October 16, 2020

From LA to BC, the Futile Future of Congestion Pricing


On Thursday, the Eno Transportation Centre presented another of their webinars, this one with an irresistible title:

The webinar hosts three authors from the UCLA Luskin Centre for History and Policy who summarize the results of a just-released study:

We examined a century of programs to reduce congestion and found that several strategies were pursued over and over again in different eras. Los Angeles repeatedly built new street, highway, and transit capacity, regulated drivers and vehicle traffic flows, increased the use of information about traffic conditions, and controlled land use to influence traffic.

So what were the consequences?  No surprise, but here’s the spoiler anyway:

Congestion has been addressed in every era and in numerous ways, but always has returned.

The report gives the details decade by decade – every possibility from expanded road capacity to land use.  Except one:

Congestion pricing … based on proven theory of human economic behavior promoted for a century, proven in application to sectors of the economy other than transportation, and enabled by recent advances in telecommunications technology. It has a proven track record …

Big picture conclusion: except for a handful of cities in the world, congestion (or mobility) pricing is a policy intervention that has often been proposed but never adopted.  Despite the fact it works.  And may be the only thing that does.

TransLink, the Province, Metro Vancouver – they’ve all studied the issue, most recently in 2018 with the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission.  The conclusion was the same: some form of road pricing makes sense.  And then saw the concept under whatever name rejected by most political leaders literally within a day of its release.

Within a few hours of the Eno webinar, there was another Zoomy opportunity to get a local perspective.  A coalition of transportation interests – Moving in a Livable Region – held an all-candidates forum online with representatives from each party:

In a response to a question by Peter Ladner on the need for mobility pricing, the parties were effectively of the same position.  Nothing’s happening anytime soon.   Harrison Johnston of the Greens would consult more, George Affleck of the Liberals wouldn’t say, but turned the question on Bowinn Ma of the NDP to defend the removal of tolls from Metro’s bridges.

She was unequivocal:

From 58:22

Any decongestion charge must … work in a way that is socially just.

I have to be clear: it’s not in our platform … and John Horgan has stated very clearly today that it would not be supported by our government …

On the question of fairness and equity, the UCLA study is particularly interesting – and comes to a counter-intuitive conclusion:

The most vocal debates about the possibility of testing congestion pricing in Los Angeles have been about fairness. Equity challenges to the idea of charging for something that was previously free are  common, and likely even more so following the spring 2020 demonstrations against policy brutality and anti-Black racism.

Congestion pricing can be quickly dismissed as a tool to speed rich white people to their destinations while charging working class indigenous people and people of color to drive on roads they have no choice but to use. …

.. several authors have shown that congestion pricing in fact tends to advance the wellbeing of lower-income and nonwhite communities. The perception that congestion pricing would harm the poor and non-white residents is intuitive, but not empirically supported, and works to promote the interests of upper income drivers who would have to pay dramatically more under congestion pricing than would the poor.

So here we are: parties across the political spectrum are using equity and affordability as a protective argument to reject (or delay any action in the name of further study) the one thing that actually works.  And in doing so, they sacrifice their other priorities, from good land use to action on climate change, in an unstated but de-facto defense of motordom.

Regardless of who gets elected in BC, it looks as thought the result will be the same.  We’ll call for action, we’ll commission studies, we’ll approve plans, we’ll spend billions.   We just won’t do what works.

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  1. I’m probably the least qualified person to comment on this, but it seems to me that the way to address the fairness and equity objections is to direct the proceeds from congestion pricing to public transit. That does two things – it benefits transit users, who tend to be at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and it provides a necessary alternative to driving that congestion pricing would require.

  2. Congestion pricing works in Europe. Low income car and transit passengers can get rebate
    so the program can be implemented in BC. Another mistake is continuing to offer FREE parking at all the Hospitals.

    1. Congestion pricing and road tolls is NOT very common in Europe. A few cities like London or Stockholm have it for inner cities. Some highways are tolled, like in France, Italy or Switzerland. Germany does it but only for trucks not for cars.

