John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Smart thinking to unclog roads

Private cars are brilliant and better technology will improve efficiency.
Right now when I'm in crawling traffic I know there will be a certain number of drivers around me fretting and fuming that they can go no faster. Photo / Doug Sherring
Right now when I'm in crawling traffic I know there will be a certain number of drivers around me fretting and fuming that they can go no faster. Photo / Doug Sherring

Driving into the city every day I often wish one lane was tolled. It's not that I want to use it necessarily, it's that it would let all the lanes flow well.

Imagine the motorways with overhead gantries on which a price is flashing showing the toll you will pay if you want to use a designated fast lane where three or four lanes permit one. The price would reflect the congestion of traffic on that stretch of motorway at the time. The heavier the congestion the higher the price.

You could be charged the rate applying at the time you decided to enter the lane and disregard any subsequent price flashing on the gantry. That would avoid the problem of drivers desperately trying to get out of the lane if the price went up. The camera on the gantry would record you only on entry, and the price showing would be all you would pay no matter how far you went. Simple, isn't it?

Right now when I'm in crawling traffic I know there will be a certain number of drivers around me fretting and fuming that they can go no faster.

They may be just congenitally impatient but more likely they will have a good reason. Running late for something or anxious to be on time for an appointment. Whatever their reason, it is in the interests of all of us to let them pay for priority. It would reduce the traffic in the free lanes and we would move faster too.

That is the "trickle down" that happens when you use a price to allocate something to those who most need it. The objection always is that a price allocates something to those who can afford it and is unfair to those who cannot. But "afford" is a choice when you are talking about something as cheap as $2 to maybe $5 a trip. It would not surprise me in the slightest if the main users of a tolled lane are not the wealthy, who tend not to spend money unless they have to, but those who really do have pressing appointments. They are as likely to be a parent with a child due at a piano lesson, or a tradesman trying to catch up on his job sheet. Those who say it would be unfair to charge them for a fast lane presumably think it "fairer" to leave them in a queue with little chance of getting where they need to be. If we ever do get a toll like this, we'd find the roads working so much better we would never go back.

But despite the Government's endorsement of some sort of road pricing system this week, I'm not holding my breath. It has given its blessing to the idea for the sake of the Auckland Council, which wants road tolls for a very different reason - the revenue it needs for its railway.

It is simply not true that public transport is the only alternative to traffic congestion.

The public will never support road pricing simply for the revenue and nor should it. A toll for revenue cannot work in the way I have described. The revenue generated by a toll designed to rationalise road use would decline over time. The better it works, the less revenue it would produce. Every time enough cars have moved into the tolled lane to allow the free lanes to start to move faster, the price would drop. It would be zero for long periods.

To produce reliable revenue a road charge cannot allow drivers to avoid it. It cannot give them a free alternative alongside. That is why the council talks of a toll on all traffic crossing a cordon around certain parts of the city, or possibly even all traffic, which GPS now makes possible.

People will never support that sort of road charge because the right to move around freely is essential to a sense of freedom.

The only way the council wants us to avoid a road charge is by paying to ride on its public transport. It's purpose is clear every time it advocates a road toll with a proviso that it must be accompanied by a better better public transport alternative. This mantra is taken up by many who do not like the idea of any road tolls but it is nonsense.

It is simply not true that public transport is the only alternative to traffic congestion. The roads can be made far more efficient with pricing, signalling co-ordinated by GPS and better engineering. The privacy of a personal car that takes you anywhere and is available any time you want it, is one of the best things of modern life and nobody should be persuaded to give it up. Technology is going to let cars travel closer together at speed. That's the future.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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