is a good or a bad thing, one thing that isn’t so clear is just how it could be done. The real benefit from roads comes from the fact they are an extensive network. Very few trips begin and end on the same road and a trip might commonly involve travelling on quieter residential streets, arterial roads and motorways. Each of those would present vastly different opportunities for privatisation.

Motorways

Motorways would probably be the easiest roads to privatise due to the fact they have limited access and all journeys that use a motorway begin and end somewhere else. Motorways also carry large amounts of traffic each day. This is also why groups like the NZCID who have been pushing for the council/govt to find additional ways to fund ever more and larger transport projects have suggested charging for access to the motorways. If we were to privatise roads there would likely be a big temptation to do the easiest ones first and so motorways would be at the top of the agenda. The problem with that though is that it would likely have a huge impact on but still publicly owned roads.

Residential streets

The next easiest set of roads to privatise would actually be quiet suburban streets, particularly those post 1950’s suburbs full of cul-de-sacs. There we would probably do something similar to what is likely to happen later this year in the small sprawly village of Long Grove (north of Chicago). They are looking to privatise many of their currently public suburban roads because it simply can’t afford to maintain them due to their pyramid scheme like system of how roads were funded where the money to pay for them was only raised through development contributions which dried up as a result of the GFC. They are simply going to turn over the ownership of the roads to the owners of the houses on the street and leave it up to them to maintain. 

cul-de-sac

Some typical post 1950’s street patterns

That could put big strains on neighbourly relations in many places as people work out who will pay for what i.e. does everyone on a street pay equally or do those at the end of the street pay more? In some parts of Auckland there could be interesting changes in the stance taking on intensification. More people living on a street means more people to share the cost of a road with and so some of the suburbs that were most opposed to intensification in the Unitary Plan discussions might quickly change their mind. Going further some residential neighbourhoods might start imposing restrictions on vehicle use in their streets – particularly truck movements – in a bid to lessen the damage vehicles do to the roads. Gated communities might also become more common to stop others from passing through.

On the positive side these communities are likely to become much more pedestrian and cycle friendly as those two modes cause much less wear and tear on roads which equates to less maintenance.

Arterials

Privatising arterial roads are likely to be the hardest to do because not only do they serve a movement function but they serve a place one too, people live, work and play along arterials. To be honest I don’t even know how you could privatise them as due to their function they can’t just be turned over to locals to maintain but their connected nature means they would be prohibitively expensive to charge for. Who would really want the cost and hassle of owning them?

Overall I don’t think the idea of privatising roads is necessarily a bad one from an ideological perspective and doing so would certainly change how we use roads, including what modes we use but overall it simply isn’t practical. Roads are such a key part of our everyday life that changing our relationship with them – however flawed it currently is – would have radical and far reaching consequences for society, probably far more so than the privatising of many other government functions. As such I would suggest the likelihood of it happening is very very low. Far more likely and practical would be the introduction of proper road pricing.

An ode to demand-based transport pricing

As you read this I’ll probably be sitting on a flight from Brisbane to Auckland that cost me $750. Sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but I’m happy nonetheless.

Why? Well, at late notice I had the opportunity of working for 2 months in Brisbane. This presented something of a conundrum, because I wanted to be home in NZ to spend the holidays with my Mum and a whole bunch of my favourite people. I therefore had to weigh up the price of the ticket against the benefits of what I could achieve while here (both in terms of financial and professional returns).

Obviously plane tickets around Christmas are expensive because many other want to travel at the same time, which signals to the airlines that they should put their prices up. This ensures 1) the airlines make more money and 2) there are seats available for people who really need them, like me. So despite the high price I’m more thankful I had the opportunity to both get to Brisbane and get back to NZ for holidays.

This got me wondering about what would happen if airfares were not priced this way; that is if the price of the ticket was set at the average price needed for the airline to do business. In this situation one would expect many planes to fly empty during off-peak times and sell-out over Christmas. There’d usually be either too many or too few seats and, in the case of the latter, you simply would not be able to get where you want to.

In this situation, I would have been faced with an even harder decision: Do I take the job in Brisbane and risk missing Christmas in NZ, or stay home but miss out on the work? Thankfully that’s not a choice I had to make because airlines price their seats in response to demand, or more specifically what economists refer to as “willingness-to-pay”. Willingness-to-pay describes what you are prepared to pay for goods and services.

From a layman’s perspective it means making economic hay while the sun shines. At this point people frequently assume that someone with high willingness-to-pay must be rich and vice versa. Well no, not exactly. In fact, detailed empirical studies of my purchasing behaviour over 31 years proves that willingness-to-pay has less to do with income than it has to do with my own personal preferences.

