A few days ago the AA released their latest Auckland newsletter and in it they focus, for the third time, on congestion charging. The issue includes the result of a survey of their members on the topic and I found some of the responses quite interesting.
One of the reasons for the focus is they note that by the end of the year the government is expected to make a decision on whether to push ahead with the legislative changes needed to enable congestion charging and then designing the actual scheme.
The proposed scheme
The debate about congestion charging, sometimes called road pricing, has been going on for many years, with numerous studies and proposals. The latest of these was released back in 2020 and proposed a phased rollout of a scheme that would make use of number plate recognition cameras on key roads. This is an area charge type scheme for trips that take place within the charging zone, as opposed to a toll cordon like in some schemes overseas where you pay if you cross a certain line, so trips within the charging area would pay too.
Anyone passing any camera would need to pay a charge that varied depending on what time of day they were travelling. Below were the indicative prices mentioned at the time but they would almost certainly change as more work is done on implementation.
While there are still issues to resolve, such as ensuring it’s equitable, we think the scheme itself makes sense, and provide a lot of benefits to Auckland. As such, we supported it during inquiry into it by Parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee. That committee unanimously supported the proposal and it’s worth noting that one of the members of the committee at that time was current National Party Leader Christopher Luxon.
The AA Survey
The AA surveyed its members in April and they received almost 7500 responses, though they note they received “a lower proportion of responses from people aged 18-34 compared with Auckland’s population and a much higher proportion of responses from males aged 55-64 than for other age bands“.
However, as you’d expect, their members aren’t thrilled about the idea of congestion charging with just 14% liking the idea, though that does appear to be up on the 11% in their last survey. They also note that support was higher (at 24%) for just a charge on the city centre. Unsurprisingly, opposition to the idea was also much higher for those that would most likely incur the charge due to their current travel patterns.
The two aspects that caught my attention the most, though, were about discretionary trips and how people would respond if congestion charging was in place.
First, on discretionary trips.
We asked regular commuters to indicate what proportion of the trips they make at peak times could be avoided or changed in some way. The results surprised us.
Around half (53%) of city centre commuters indicated none of their trips are discretionary. This suggests the remaining (47%) could change the time or mode of at least some of their trips.
The results were similar for motorway and main roads commuters. Just under half (46%) said ‘none’ of their trips were discretionary, implying just over half (54%) have at least some scope to change the time or mode of at least some of their trips.
Around half of all trips being classed by respondents themselves as discretionary is a huge number. The only caveat to this is that because the AA is under-represented in the 18-34 age groups and the responses they did get suggested those groups drive at peak times more, so perhaps the actual Auckland percentage would be lower. But even if it was half that, at around 25% it’s still a huge number.
I also wonder how many of those ‘discretionary’ trips are in the half of all trips that are less than 6km – from the congestion charging report.
What’s important is how people would respond to congestion charging and while most people will still drive, a large number of people would change when or how they travelled, or would not travel at all. That’s significant and exactly the outcome congestion charging is intended to achieve. Also, while 10-13% mode shift to PT and active modes may seem like not that much, given stats NZ data from the last census showed around 3/4 of all trips are in a car, 10% of a large number is still a large number.
Note: somehow the responses add up to more than 130% for each of the two trip types.
When you also include time-shifted driving, it adds up to a significant shift in peak travel patterns, much more than the 8-12% the Congestion Question report hoped to be achieved through the introduction of congestion charging.
While the survey itself is interesting, the some of the recommendations are all about stalling the idea and even include this gem suggesting we should use revenue to in part widen roads.
Spending on the right stuff
Congestion charging revenue should in the first instance be used to fund alternatives to paying the charge. It is also likely that some revenue would need to be spent on minor road improvements to address displaced congestion. (Before implementing congestion charging, London invested in road widening around the charging zone to ensure the scheme would be successful)
Calling for more roads to address congestion is nothing new for them and they did so in May after releasing a congestion report.
And even if the government agreed to that, where would you even be able to widen roads within or nearby the congestion charging areas above?