Big Brother may soon be tracking you

By Mathew Dearnaley

A plan to introduce traffic congestion charges to Auckland would cover almost twice the territory of a pioneering model which has curbed congestion by 30 per cent in inner London.

The area scheme would entail a $5 daily charge for driving in morning weekday peak hours anywhere in an almost 40 sq km sector of central Auckland, above a line from Westmere and St Lukes Rd through to Green Lane East Rd and Hobson Bay.

This differs from other schemes under consideration in which motorists would be charged only for entering cordoned areas to a maximum of $6 a day.

How it would work

A $5 once-only daily charge would be made for any distance driven within the target area in central Auckland between 6am and 10am from Monday to Friday

Electronic scanning gantries backed by cameras linked to a central database would be used instead of traditional toll-collection booths, so as not to exacerbate congestion by causing extra delays.

The scanners would "interrogate" transponders on car windscreens, and cameras would capture licence plates of vehicles not registered for the scheme, for debt-collection and enforcement purposes.

In contrast to a $10 parking levy scheme also being assessed by the Ministry of Transport in consultation with the Auckland region, residents living inside the target area would not be exempted.

This is because the ministry considers they should pay their share of benefits from less congestion and cleaner air.

The ministry has suggested stationing 34 overhead charging gantries at entry points to the target area, and a further 50 spread within the zone.

There would also be 10 mobile charging units - similar to mobile speed cameras - to reduce chances of evasion by keeping motorists guessing.

These could be either revolved around a network of overhead mounting boards or even carried in the rear of vehicles similar to police speed-camera cars.

Overseas experience

The inspiration for this scheme is central London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone overcame high public scepticism after introducing a £5 ($14) daily congestion charge in 2003 to a 21 sq km zone.

He won re-election in 2004 with an enlarged majority after traffic volumes were reduced by 20 per cent and congestion by 30 per cent, akin to what is seen in Auckland during school holidays.

London's fee has since been boosted to £8 ($22.50) and is to be extended west next year.

About 200,000 motorists a day pay for driving between 7am and 6.30pm, compared with around 115,000 likely to be charged in Auckland after a 42 per cent reduction in morning peak traffic.

Pros

By 2016 the plan is expected to reduce traffic jams in the morning traffic peak - from 20 per cent of roads blocked on the region's overall roading network down to 14 per cent.

It would also increase average speed over the entire network in the morning peak to 43 km/h, compared with 39.5km without road pricing.

It would generate the highest cash flows of any scheme, amply covering extra public transport services and roading improvements.

Cons

The area charge plan would cost the average affected household $905.

Despite reducing congestion inside the boundary, it would increase congestion on perimeter roads as heavy trucks and other vehicles tried to avoid charges.

It would increase travel times to major commercial vehicle destinations such as the waterfront and airport, and have an impact on 35 per cent of business trips - higher than any other scheme.

Will it happen?

Cabinet ministers and the Auckland City Council have expressed a preference for the area charge.

But left-of-centre Labour politicians at local and national level worry that the costs are too high and argue that it is unfair to impose such a scheme without offering much-improved public transport. 


$5 would add up for family of car users  

Remuera resident and Queen St businessman Neil Coutts could afford a $5 "area" charge for driving his V12 Mercedes to work, but says such an impost would be unfair on households such as his own, with several members heading for jobs in different directions.

The co-owner of Camera & Camera believes there are better options for easing congestion - even to the extent of banning single-occupant cars from central Auckland.

"I might get myself a Segway [a two-wheeled self-balancing gyroscopic scooter] and drive on the footpath at 20km/h," he said.

"I'd go on the bus, but you've got to be careful you don't catch a cold."

Mr Coutts' Victoria Ave home is inside the boundary of a proposed area scheme, meaning he would be charged even for driving to the nearest dairy.

Told that he would be spared such a charge under some alternative schemes which would cost motorists only if they crossed cordons around parts or all of the Auckland isthmus, he said: "I don't want to be favoured over some other poor chap who lives farther out."

But he said his son would also be charged $5 for driving to work in East Tamaki and believed it unfair that his household might end up paying $15 on days when his wife travelled to a part-time job in Parnell.

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