Want to pay a special fee to drive into the central city? Nobody does. But do you think you should anyway?
Congestion charging for Auckland is back in the news. The Helen Clark Foundation has released a report advocating for it, with a range of conditions. The Infrastructure Commission has renewed its support for the idea and business groups, including the Auckland Business Chamber, Employers and Manufacturers Association, the Road Carriers Association, the port and the airport, have come out strongly in favour.
Labour, National, the Greens and Act have already declared they're in favour, at least in principle, and so is Mayor Phil Goff.
A parliamentary selection committee canvassed the idea thoroughly last year, with special sittings in Auckland. And Finance Minister Grant Robertson has suggested the Government may soon make an announcement. All eyes are on the Emissions Reduction Budget this coming Monday.
Congestion charging means introducing a fee for driving on certain roads or in certain areas, at specified times. Advocates don't like to use the word toll, but that's what it is.
The impact is generally agreed: it's likely to reduce traffic on the roads by up to 12 per cent. That's comparable to school holiday levels.
The benefits are generally agreed too: road freight becomes more efficient, other road users have easier trips and carbon emissions are lowered.
But is it really such a good idea?
Surprisingly, only eight cities in the world already have some form of congestion charging: Singapore, London, Stockholm, Dubai, Valetta (Malta), Milan, Gothenburg (Sweden) and Bergen (Norway). In all cases car numbers have reduced.
But in every other city it's been looked at to date, two arguments have prevailed. First, it's regressive: the poorer you are, the worse hit you are by anything that makes driving more expensive.
According to researcher Tom James at the Helen Clark Foundation, the poorest sectors of the community already spend up to 28 per cent of their income on travel. If you're working two or three jobs and driving an unreliable car to get to them, a congestion charge is the last thing you need.
The residents of wealthy suburbs close to town, meanwhile, are well placed to minimise the impact of a congestion charge. They have very good public transport and better cycle lanes and they're less likely to do shift work, when bus and train services are infrequent or stop altogether.
It's relatively easy in the inner suburbs to leave the car at home.
The second problem with congestion charging is that it's not popular, at least not until it happens. It takes a brave politician to take the plunge.
The experience of Stockholm is instructive. It was introduced in 2006 despite a storm of opposition, led by local media: 39 per cent of newspaper articles on the topic were negative and only 3 per cent positive.
But Mayor Annika Billstrӧm pushed ahead anyway. We need this, she told the city. We're going to do it and you can vote me out if it doesn't work.
The charges were introduced, the benefits became clear and the media switched sides: that 3 per cent grew to 42 per cent.
Billstrӧm did lose the election, but not because of congestion charging. Her successors kept it in place.
Under the proposal from the Helen Clark Foundation, stage 1 of congestion charging would be introduced in 2025 with a cordon around the central city. You pay to drive into the area, the amount depending on when you travel, with a daily cap on charges. The scheme would operate from just before the morning peak until just after the evening peak.
Stage 2, perhaps in 2028, would enlarge the cordon to include most of isthmus Auckland and stage 3 would extend along congested transport corridors further out.
Robertson said last week he would support congestion charging if three conditions were met: better public transport options, an extension of the half-price fares now provided to Community Services Card holders, and an end to the regional fuel tax.
Almost everyone calling for congestion charging agrees in general with these points.
But improving public transport is easy to say, harder to do. For one thing, Auckland Transport is currently struggling with a massive shortfall in farebox income caused by Covid. Unless there is significant new financial support from Government, we could be looking at services getting worse, not better.
Next, as Goff told RNZ on Tuesday morning, the 2025 date will coincide with the likely opening of the City Rail Link, which will double the capacity of our commuter rail lines and has the potential to increase the frequency of trains while reducing travel times.
But other rapid mass transit services will not be ready. The Eastern Busway connecting Botany to Panmure won't open till around 2028, construction of a new Northwest Busway has barely begun and Auckland Light Rail is still a twinkle in the minister's eye. No shovels anywhere near the ground.
Some pundits are picking that Robertson will announce an even earlier start date than 2025. It all points to the need for a massive increase in regular bus services over the next few years.
And this doesn't mean simply adding more bus routes. The services will have to be frequent and cheap to use.
Michael Barnett of the Auckland Business Chamber says all revenues from congestion charging should be used to improve public transport. "We should have an expectation that over time fares will either reduce or be free," he told RNZ.
And it's essential for travel times to come down. As reported yesterday, Finnish research suggests public transport support is strong when the bus or train takes about the same time as driving. But it collapses when the travel times are too slow.
That will require the creation of many more dedicated bus lanes on main roads. Auckland Transport has plans to do that, but on a much slower timetable than is required by the 2025 deadline.
Introducing congestion charging while condemning poorer suburbs to using infrequent, expensive and slow bus services would be the worst outcome.
There's a related issue: cycleways. If the city centre has a price cordon, safe cycling networks in and around it will have to be expanded.
And elsewhere. The Helen Clark Foundation found that most commutes into the city centre are from people living in nearby suburbs. Those living further afield also work further afield. Better cycling networks, as well as bus lanes, are required in the east, south and west.
But what about the people who need to drive?
As the select committee discovered last year, most submitters supported congestion charging but tended to think it shouldn't apply to them.
What about tradies? Some construction companies have said they fear their workers will head to Australia if it gets too expensive to drive to work here.
But tradies will be able to claim the tax back, pass on the cost to their clients and reap the benefit of faster travel times. If time is money, many of them will be big winners.
"You look at 20 or 30 vehicles turning up to a construction site," says Barnett. "We need to stop and think about this. There's a cost but it doesn't need to be on the individual worker."
The Helen Clark Foundation says exemptions should be limited to public transport, emergency vehicles and those who provide mobility for disabled people. Barnett says we're all being asked to rethink how we travel. Congestion and climate change insist on it.