For example, on the same day as I booked my flight home from Brisbane I also booked a $150 return flight from Auckland to Christchurch. In this instance if the ticket had been more than, say, $300 I probably would not have traveled at all. The difference in what I was willing-to-pay for these tickets reflects that when travelling for work I’m prepared to pay a lot, whereas I’m more frugal when travelling for pleasure.

That frugality does not mean that I never travel at busy times, but it does mean that when I do I’m more flexible about when/where I travel (e.g. later at night). It’s ultimately got very little to do with how much money I have or don’t have. So it seems intuitive to me that willingness-to-pay to travel varies considerably for factors that are not related to our income, but instead depend on personal preferences.

Moreover, the fact that airlines use a demand-based pricing system tends to mean that the available capacity is allocated to the people who really want them. Of course that’s not why airlines price this way; they do it to make money. But in a competitive environment (such as trans-Tasman air travel) the ability of airlines to “price gouge” is of course limited by how other companies respond.

That’s why demand-based pricing makes so much sense. But despite it’s enormous advantages, we do not price parts of our transport system in response to demand. From what I can tell the debate about demand-based transport pricing often gets distracted by the following issues:

  1. “Alternatives” – i.e. we have to invest in public transport before we can price road capacity. In response I point out that even if we had no other transport options would it not still be in our interest to implement a demand-based pricing system to ensure road space was allocated to those who needed it most? Also, cities that have implemented demand-based pricing schemes, such as Stockholm, have not observed major increases in PT patronage, at least compared to the reduction in vehicle trips.
  2. “Social equity” – i.e. low-income people will be priced off the road. But low-income households a) tend to drive less, especially at peak times in metropolitan areas. So why not implement an efficient pricing system and then compensate those (few households) that are adversely affected? That way we provide the right signals to everyone, while supporting those affected who are unable to change (although that support should be tagged to people adversely affect at the time of implementation).
  3. “The devil’s in the details” – i.e. we need to flesh out the details before we sign up to demand-based transport pricing. I understand the sentiment but think we need to split the “strategic” and “operational” factors. Can we not as a society decide to support demand-based transport  pricing “in principle” and then undertake research to flesh out the details? And then put the result to a public referendum? Indeed, if way back in 2005 if Auckland had not made a strategic commitment (through the RLTS) to support public transport, then we probably would not have seen the gains we have seen – simply because the operational details had not all been worked through at the time.

The first objection is the most common and deserves more attention than I can give it here because my flight is now boarding.

But very quickly, I will say that the disappearance of “traffic” in the presence of demand-based pricing has two interesting implications. First that there are many people on the roads at peak times that are not  willing-to-pay very much, i.e. they’re just there because the price is low. Second, people have many more options open to them than public transport, i.e. PT is not an all-encompassing transport panacea.

And with that said this economic scrooge would like to wish you all a very merry and safe summer holiday.

Road pricing and rail

The issue of road pricing comes up quite frequently in the comments on this blog and it’s certainly not something we’ve shied away from in the past – though I find myself a bit frustrated by how polarised arguments over road pricing become:

  • Its advocates think it’ll solve all transport issues, tend to ignore its potential negative side effects and think we should do it tomorrow if only the politicians had some guts.
  • Its detractors think it’s the worst thing ever, will price the poor off the road and forces us to pay for roads we’ve already paid for.

Both sides miss the point I think. Let’s start with the arguments in favour of road pricing, which are nicely summarised in this TEDx video from Jonas Eliasson:

I like the points made around how a relatively small change in the number of vehicles along a certain route can make a big difference to its level of congestion and how often we just need to accept that an issue (like transport) is really really complicated and instead of coming up with a grand plan to “solve it” we should rely upon little incentives and nudges that can lead to better outcomes. It’s also very clear that road pricing is very effective at reducing congestion.

What I always find interesting though in road pricing debates is to look at the cities where schemes have been successfully implement, and to think about their existing public transport (especially rail) systems at the time of implementation. Let’s take Stockholm for example, which has the excellent Tunnelbana system:

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Or the London Underground, providing a part of the PT system that enables around 95% of people entering the “congestion charging zone” to not actually have to pay for it because they’re not driving.

london-underground

The situation in Singapore is similar as well, with excellent public transport alternatives to driving available throughout the city-state.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that cities which have successfully implemented road pricing schemes also have superb underground rail systems, but I tend to think that’s not the case. I don’t know whether it’s because the population looks more kindly on road pricing schemes when they know there are high quality alternatives, or whether it’s because those adversely affected are a pretty tiny minority or whether the presence of the underground rail system meant – in more of a technical than political sense – the alternatives exist to enable the scheme to be implemented in a way that doesn’t generate a lot of negative consequences.

