The ACT party – or at least its biggest funder – was in the news last weekend for expressing some of his views for the party at their annual conference. Of note was this line
“I’d privatise all the schools, all the hospitals and all the roads,” he told the conference.
Now obviously we’re not in the habit of talking about schools or hospitals (unless it’s about how to get to them) but roads are something on our list. Now in reality I can’t see it happening here – at least any time soon – but it raises the interesting question of what would happen if we were to privatise roads? This post is really just a thought exercise as to some of the impacts of doing so.
I suspect that if we were ever privatise the roads the impact would how we get around and our views on transport would change dramatically. There would be some overall impacts across the entire network but also more local impacts due to there likely needing to be different forms of privatisation.
The key impact would be across the entire network and the true cost of operating, maintaining and building roads would become much clearer regardless of how that’s passed on to the public. A better understanding of just how much roads cost, especially if charged for through forms of road pricing would lead to changes in how people travel. People would likely reduce the amount of driving they do in favour of more walking, cycling and PT use.
Private road owners would also likely seek to reduce their maintenance costs while users of lighter vehicles would likely demand that costs are more fairly distributed to those that do the most damage. That in itself could have large impacts. It would likely see the vehicle fleet get smaller and lighter over time i.e. less people would be driving around in large SUVs unless they absolutely need too (or want too). Truckies would be even harder hit. Due to their weight, trucks cause substantially more damage to road surfaces and so would likely be charged substantially more than other vehicles which in itself would have far reaching impacts by pushing up delivery costs. Those increased costs would of course be passed on to businesses and ultimately consumers.
Perhaps one of the areas most impacted would be in road construction. In short it would kill it dead. Most transport projects simply don’t make sense financially and the toll road troubles in Australia are proof of this. Traffic volumes often don’t stack up and most projects are only able to be justified based on the benefits to the wider economy from improved travel times. Faced with paying for a journey in time through congestion or paying a monetary cost to avoid congestion, many choose the former. What all of this means is that road construction would dry up almost immediately and the costs would shift to making the best use of the infrastructure that exists. That could have some negative consequences as there might be little attention paid to improving roads through projects like this. The flip side of this is that the private road owners would likely become liable for road safety and therefore be a push to improve crash black spots.
Regardless of whether privatising roads is a good or a bad thing, one thing that isn’t so clear is just how it could be done. The real benefit from roads comes from the fact they are an extensive network. Very few trips begin and end on the same road and a trip might commonly involve travelling on quieter residential streets, arterial roads and motorways. Each of those would present vastly different opportunities for privatisation.
Motorways would probably be the easiest roads to privatise due to the fact they have limited access and all journeys that use a motorway begin and end somewhere else. Motorways also carry large amounts of traffic each day. This is also why groups like the NZCID who have been pushing for the council/govt to find additional ways to fund ever more and larger transport projects have suggested charging for access to the motorways. If we were to privatise roads there would likely be a big temptation to do the easiest ones first and so motorways would be at the top of the agenda. The problem with that though is that it would likely have a huge impact on but still publicly owned roads.
The next easiest set of roads to privatise would actually be quiet suburban streets, particularly those post 1950’s suburbs full of cul-de-sacs. There we would probably do something similar to what is likely to happen later this year in the small sprawly village of Long Grove (north of Chicago). They are looking to privatise many of their currently public suburban roads because it simply can’t afford to maintain them due to their pyramid scheme like system of how roads were funded where the money to pay for them was only raised through development contributions which dried up as a result of the GFC. They are simply going to turn over the ownership of the roads to the owners of the houses on the street and leave it up to them to maintain.
That could put big strains on neighbourly relations in many places as people work out who will pay for what i.e. does everyone on a street pay equally or do those at the end of the street pay more? In some parts of Auckland there could be interesting changes in the stance taking on intensification. More people living on a street means more people to share the cost of a road with and so some of the suburbs that were most opposed to intensification in the Unitary Plan discussions might quickly change their mind. Going further some residential neighbourhoods might start imposing restrictions on vehicle use in their streets – particularly truck movements – in a bid to lessen the damage vehicles do to the roads. Gated communities might also become more common to stop others from passing through.
On the positive side these communities are likely to become much more pedestrian and cycle friendly as those two modes cause much less wear and tear on roads which equates to less maintenance.
Privatising arterial roads are likely to be the hardest to do because not only do they serve a movement function but they serve a place one too, people live, work and play along arterials. To be honest I don’t even know how you could privatise them as due to their function they can’t just be turned over to locals to maintain but their connected nature means they would be prohibitively expensive to charge for. Who would really want the cost and hassle of owning them?
Overall I don’t think the idea of privatising roads is necessarily a bad one from an ideological perspective and doing so would certainly change how we use roads, including what modes we use but overall it simply isn’t practical. Roads are such a key part of our everyday life that changing our relationship with them – however flawed it currently is – would have radical and far reaching consequences for society, probably far more so than the privatising of many other government functions. As such I would suggest the likelihood of it happening is very very low. Far more likely and practical would be the introduction of proper road pricing.