      While the overall concept makes a lot of sense everywhere and is now easy to implement due to GPS and widespread ability to track vehicle movement, it is nevertheless NOT very common NOR very popular.

      Why is that ?
      Editor’s Note: Switzerland does not have tolled roads. You pay an annual tax on your vehicle called a “vignette”.

      1. NYC will implement congestion pricing in 2021 and I think other big cities will follow. Many cities have extra charges when you pay for your car insurance.

  3. This is still a relatively new idea. Not tolls, but using pricing as a tool to manage congestion doesn’t yet go back a generation. This is a big change. A necessary change. But so was abolition. Black rights. Women’s Rights. LGBTQ rights. Big changes take at least one and usually two generations. They just do. Old farts who will never ever change their mind need to leave this planet. Look at climate change, a much more critical overarching problem. The necessary changes are beginning to show themselves and are finally getting public buy-in two or three generations after the problem was identified – more than a full generation after it should have been understood by the general public.

    Not saying we should just expect that it will happen in two generations. It is the same vested interests behind inaction and they’ll make sure that those who are opposed will think it’s their idea. We still need to keep pushing, commenting, letter writing, pestering politicians, talking to friends. But these things almost never take less than a generation.

  4. Mike Buda of the Mayors Council posted in the chat during that zoom webinar something about CRED:
    Credits, Rebates, (E something) and Discounts, as a way of addressing equity.

    Yes, this needs a lot of public education, but when/where will that start???

    The Mayors Council got this far (https://www.translink.ca/Plans-and-Projects/Mobility-Pricing.aspx), then got stuck in political traffic.

    Why don’t groups like the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition want to touch this???

    Someone should sponsor radio traffic updates, with a simple message:
    “Stuck in traffic? Fed up? Had enough? Want a quick solution?
    There is a simple, proven way to get rid of this gridlock.
    It costs a fraction of the billions you will pay for highway expansions.
    Interested? Visit http://www.xxxxyyyy

  5. Congestion pricing is political suicide and always will be in North America. Any government foolish enough to bring it in will see themselves promptly vote out in the next election by their opponents who will campaign on scrapping the tax. Vancouver isn’t central London with a warren of narrow streets the needs are different.

    1. “Always will be” is an awful long time. We eventually accept all sorts of things our gum-flapping grandparents would not have put up with because they experienced the past but their kids live in a different world with different needs. Their grandchildren just accept it as necessary and normal.

      What you are talking, Bob, about is conservative governments, unable to progress.

      1. Conservative gov ? Was it not Christy Clarke’s (right of centre aka conservative) gov that put a toll on an expensive bridge just to see a Green-NDP coalition cancel it ?

        1. Without the tolls (or the promise of tolls), the Liberals would never have been able to sell or build either the Golden Ears or Port Mann bridges. They didn’t “put” tolls on them.

          1. PM bridge was tolled for about a year, then NDP realized that the Surrey swing ridings didn’t like it so they promised to kill it once elected, and did in 2017, with the “green” coalition support. That one seat advantage (40 seats plus 3 Greens) was enough to boot Christy Clarke with 42 seats. Otherwise, she’d still be premier today AND (tolled) Massey Bridge would be well underway, too.

            Good politics – bad policies !

            As stated, no party is proposing tolls anywhere, or congestion pricing in MetroVan, although it makes a lot of sense esp with ever more EVs and thus, plummeting fuel surcharge revenues to BC Government, regardless of who wins next week. As such, it will come by stealth most likely.

          2. And yet governments have been able to crank out billions to deal with Covid, so there goes that argument about needing a toll to finance bridge construction.

          3. The Port Mann tolls were not fair and it was good politics but not good policy to end them. Having said that, those south of the river were quite willing to pay the toll for a shiny new bridge if it brought an end to the bottle neck. So it is also unfair to everybody else that they ended. They made their bed.

