The inclusion of congestion pricing in the recent Auckland Transport Alignment Project interim report has (helpfully) reignited the public debate on the topic. Transportblog’s authors have been pretty enthusiastic about the idea – see e.g. Stu Donovan’s posts on the topic.
But the announcement also raises some questions. For example, congestion pricing is certainly a good idea in principle, but could we put it into practice in Auckland without unintended consequences? And would people in Auckland get on board with it?
So I thought I’d open this up to readers: What do you think the preconditions are for congestion pricing in Auckland? In other words, what would we have to do in order to make the scheme work?
I have my own thoughts on the matter, but rather than putting them forward I thought I’d summarise some of the main things that come up in discussions. I’ve left aside the exact design and technical feasibility of congestion pricing – for now, let’s just assume that it’s going to be possible to implement a GPS-based pricing system that allows for variable tolls between different roads and time periods.
1. We don’t need to do anything else.
Some people argue that congestion pricing will work without any further changes to transport infrastructure or services. Stu, for example, put forward this case the other week.
The argument in favour of this view is that congestion is typically very concentrated in peak periods due to bottleneck delay, and that encouraging people to take some trips a bit earlier or a bit later will benefit the overall transport network without imposing large costs on people who re-time journeys to avoid tolls.
2. We need to provide more public transport infrastructure and/or walking and cycling options before implementing congestion pricing.
A second common view is that we need alternative, non-driving transport options in place prior to congestion pricing. Reasonable people could disagree on what would represent enough alternatives, but I’d suggest that a reasonable aspiration would be:
- Bus routes that cover most of the city, with reasonable frequency
- Spare rapid transit capacity through key pinch points such as the Auckland Harbour Bridge and Panmure Bridge
- Cycle lanes running on or parallel to many urban arterials.
The argument in favour of this view is that it is unfair to ask people to pay a toll without giving them options for avoiding it. In that respect, it conflicts a bit with the first view, which holds that people will have the option of re-timing trips to avoid tolls.
3. We need to use the revenue from congestion pricing to improve transport infrastructure and services on busy corridors.
A third view is that we should spend any additional revenues from congestion pricing to build additional transport infrastructure. Some people argue that this should be more roads, while others argue for public transport.
It seems a bit perverse to implement a demand management measure (congestion pricing) and then turn around and spend more building infrastructure. However, the argument in favour of this view is that congestion pricing will give us a better indication of which corridors have high economic value – as evidenced by higher tolls – and hence that investment is needed to allow more people to use them.
4. We should “recycle” additional revenue from congestion pricing into lower taxes or rates.
Another view on what to do with the revenue from congestion pricing is that it should be returned to households. In other words, the scheme should be “revenue neutral” on the whole.
There are two main ways to do this:
- Lowering income taxes, which will (all else equal) enhance incentives to work while discouraging car commuting at peak times
- Distributing money equally to households, through lower uniform charges in the rates bill or AECT-style dividends.
The argument in favour of the first approach is that it will tax “bads” (i.e. excess congestion) while rewarding the “goods” (i.e. working). The second approach doesn’t improve incentives to work – people would get the money regardless of whether they are working or not – but it would ensure that every household had an additional chunk of money that they could choose to save, spend, or use to offset the cost of tolls.
5. We should liberalise residential and business zoning rules alongside implementing congestion pricing.
Separate from what to do with the revenues, another view is that it would be necessary to change our approach to land use planning in order to get the best result from congestion pricing.
The argument in favour of this view is that congestion pricing would influence people’s decisions about where to live and work. In other words, some people may choose to move closer to work to avoid paying tolls, while others would prefer to move further out of town to take advantage of faster drive times. However, zoning rules that, for example, held up intensification around employment centres may prevent this from happening.
6. We don’t need congestion pricing in the first place.
Finally, some people argue that congestion pricing is unnecessary. There seem to be two main reasons why someone may hold this view:
- Contrary to popular perceptions, Auckland’s not really congested enough to need congestion pricing
- If we just got on and built a lot of roads, like, immediately, traffic would flow smoothly and there would never be any congestion ever again.
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