Because of this, I do tend to think that the chances, or even the merits, of introducing a road pricing scheme to Auckland before the CRL is in place, is a risky business. Particularly a scheme which created some sort of cordon around the city centre like what’s been done in London and Stockholm. So perhaps overall my feeling is that road pricing is a good idea, once we’ve got the good alternatives in place.

Treasury’s interesting position on road pricing

The National State of Infrastructure Report was released by Treasury’s Infrastructure Unit a few weeks back, and makes for some quite interesting and amusing reading in relation to transport. I’ll leave what’s said about transport in Auckland to another post (basically it seems like they’re suggesting Auckland needs a whole pile more motorway but aren’t quite sure where they’ll go), but perhaps one of the most amusing parts of the document is in relation to road pricing.

One would think that Treasury, being a bunch of purist neoliberal economists, would love the concept of road pricing. And on the one hands it seems they do:

There is near consensus among economists that managing demand and optimising our transport networks through some form of more targeted road pricing should be part of the transport programme for Auckland, especially considering the forecast increase in congestion over the medium/long term. However, road users are deeply suspicious of road pricing, especially in the form of tolls and cordon fees, such as used in Singapore and London. In fact, managing demand on our roads using road pricing seems to be an issue with the widest gap between economists and the motoring public. This is despite the large scale of road pricing tools that we already have – Fuel Excise Duty (FED) and Road User Charges (RUC) – although these do not accurately reflect all the full costs imposed on road users. For example, motorists pay the same regardless of whether they travel at peak times or off-peak. Implementing a more comprehensive and detailed road pricing regime would have a number of key benefits.

I get the feeling there’s some interesting politics behind this section. Interesting because we’re in a rather bizarre situation of Auckland Council – with a ‘left-leaning’ Mayor, being keen to investigate revenue mechanisms which include road pricing while there’s a centre-right government who are running away from the idea utterly terrified. This gets reflected even more in the next paragraph:

On the other hand, public reaction to the general concept of targeted road pricing is usually negative, often coming from a fairness perspective. Cordon pricing in London has been seen as being very effective at pricing poorer people from the suburbs off the roads, while enabling richer central city dwellers to move around more freely. The high cost of bringing a car into the city may deprive lower-income people of important options, particularly when public transport does not provide the flexibility that a car can provide. A further concern is often a lack of trust that government will use the revenue raised for the purposes advised.

I’m not sure whether we see too many “lower income” people driving their cars into the CBD these days, due to the cost of parking. So that’s perhaps a bit of a red herring issue in terms of a road pricing scheme structured as a cordon around the CBD. It’s probably a more reasonable concern for wider schemes.

 Considering this discord, it is often difficult to know where to start and how to progress the debate in a positive manner. Fundamentally, the challenge is to understand how the current network is being used and determine whether this use is as effective and efficient as it can be. Knowing this demand, and ensuring the network is being used as optimally as possible, provides clarity and robustness around what future investment will be required and when.

Oh the pain! This is just so hard!

I think that if road pricing was proposed as analternativeto existing transport revenue sources – rather than in addition to them – most of the opposition to it would disappear. If people had the choice between a road pricing scheme that varied the amount they paid by time of day or particular road used while significantly reducing petrol taxes or rates, we could have an interesting discussion around how it compares to these other transport funding mechanisms and whether it would deliver better transport outcomes while raising the same amount of revenue.

The big problem in all the debates about road pricing is that it’s always put forward as a revenue raising tool, when it fact it’s actually a market-based demand management tool which prices the roads to ensure a better match between demand and supply: just like we price bread, computers and Ferraris to get the most efficient outcomes. Of course there will be the potential for adverse social impacts of a road pricing scheme, but that’s just the same as the adverse effects of current rating schemes or the unfairness of someone having to pay the same to use the roads when they only drive around at the weekend as someone who makes long trips during peak times and helps contribute to the traffic jams around Auckland.

I’m not quite sure why Treasury don’t understand this. Or maybe they do, but it’s politics getting in the way?

HOT Lanes

No. Not anything about the temperature, spicyness or physical attractiveness. High Occupancy Toll Lanes are a fairly recent phenomenon becoming increasingly widespread throughout the USA. A recent Atlantic Cities article covers the introduction of a pretty large scheme, implemented by way of a public private partnership (PPP) in Washington DC:

The expanded roadway – two lanes in each direction, from the I-95 interchange to Tysons Corner – will be made of High-Occupancy Tolls, or HOT lanes. Carpools of three or more, buses and motorcycles (but not hybrids) can drive them for free. Anyone else who wants in will have to pony up according to a dynamic pricing scheme, and there’s no limit to what that could cost.