            What should have been promised was a fairly allocated system of tolls on all the choke points with variable pricing. I will never forgive the NDP for that missed opportunity. The NDPs short reign has been a constant string of missed opportunities. The Greens were certainly not going to challenge their new political partners so early in their weak relationship position. They were never wagging the dog as many liked to claim.

            While it’s certainly true that the tolls would likely remain if the Liberals got in, it was not congestion pricing. And they’d be forging ahead with another sprawl-inducing bridge. So as much as the NDP has been pretty disappointing they were still a big improvement IMHO.

          4. “Sprawl” is what citizens aka voters aka tax payers want. They want SPACE ie houses or THs with a yard, not tiny condos. Did we not learn from the Covid reaction?

            Sprawl is techo-speak by urban density lovers for “leafy suburbs with ample space for kids, toys and work/study from home, ie 4-5 BRs not 2-3 for the same price, at a slower pace, with more distance to your neighbor”.

            If we want to increase Canada’s population, which seems to be the stated goal of almost all parties, then “sprawl” is the consequence, especially post-Covid with rising SFH homes prices in the burbs AND the No 1 dream of every immigrant, namely to own a house (and not be a renter or live in a tiny condo). Europe-style density is OVER as we see from their mass panic and continued high infection rates eg Italy, UK, France or Spain.

            Cancelling Massey bridge was a grave mistake. A wider tunnel would have been OK too, of course. But doing nothing was a very weak response. As weak as cancelling tolls and doubling down on it as John Horgan just did AGAIN this week. https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/vaughn-palmer-horgan-drops-reminders-of-bridge-tolls-liberals-lengthy-baggage-train

            Perhaps some debate about this would be useful. The world has changed.

          5. There is a very big difference between the perceived desire to own a single family house and the “desire”(?) for sprawl. If you want a stand alone house and haven’t won the lottery you have almost no choice but to take what the municipalities, suburban developers and the real estate industry conspire to give you.

            Notwithstanding the desire for many to own a single family home, the reasons many can afford one is because the lifestyle is heavily subsidized and because of the belief that it will go up in value and is therefore worth the risk of investment even if you can’t really afford it. Yank the massive transportation subsidy and that risk could blow up and leave you under water. We’ve allowed – even encouraged – that lifestyle to be built on a house of cards.

            There is so much stress in our culture and a lot of it comes from the desire to have what is not actually in our best interest. Don’t kid yourself that a big reason you believe you want that house is because of massive amounts of sales and marketing.

          6. Subsidies? Suburban developers or existing home owners pay HUGE fees upfront to cities and ongoing property taxes, utilities and/or gasoline taxes. Far FAR more than your avg condo dweller or renter.

            The issue is indeed that road use is not expensive enough especially as more and more EVs, electric delivery trucks or eBuses show up and as such gasoline taxes will drop and have to be augmented with congestion fees, esp during peak hours when current demand exceeds capacity. Also, the advent of more and more online shopping is indeed relying far too heavily on free road use. That has to change and the UPS, Amazon, CanadaPost or Fedex e-vehicles will have to pay some sort of per km charge.

            Unfortunately even the BC Greens do not even mention this topic and or support the wrong NDP policies of “no tolls” which is not exactly green.

            What is missing in this context also is rowhousing or townhouses as an affordable alternative to a SFH as they provide 4-5 BRs in a 3 level TH plus a yard. Very common in Europe. Unclear why there are so few in BC.

  6. Road pricing is inevitable. It is the only thing that works, and it makes sense. But to do it, it needs to be integrated with the transit fare and bridge toll to be one universal public infrastructure charge. Transit users use:

    Operator Labour
    Physical infrastructure – primarily roads for buses, the buses themselves and metro systems

    And road users use:

    Land – that all the roads are on
    Physical infrastructure – roads, lights, bridges and tunnels
    Other road users time by getting in there way – this is the congestion cost
    Much less labour – some police and medical to patch people up from car accidents

    Transit users and road users use different types of public resources with road users using more land and transit users using more labour, but both groups do use public resources. (Fossil fuel users also use the atmosphere, but I’m leaving that aside for the moment.) So a logical system charges transport system users for their use of public resources in an equal way. Thus the toll and the fare are merged. Not only is this eminently sensible, it is also eminently fair.

