Congestion pricing has once again hit the political radar, with the news that the Auckland Transport Alignment Project has recommended it as an option to more efficiently manage the transport network. They find that variable road tolls – highest during peak periods on busy roads and low (or even zero) at off-peak times – are the single most effective intervention to improve traffic flow.
On the whole, it looks like support for the idea is on the rise, which is positive. That suggests that the work that Auckland Council’s consensus building group did a few years back has contributed towards a better public conversation on the issue. That’s good, as it’s a challenging idea to sell to people.
The NZ Herald’s editorial on the topic was tentatively supportive and showed a reasonable understanding of the core principles of congestion pricing:
Transport Minister Simon Bridges conceded this week, “we can’t keep building new lanes on highways. We will need a combination of demand-side interventions if we are going to deal with congestion over the next couple of decades”. He prefers the term “demand-side interventions” to taxes, tolls or charges but those are what it means.
Unlike the council, the Government does not advance these for revenue raising but for reducing traffic on the roads. It clearly thinks road rationing is more politically acceptable than revenue raising and the AA agrees. Feedback from members, it says, showed support for tolls as long as people could be convinced it was for congestion benefits, not simply revenue.
However, the Herald’s editorial also exhibits a common misunderstanding about congestion pricing, arguing that free routes must be available as an alternative to tolled routes:
The joint report for the council and the Government this week did not suggest how road travel might be charged. Mr Bridges said one option was to track all traffic with GPS technology which is being trialled in Singapore and Japan. But that implies no roads would be free at times the charge applied. Travel is a basic freedom. We could welcome the chance to pay to use a fast lane when we need one, so long as free lanes remain.
The Herald’s position is basically in line with NZTA’s existing tolling policy, which states that:
…a road tolling scheme may be established to provide funds for the purposes of one of more of the following activities, namely, the planning, design, supervision, construction, maintenance, or operation of a new road, if the Minister of Transport is satisfied that:
- the relevant public road controlling authorities (including the Transport Agency) have carried out adequate consultation on the proposed tolling scheme;
- the level of community support for the proposed tolling scheme is sufficient;
- if an existing road is included in the scope of the tolling scheme, it is physically and operationally integral to the new road in respect of which the tolling scheme will be applied;
- a feasible, untolled, alternative route, is available; and
- the proposed tolling scheme is efficient and effective.
However, I think that both NZTA and the Herald are being too hasty in assuming that the untolled alternative route has to run parallel to existing roads. Alternatives can exist in time as well as in space.
Stu Donovan described the maths behind this last week. Transportblog reader Bryce Pearce also dug up a good practical example: apparently Singapore’s road pricing scheme allows people to travel for free most of the day. For example, if you are trying to drive on Lorong 6 Toa Payoh at 8:30am, you’ll have to pay $1. But if you leave an hour earlier or an hour later, you won’t pay anything:
Snapshot of Singapore Electronic Road Pricing times and rates. pic.twitter.com/a1pTNfB5bX
— Bryce Pearce (@Brycepearce) June 22, 2016
ATAP took a similar approach when choosing how to model congestion charges. As the following diagram shows, the ATAP scheme would increase peak and inter-peak pricing, relative to current fuel taxes, but decrease charges in evening periods. Consequently, people would have options to save money for certain types of trips, for example, by shifting supermarket trips from the afternoon to the evening:
Arguably, being able to travel for free on the same road, at a slightly different time, is even better than being able to travel for free on a different, more circuitous road at the same time.
There are obvious user benefits to the approach of varying tolls by time of day. It allows people to make better choices that respect their individual preferences for time, timeliness, and money.
But there are also important system-wide benefits from variable tolls between different time periods. Because congestion can be quite sensitive to changes in the number of cars on the road at a given time, encouraging even a relatively small number of people to shift the time at which they travel can lead to large benefits.
That’s nicely illustrated in the following graph of Auckland Harbour Bridge traffic volumes. The AHB is essentially free-flowing during the middle of the day, when there are around 1300 vehicles per lane per hour. But it is considerably slower during the evening and morning peaks, when the bridge carries more like 1500-1700 vehicles per lane per hour.
Because the peakiest bits of the peak are relatively short – perhaps 2.5 hours in total across an average weekday – you could improve the performance of the bridge by charging tolls during a few short windows. People could still travel for free (or at any rate a lower price) during the remaining 21.5 hours of the day.
From my perspective, that’s a pretty good alternative for drivers! But what do you think about the issue?