The $2 billion system was built in a public-private partnership between the state and Fluor Transurban, an engineering and construction conglomerate. Virginia put up about $400 million. The private firms paid for the rest (with the help of a hefty federal loan) in exchange for the right to collect the toll fees for the next 75 years.

Fluor Transurban is guaranteeing a minimum speed on the HOT lanes of 45 miles an hour. That means the toll price will vary according to demand to maintain the steady flow of traffic. The companies estimate that the average ride will cost between $3 and $6 (tolls will be in effect at all hours of the day, not just during rush hour). But there’s no ceiling to what the system may charge drivers to achieve that goal, if it turns out everyone heading to Tysons Corner is willing to pay a ton of money to get there.

These lanes are an interesting convergence of trying to both increase car pooling (the high occupancy bit) as well as being some form of congestion pricing (the toll bit). Proponents of the schemes cite the lanes as not only providing a congestion free option for those using the lane, but also reducing congestion in the general traffic lanes (presumably due to the car pooling). But the scheme comes with its challenges:

If this infrastructure is now managed by private companies, will their interests always align with the public good? Fluor Transurban, for instance, stands to lose money with every carpool that enters the lanes for free. And isn’t there something ethically dubious about enabling drivers who’ve got the money to pay for faster commutes, while low-income commuters continue to pay for transportation with their time?

These toll lanes will offer the equivalent of driving in first class. But some public money did go into providing that premium experience, and the lanes will be patrolled by publicly funded state police.

For transportation engineers, the project poses just as many logistical questions as philosophical ones. Will people really use this system the way Fluor Transurban expects them to? How much will they be willing to pay? And how long will it take drivers to catch on to the new infrastructure? The technology itself is so complex the Washington Post even published a user’s guide for its readers (no, the price of the toll won’t change on you while you’re driving; yes, you will be caught – and pursued by collectors – if you try to beat the system).

I think I’d feel reasonably comfortable with HOT lanes being implemented in Auckland as long as they were done so in a relatively inexpensive way by converting an existing lane – rather than spending megabucks to add additional lanes. Though there’s still something a bit queasy around forcing lower income commuters to pay for transportation with their time. The fact that everyone gets stuck in congestion, no matter how rich or poor they are, has always seemed something of a leveller. But perhaps I’m being too ideological there?

What are your thoughts? Could something like this work in Auckland? Would it reduce congestion? Is reducing congestion really that important? So many interesting questions.

The future of fuel taxes

Earlier this week the “fuel excise duty” (FED) increased by 2 cents per litre. As the Herald noted, taxes of one form or another now make up nearly $1 pre litre from what you pay at the pump:

* Fuel excise – 50.524c
* GST – 27.77c
* ACC levy – 9.9c
* Local authorities fuel tax – 0.66c
* Petroleum monitoring levy – 0.045c
* Total tax – 88.899c.

This money, plus road user charges for diesel vehicles, adds up to around $3 billion a year and makes up all the money that NZTA spends on transport projects – from building new state highways to helping maintain local roads and paying for public transport services.

Fuel taxes are a pretty efficient way to raise money, with there being little in the form of transaction costs – at least compared to complex tolling systems. Presumably the oil companies keep track of how many litres of fuel they sell and just send NZTA a few big cheques every once in a while. Fuel taxes also have the benefits of encouraging us to drive less, drive more fuel efficient vehicles and also – at least in theory – could compensate for the environmental externalities created by burning fossil fuels. The more fuel we go through, the more tax we need to pay.

However, fuel taxes also have a bit of a problem in the longer term – especially as vehicles become more and more fuel efficient and as we shift to hybrid and fully electric vehicles. The problem is that the amount of revenue raised per vehicle kilometre travelled will inevitably decrease.

NZTA have had significant revenue problems in recent times, having to borrow quite a lot of money from Auckland Council for example. I’m not sure the extent to which this is caused by improved fuel efficiency or the extent to which it’s because traffic growth has stalled, but the issue of having less fuel tax being raised than expected is a real one – perhaps the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to our ability to actually fund the transport programmes we have proposed.

