Neat advertising using PT

I quite like it when smart advertising is combined with Public Transport. This one is from Stockholm and is to promote hair products and is done by using ultrasonic sensors to detect the arrival of trains.

h/t: The Atlantic Cities

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.


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.

Making congestion charging politically feasible

Transport economists and planners have long argued that the only way to really solve traffic congestion is through some form of road pricing, or as it is commonly known – congestion charging. The theory behind it is simple: congestion is the result of there being excess demand for road space in comparison to the level of ‘supply’ that exists. In all other parts of the economy, we manage this supply/demand issue through pricing – there’s a big demand for diamonds compared to their limited supply so the price is high. So why not do the same for roadspace?

These are reasonably good arguments, and congestion charging can also achieve other benefits like reducing road-use thereby reducing vehicle emissions, oil consumption and so forth. Reducing road-use can also free up space for public transport, particularly ‘on-road’ PT like buses. There’s also the argument that it replaces a non-renewable resource – being time – with something that is renewable: money. By pricing roadspace, you give people a choice: you can pay to avoid the congestion and travel when/how you want, or you can travel at a different time (or in a different way) to avoid the charge.

While congestion charging is great in theory, relatively few cities around the world have actually implemented it. Generally politicians have shied away from the idea because they think it will be too unpopular. This conundrum, that there’s a cheap solution out there for congestion but we just can’t implement it, is an issue raised in an interesting recent academic paper by Jonas Eliasson and Lina Jonsson, entitled: “The Unexpected “Yes!”: explanatory factors behind the positive attitudes to congestion charges in Stockholm”. The paper also explores the interesting way in which Stockholm in Sweden was ‘won over’ by congestion charging post-implementation.

The basic issue: that congestion pricing is a good thing but hard to implement is outlined at the beginning of the article:

The paper argues that there’s a potential case for ‘just getting on with it’ in terms of implementing congestion charging – as acceptance tends to come with familiarity. However, it also outlines that Stockholm took some clever steps to ensure greater public acceptance: such as calling the congestion charge an “environmental charge”.

The obvious question to ask is “could the same thing happen in Auckland?” There has long been discussion of congestion charging or road pricing in Auckland, with the Ministry of Transport undertaking an extensive study of the idea a few years back.

I have discussed congestion charging a number of times previously, and my general thoughts are that at the current time I don’t really see it being that feasible to introduce in Auckland in the way that congestion charging is typically done. This is not simply because I don’t think it would be politically viable, but also because I’m not sure whether Auckland is – at the current time – the most appropriate city in which to implement traditional corridor based congestion charging. We have a relatively weak and fragile CBD and a relatively under-developed public transport system. Other ideas, like charging a toll at each motorway onramp, could have perverse effects like encouraging traffic off the motorway and onto local roads.

In short, I think having a system which charged some trips and not others would be pretty risky – and potentially undermine many of our other urban goals (like supporting the CBD and reducing traffic on local roads). So whatever system we introduce, I think it should be all encompassing: it should cover all trips on all parts of the transport network – at least within the urbanised area (how you’d do things in rural areas is a more difficult question).

In terms of political acceptability, I think the reason why all congestion charging schemes in the past have been so unsuccessful and difficult to implement is because it has always been proposed as an additional charge to what we already pay to support the transport network: that is, petrol taxes. The current “fuel excise duty” (FED) is 48.524 cents per litre, on top of which we pay for transport’s contribution to the emissions trading scheme and then obviously GST. If, for example, we were to halve petrol tax and replace it with a variable ‘congestion charge’, which you paid a different per kilometre rate depending on the time of day, your political acceptability completely changes.

I envy the politician who could propose a reduction in petrol prices of around 25 cents a litre, with the money being made back in a way that can be largely avoided – if you simply don’t drive at peak times. I’m sure a system where it costs maybe 50c a kilometre at peak times, half that at other fairly busy times (inter-peak and weekend) and perhaps nothing during late evenings could generate a similar amount of money – but in a way that encourages people to avoid driving at peak times and therefore drastically cuts congestion. The exact figures, how to deal with inter-city trips,  whether you want to distinguish between the rates for some roads and others and how you’d technologically make it happen are obviously things that would require further work.

But the point holds generally: the reason congestion charging hasn’t happened so far is not simply due to political acceptability, I think it’s because nobody has thought through how we could introduce it in a way that would be popular with the general public: not just in the long-term but also immediately. As fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet improves, we may have little choice but to implement something like this.