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.