As time goes by we do have the option of continuing to raise fuel taxes to ensure enough money is raised to pay for the transport programme. Compared to many other countries around the world New Zealand has a pretty low petrol tax. This is highlighted in the graph below, which was from the Ministry of Transport’s briefing to the incoming minister (BIM), released earlier this year:

A higher fuel tax would probably be fairly effective at encouraging people to shift to more fuel efficient (hybrid or full electric) vehicles as those become increasingly price attractive. This is a good thing for the environment and for reducing our dependence on imported fuels, but isn’t really a long term solution to the revenue problem. Quite obviously, as we tax petrol at a higher and higher rate we will encourage more and more people into electric and hybrid vehicles – meaning we need to find a way of raising revenue from those road users.

Presumably fully electric vehicles may end up paying some sort of road user charge. But I suspect fully electric vehicles may be rarer than we think – we’ll instead end up having hybrids that are progressively more dependent on their electric motor than on their petrol one. Do they need to pay a proportion of their travel as Road User Charge and a proportion through petrol tax? Sounds messy.

Lower traffic volume increases in the future – potentially due to higher fuel prices and/or lower economic growth – was put forward in the Ministry of Transport’s BIM as a real pressure on the ability to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the transport programme in the future. This is highlighted in the graph below:

To the Ministry’s credit they note that high oil price scenarios are likely to mean that much of the proposed expenditure on road capacity expansion may not be necessary (due to lower increases in traffic volumes), but that greater spending on public transport would be required. Even taking the current GDP growth path as a mid-point suggests some significant problems over the next 20 years.

Getting back to the main point of this post, I think there’s a reasonably clear case that – at some point in the future – we will need to shift to a different way of raising revenue for transport purposes. While there are good arguments to be had around the amount of revenue that is required and where that revenue should be spent, we will clearly still need to maintain what we have, we will clearly need to operate a public transport system, we will still need to fix up things that don’t work, and so on. The question really becomes what replaces fuel tax, and how can we be as fair as possible in working out who pays and how much they pay.

This leads us, inevitably, to questions around road pricing. While fuel tax has many great strengths – its low administration cost, the way it is a useful incentive to improve fuel efficiency and minimise the burning of fossil fuels – one thing that fuel tax doesn’t do is vary the amount we pay by the time of day we drive and the particular routes we take.

To give an example, my impact on the roading network from driving down a suburban side-street at 10pm on a Sunday night is almost zero. Perhaps a slight degradation of the road, obviously some environmental impact, but really little else. By contrast, if I drive from Papakura to the CBD at peak times up the Southern Motorway then my impact is huge. I’m not just stuck in the traffic jam, I am the traffic jam. My extra vehicle on the road is slowing down a huge number of other people, just as I am being slowed down myself. Removing a few people from that motorway will improve travel for a vast number of people.

At an overall level, it becomes clear that a relatively small proportion of trips generate the vast bulk of motoring costs. Perhaps put more simply, every additional car travelling across the Harbour Bridge at the ‘peak of the peak’ contributes to the (supposed) “need” to spend $5 billion on another Harbour Crossing. This is the real value of the Northern Busway of course, having ‘knocked the top off’ this peak and delayed the need for spending this eye-watering amount of money. But in the longer run, people travelling across this future Harbour Crossing at peak times should be the ones paying for its construction – rather than someone driving along a suburban street at 10pm on a Sunday night.

A graph from a UK study confirms that the marginal costs imposed on the transport system come from a pretty tiny minority of trips:


What this graph highlights is that for the vast bulk of trips we are paying too much in fuel tax, compared to the impact we are having with our trip. However, for a few trips the fuel tax is nowhere near covering the impact of those trips. I’m possibly not entirely convinced the marginal cost curve should be quite this steep as the methodology used to calculate it is overly focused on congestion, but I think the general point holds. I generally use public transport during peak times and drive during off-peak times – yet find myself paying for road widening projects that will really only benefit people travelling during the peak on a select number of routes. While the subsidies for my PT trip compensate for this situation to an extent, the situation still seems a bit unfair.

Ultimately this approach to road pricing, as an eventual replacement for fuel tax that more fairly apportions cost based on the impact you’re having on the transportation network, seems the most likely way to see it actually implemented. As shown in the graph above, the vast majority of trips would be better off under this pricing scheme than they are at the moment. A few trips would be much worse off, but presumably that would act as a disincentive to travel at that time of the day on that route.

Nevertheless, this approach presents two possible problems:

  • The administration cost of implementing this kind of scheme ‘properly’ – differentiating between different routes, different times of the day and then coming up with a charging mechanism.
  • As we’re relying on taxing a few trips to provide the bulk of our transport revenue, if those trips disappear so does most of our revenue. I guess of course we also see many of our problems solved, but the extent to which this works probably depends on the extent to which congestion is seen as the main transport problem.

I guess this is an issue we’ll eventually have to tackle though.