Al Gillespie: Pay more, drive faster, breathe easier

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Congestion charging can only work if drivers priced off roads have public option.

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

Traffic jams are a key indicator of transport dysfunction.

We end up with slower speeds, longer trips, and stretching lines of idling vehicles. This is not a new problem. Vehicle congestion, both motorised and horse drawn, is long standing.

The loss of this time may have implications in terms of lost productivity on a personal and professional level. As it stands, drivers in comparable countries consistently demonstrate a willingness to pay, on average, $2 to save 10 minutes travel time, or at least $10 per hour, just to move at a standard speed.

This means that in standard situations the annual cost of being stuck in congestion comes to about $1600 per driver, per year. Traffic congestion is also bad for the economy, costing billions a year in lost or restricted productivity. This is a difficult figure to dissect, as the economic impacts of congestion are often difficult to predict, as each sector in a community responds differently.

Despite these differences, it is clear that businesses that rely on efficiencies of time based upon travel will make active choices to avoid areas of congestion, including, dependent on other factors, by relocation of the business.

The first attempted solution to this problem has been to increase the supply of roading. While this may have some benefits, reducing vehicle congestion is not one of them. It has been known for over 60 years that while new roads initially create efficiencies, over the longer term building more roads increases traffic flows. Part of the reason for this is that traffic congestion deters some drivers from using their cars.

New roads act as magnets to all forms of motor vehicles, of which increased traffic levels result. Given that increased supply has limited impact, a different approach has developed to control excess demand, whereby demand for roading is controlled via making the desired product more expensive. The foremost model of this is with what is known as congestion pricing. This model, unveiled in the 1950s, has been adopted by a number of large cities to deal with congestion difficulties, including Singapore, London, Rome, Stockholm and Milan.

There is no question that if the price is set high enough, demand will fall and the traffic lanes will flow easier. However, there is more to this equation than reducing demand. First, congestion charges are dubious if implemented without the supplementary promotion of alternative forms of transport.

The core of the solution here is relatively simple. More funds must be put into public transport to make it convenient, comfortable, safe and efficient. Efficiency involves considerations of minimal waiting time, reliability and a dense network of routes. The primary concern out of all of these is speed. Commuters will follow the quickest route. Reduced times for bus transport over private transport, of about 10 per cent, can be achieved via dedicated bus lanes and through electronic devices which give buses priority at traffic lights. If public transport is faster than private, commuters will often vote public, if they can get a seat.

Second, congestion pricing must reconcile goals of social choice and equity. At the front end, this means that congestion pricing should distinguish between different types of congestion. Increasingly, traffic congestion is not restricted to motorways leading into city centres or the centres themselves. Rather, it is often around community facilities like supermarkets or schools which typically account for up to one quarter of all trips in modern cities. At the back end, congestion charging means that those who cannot afford to pay increased prices for their private vehicles are forced into alternative modes of transport.

If this occurs, it is necessary for public transport to be affordable. To be fair, enhanced subsidises for public transport for some parts of the population may be necessary. Without this feedback of finances into improved public transport, only the sector of the community that can afford the congestion charge will benefit. This means that the collected revenues should not go to untagged local or national government coffers or to private investors. Rather, they should be channelled into improved public initiatives which satisfy the requirements of equity within a comprehensive transport policy.

The final need with congestion pricing, to bring added value, is that it should be reconciled with the problem of air pollution. Recent research in New Zealand suggests human-made air pollution is associated with over 1100 cases of premature mortality - that is people dying earlier than they would have if they had not been exposed to air pollution. The primary source of man-made emissions throughout New Zealand is home heating, with the exception of Auckland, where the main source is transport. The total economic costs of air pollution from human-made sources in New Zealand are estimated to be $4.28 billion per year, or $1061 per person.

An effective congestion charge within a comprehensive transport policy will attempt to solve this problem by distinguishing between the vehicles which make the air cleaner, and those that make it worse. Accordingly, to keep people in Auckland from having shortened life spans, additional requirements should be built into the congestion charge. Specifically, careful considerations relating to fuel choices, fuel delivery systems, technical mechanisms restricting vehicle pollutants, vehicle occupancy and stronger restrictions on the worst polluting vehicles

Al Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.

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