    All transportation is currently heavily subsidized, and to remove it all at once would be a serious shock to all of us. And there is also a social service aspect to the subsidization of public transit, and sometimes the same thing for roads. But the public subsidy could be left in place while also merging the toll and the fare.

    There is also the environmental cost of using fossil fuels, but that is handled by the fuel tax and the carbon tax, and I wouldn’t mess with that. With the phase out of fossil fuels in the coming decades, this ought to be less of an issue. Although there are other harmful materials and processes used in transportation, and we can expect to see charges for their use in the future.

    It would also make sense to then get rid of the property tax, fuel tax and hydro tax components that are currently used to fund transportation and transit have have that consolidated into the merged toll and fare. (The “tollare”.) Now to be honest, the actual economic cost of the use of land for roads and the cost of congestion are difficult to calculate, so the charging of road use will be highly inexact. However, if the goal is to make the roads run freely without congestion (will we ever need the speed cameras) then the tollare will likely be quite similar for road and transit users.

    Removing the bridge tolls was the worst thing that the NDP did. Just having tolls over the Fraser and nowhere else was not fair, but bridge tolls were a bridge to a universal road tolling system that eventually could have been merged into a universal tollare. Removing the tolls did not make the bridge free, it only meant that instead of the bridge users paying for it, the cost was transferred to all taxpayers. And the idea that it had anything to do with equity is absurd. They why not make public transit free? Or even bread? It was just socred style blacktop politics. Gaglardi would have been proud. But now all parties are terrible on this issue and our step backward had been made more permanent for a time.

    1. The irony is that transit users pay a toll with every boarding in the same context as congestion / road tolls.

      I’m not an advocate for free transit, but reasonable fares are justified. And the thing is, the “toll” collected at the pre-pandemic farebox finances half of the transit operating costs in Metro Vancouver.

      Of course, infill and urbanizing the suburbs with rail-linked walkable neighbourhoods (the town centre model urban design still needs work to humanize them better, though) will act as its own congestion charge as people save money, experience true convenience with walking everywhere and lose the millstone around the neck of owning an outrageously expensive hunk of SUV and F150 machinery that fast loses its appeal as an extension of one’s sexual apparatus when impotently stuck in gridlock.

  7. How about a vehicle levy based on the number of km you travel. Each time you renew the insurance you pay for it. Low-Income people will be exempted or pay a sliding scale. see the BCPRC. However time and time again it has been proven by various surveys that on average BC residents pay the lowest taxes of any province so it is about time the provincial govt establish a commission to study taxation and make recommendations based on recent experience in other parts of the world. I am sure one of the recommendations is to copy the FREE Transit model.

    1. Pricing per km only is too crude as some km cost a LOT more to build, ie bridges or tunnels, or are worth a lot more ie urban streets where land is millions per acre whereas roads in rural or sub-urban settings are far cheaper.

      It needs to be a combination of vehicle weight, time of day, per km AND choke points.

      Keep in mind roads are also utility corridors in almost all urban areas.

      Also keep in mind that any road/congestion tax will eventually end up in pricing, like PST, GST or carbon tax.

      Undiscussed in this context is also government inefficiency ie excessive pay to an often bloated bureaycracy – so that discussion too has to be had if one wants to increase taxes/fees.

      Particularly aggravating are heavy or slow vehicles ie trucks that pay nothing but damage the road, congest them and pollute too (ie diesel trucks, worse if gassed up in the US for cheap). Once Amazon, Fedex, CanadaPost or UPS delivery trucks pay say 10 to 25 c per km online shopping might be actually better monetized for cities, esp since many switch to eTrucks soon and won’t even be paying gasoline surcharges. (Of course double parking will continue most likely).

