As I briefly mentioned last week, I think road pricing is a discussion that’s only going to increase in Auckland in the future. Len Brown has been talking about it for some time and Mayoral Candidate Phil Goff has already said he supports some form of road charging. We also know that road pricing is being considered as part of the ATAP process. With this post I wanted to look into it a bit more.
At a high level there are two main goals in the push behind road pricing. One is a desire to manage demand for roads thereby improving their efficiency, which can deliver a mix of benefits such as reducing congestion and potentially the need for expensive and increasingly contentious projects. In this situation the aim is to use road pricing tools to change individuals behaviour. The second main goal is a desire to use road pricing as tool to supplement fuel taxes and/or raise additional money which can then be fed back to spend on more transport projects. In this situation the aim is to collect as much money as cheaply as possible.
The ATAP process is looking at road pricing from a demand management point of view while the mayor’s Consensus Building Group and subsequent Long Term Plan discussion were examples of a revenue gathering focus. In the recent discussion the tool of choice for revenue gathering has been motorway tolling where people are charged for entering the motorway but there are other solutions too:
- Cordon pricing charges people for driving past a certain point and Auckland with it’s natural and man-made boundaries is almost uniquely set up for that.
- A slightly more advanced version and like what happens in London is an area charge whereby there is a cordon inside of which are a number of checkpoints to pick up trips made within the cordon.
As an example the two maps below from a report into road pricing in Auckland from 2008 show the difference – in this case using a double cordon.
There appear to be a are a couple of major problems with many of these solutions.
- Tolling just the motorways opens up the issue of diversion where drivers shift to non-motorway routes – as has already been seen without road pricing and if motorway tolling was turned on I imagine it would only amplify.
- Cordons can have significant boundary effects, in the example above those living in the inner suburbs, the ones who might have the most alternative options, pay nothing for driving within the area but those further out will pay for travelling over a line.
- The area charging is a little fairer on the boundary effects due to the scattered checkpoints to pick up on inter-area travel but as we also know, congestion isn’t limited to the city centre and a central area charge won’t stop Manukau from clogging up.
One of the problems with all of these technologies is they can be very expensive to install with multiple sites needing to be set up and maintained to capture the details of all passing vehicles. As a result, collection costs are normally quite high. In the case of the Northern Gateway Toll Road collection costs usually eat up 25-30% of the toll collected and reports indicate similar levels would be expected in these situations. In addition to just how revenue is collected there is also the issue of just how much is charged. Flat tolls can still leave roads busy and congested at peak times.
The holy grail of road pricing these days appears to be to use GPS to deliver dynamic road pricing. With it, people can be charged for how far they travel, where they travel, when they travel and just how busy the roads they travel on are. If the roads you want to travel on are busy then it will cost you more to join in and travel at the same time.
Interestingly some places are already starting to look at using GPS based road pricing to better manage their road systems. Singapore has been at the forefront of road pricing and was one of the first cities to implement it. They currently use a network of around 80 gantries located around the city that record passing vehicles.
Just over a month ago, Singapore announced it had awarded a tender to replace their current gantry set-up with a GPS based one in 2020. The new system will cost about NZ $600 million and the cost and difficulty of maintaining the current system was listed as one of the reasons for doing so.
This next-generation ERP system will allow for more flexibility in managing traffic congestion through distance-based road pricing, where motorists are charged according to the distance travelled on congested roads, which would be fairer to motorists. It will also be able to overcome the constraints of physical gantries, which are costly and take up land space. In addition, off-peak car users can look forward to new policies which LTA is considering, which may allow them to pay only for using their vehicles for short periods rather than the whole day, or for using them only on uncongested roads. A new On-Board Unit (OBU) will replace the existing In-Vehicle Unit (IU), which can also be used to deliver additional services to motorists. For example, LTA will be able to disseminate traffic advisories through the OBU. The OBU can also be used to pay for parking, checkpoint tolls, and usage of off-peak cars electronically.
In my view, if we’re going to go to the cost and trouble of implementing a road pricing solution – and on the surface at least there seems a valid case to do so – it seems we might a swell skip the gantry phase and move straight to a GPS solution
Another interesting recent system is OReGO in Oregon. While not time of use pricing, it does introduce distance based pricing using a small device that plugs in most relatively modern vehicles. The basic version only charges based on distance and rebates users for the amount of fuel taxes they would have paid however 3rd parties offer GPS tracking and other features. It wouldn’t be a stretch to have versions in the future which enable time of day pricing.
One of the challenges of road pricing is whether it’s only needed in Auckland of if the solution is something that needs to be rolled out to the entire country. OReGO also gives an idea as to how GPS based road pricing could be implemented in NZ – this is also based on a post by Stu back in 2011.
- People can get approved GPS tracking devices from AT/NZTA or third parties to install in their cars. These devices record time/distance/location, for which users pay differential rates.
- Users that sign up to the time-of-use pricing scheme would then be exempt from fuel taxes (there would need to be some verification and/or refund process).
- People who did not want to participate in the scheme would remain with the current system. So fuel taxes would operate alongside the GPS scheme but prices would be adjusted over time to encourage the use of GPS tracking.
A voluntary system might not have the immediate impacts on congestion as turning on motorway tolls but ultimately it’s an approach that be required to get public buy in.
What are your thoughts on road pricing and would you sign up it (for those times you’re not on PT or walking/cycling).