      Given that our provincial politicians are unable or unwilling to see it – at the moment at least – likely MetroVan will take the lead here so NDP & Greens, the new provincial overlords for the next 4 years most likely, can hold their nose and blame MetroVan and not object.

    2. The disadvantage of the pure distance model is that is doesn’t factor the time of day of travel. Even now, in the midst of covid, there are distinct busy periods and distinct slack periods. The social cost of road use is strongly dependant upon the level of congestion and that is dependent on time of day. But it would be cheaper to implement.

      1. The has to be big increase in mode split in Metro Vancouver in favour of Transit and Active Transportation. However so many people bought cars during COVID that just returning to mode split of pre- COVID will take few years. Improvements are needed by all 22 cities in
        Metro Vancouver which in many cases will not start for few years.
        We be lucky if we have a better overall transportation system by 2030.

        1. I’m no duke of data, so my Statscan skills are limited, and the best smallest geographical constraints I could get are BC, Yukon, NWT and Nunavut together, but in that region, auto sales are well off the pace in 2020, as I would expect in depressed economic times.

          2019 January to August 146,486
          2020 January to August 104,930

          The national numbers show the same trend:

          2019 January to August 1,367,891
          2020 January to August 978,790

          There is nothing in here that says automobile sales are going to push transit and cycling mode share down. I think covid is doing that all on its own. And with serious extensions of the Expo and Millennium Lines, mode share is looking good by 2030.

          1. As you know the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition is just a name and it is not comparable to other Advocacy groups in ither Cities.
            SFU UBC KPU can help by getting more forums but need a solid transit advocacy group to tell the public the ” truth” about all the inactions of TransLink and member municipalities to really improve transit and active transportation.

          2. I didn’t know about Better Transit and Transportation Coalition. I have heard of it before, but I think that I conflated it with BEST before. I take it that you have something to do with them. I looked at the map of proposed improvements, but it looks out of date now as there are more improvements actually in planning than on the map.

            But if you think that there is a truth to be revealed, why not just reveal it instead of being mystical about it?

  8. A couple of comments late in this conversation.

    London’s congestion charge was said to have indeed lowered traffic counts by private autos in the core and brought in lots of revenue that in turn was invested in part in hundreds of modern red double decker buses. That’s one for the Plebes.

    My sense is that within a year or two after a mass vaccination program to defeat — or at least diminish — COVID, transit and the urban agenda will return to the forefront, but likely subsetted with work-from-home policies, practices and design.

  9. As a professional urban planner, while I understand that in theory these policies work and have been successfully employed in places such as Europe, we can’t consider them in the Lower Mainland until housing affordability is addressed. With housing prices north of the Fraser so unhinged from median incomes, many families have no choice but to live in more affordable markets such as Maple Ridge, Langley, or Abbotsford. My hope is that companies will embrace the new normal of allowing remote work flexibility and/or suburban satellite offices (very common in the GTA) to reduce the number of people commuting daily to downtown Vancouver.

    1. Housing prices will remain ‘unhinged’ as long as detached homes exist on 4,000 ft2 lots in a city where there is no greenfield land left. A $3.5M South Vancouver house comes with a lot of very expensive open space. Mountain Math pegged the ratio around 3:8; 30% of all housing occupies 80% of all residential land in Vancouver. One word for that is sprawl. Another phrase is land shortage.

      One of the best solutions? Build more houses at low-rise scales in the 80%. Lots more houses. But use less land per unit. Ergo Missing Middle. Geometry, urban design, architecture, economics — these are the fields waiting to work at counterpoint to exclusionary zoning and its resulting highly constrained land supply, which is one of the biggest catalysts of the affordability crisis you never hear about amidst the melodrama about foreign money. It is profoundly sad that the majority of Vancouver councillors, including some so-called progressives, are so anti-development that they can’t see the practicalities of providing politically neutral opportunities for a plethora of Missing Middle solutions. The towering up and political maintenance of Old School sprawl continues as the result.

      Need evidence of this solution? A half-century before the zoning bylaws were written, the standard 33-footer was taken and subdivided in half crosswise over hundreds of lots in several older neighbourhoods at the edges of the old CPR land grants. Two lots became four, and so forth. 110 years later these lots — all with detached homes — are legal non-conforming ~1.0 FAR which were occluded after the fact under the same zoning cloak as standard lots. The half lots are in big demand and sell very quickly for about 1/3rd less cost than the neighbouring full lots. Most of these houses have suites, in effect a built-in family income booster. Hundreds of thousands off the comparative list price, and more income. Does that not close the median income-housing affordability gap by several notches? Moreover, much of that housing can be purpose built as ground-oriented, fee simple family homes which will in turn support school populations and underpin local high street businesses and services.

      Why are folks waiting for prices to never come down when there are already answers that do just that while also boosting incomes? Though I will argue just as vociferously as the next guy in favour of urbanizing the suburbs with transit and poly zoning as a sustainability issue, I certainly do not see the logic of promoting that as an alternative to the local solutions that have been around for a long time.

      Another example: In these same older neighbourhoods two and three-storey apartments were built in the same era on standard 33-footers interspersed near arterials. Today’s stupid kerfuffle about duplexes and constipation on anything more than laneway homes (triplexes, quads, rowhouses, low rises …) in Vancouver’s vast low density neighbourhoods seems now like an ideal way to maintain high prices.

      The architecture profession has the creativity and site-planning skills that could offer “attached” single-family homes that are free-standing, private, and completely independent of any association with the adjacent townhouses, not unlike zero-lot line commercial properties today, and therefore a strong argument to not impose strata title on them can be made.

      One third less cost, an increase in income, independence, more efficient urbanism and made in Vancouver … what’s not to like about that?

      1. I completely agree with you Alex, you know your stuff 🙂 Most of my projects are exactly that- compact single-family lots with legal basement suites. Non-strata rowhomes will also become a great option for families once secondary suites are made legal in most municipalities. It’s amazing how much density can be achieved with these forms in older large lot areas without dramatically changing neighbourhood character.

    2. House prices are bonkers in the lower mainland, and in much of Canada, but the idea that the areas outside the core are filled with lower income people forced out of the city is not borne out by the facts. Actually the outer areas are not lower income, but of similar income. They are just people that prefer more space for their money, and I don’t begrudge them that. Too many townhomes and condos in the city are too small and awkwardly designed. So they decided to trade in higher transportation cost for more space.

      Anecdotally, a large percentage of Vancouver residents could not afford the home they live it if they were to be in the market today. So bonkers house prices are not result of everyone in Vancouver being rich, but rather some people being rich and driving up the prices of all homes.

      I have to disagree that dispersed work places will lead to lower commutes. This was in fact exactly what happened in the post war world. In Vancouver as in most cities, most jobs were in the centre, be it office, service or manufacturing. But now they are all over the region. Manufacturing and service in particular, but also office. Even cities like New York with massive CBD office districts actually have more office space outside of Wall Street and Midtown than within those areas. And most cities are like that. Calgary is something of an outlier is keeping most of its office space in one CBD. But the result of this dispersion has not been to shorten commutes. It might be theoretically possible for everyone to live closer to work with dispersed workplaces, but it doesn’t work in practice. Many families have two people that work outside the home, or change jobs frequently, or change homes, or commute to post secondary education. The actual result of the dispersal of work has been to change the commute pattern away from home to downtown to everywhere to everywhere. And by making the commute more diffuse, it has also made it less amenable to transit commuting and more reliant on automobile commuting.

      1. This is why SkyTrain to Langley is a bad idea. It doesn’t solve that problem – only exacerbates it. The money would be better spent interconnecting mass transit in a network within the zone that people are more amenable to transit for all uses – not just commutes.

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