November 27, 2020

Congestion Charging is so last century. Welcome to the new age of Transport Pricing

When I first heard about the proposal for ‘Transport Pricing’ in the City of Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan that went to council a few weeks ago, I thought, sorry, that’s a lost battle.

The political capital required to start ‘taxing the road’ is so high, reports that recommend it – like this one – are typically dead on arrival.  As elections approach, political leaders jump over each other to reject anything that looks, sounds or smells like a toll.  Here’s Bowinn Ma from the NDP, passing along the blunt words from John Horgan (who won the 2017 election by taking tolls off the Port Mann): “I have to be clear: it (congestion pricing) is not in our platform … and John Horgan has stated very clearly today that it would not be supported by our government …”

Not that it matters.  Congestion charging as it has been demonstrated in a handful of cities so far, notability Singapore and London, is way out of date – so 20th century.  Using gantries, cameras, IED passes and other visibly intrusive technology to establish a geographic cordon for pricing entry and exit for one particular part of a region will never pass the fairness test.  Why wouldn’t we include other places – for instance, the North Shore – where congestion is bad and getting worse?  (Minimally, there will have to be ‘discussion’ among the municipalities on either side of Lions Gate Bridge.)

Again, so much more political capital required.  Add in an equity requirement*, and good luck in getting a majority vote.  That’s why so few cities have done it.

So I was impressed when Council, by a bare majority, voted to support the part of the report that had actually recommended Transport Pricing (despite media, and my own, perception of what was being proposed).  Staff, having played in this rodeo a few times before (a previous report listed 14 examples), really wanted one key thing from council:  ‘Authorize us to develop a road map that will get us to Transport Pricing (TP).  Do not take it off the table, ship it off to the region, qualify it into irrelevance or remove any deadline for response’ – and that’s what they got.

An approval in principle is a powerful tool.  Other municipalities and levels of government start to pay attention, as has happened in almost every working example of TP so far.

Actually, despite the expected hysteria (road pricing is the new bike lanes!), it was never intended that a specific pricing mechanism would roll out in the first half of the 10-year plan.  Implementation would occur starting around 2025, still in time to reach the transport target (two-thirds of all trips by foot, bike or transit) by 2030.  In the next five years, the latest technologies and strategies would be explored, consultations occur and partnerships with the region and province established.  (Implicitly, the expectation is that climate change crises, combined with technological momentum and financial necessity, would make transport pricing no longer politically suicidal but politically inevitable.)

Also, not at all coincidentally, by 2025 the Broadway line will be up and running along with more reallocated road space for bus priority lanes, providing the increased transit service that every critic demands before vehicle pricing is implemented.  Further, if 11 percent of road space is to be shifted from vehicles to other modes or for more public space, as already mandated by council, then TP is essential.

(Why such a specifically odd number as 11?  Well, New Westminster had previously made a motion for 10 percent – so, you know, Vancouver has to lead. And strategic leadership is what Vancouver does well – not by being first but by being successful. Our version of TP will aim to do the same.)

Singapore is regarded as being the first in congestion pricing using gantry technology now regarded as clumsy.  They’re trying to move to per-kilometre pricing and more mobile technologies, and Vancouver is watching carefully (while other technology innovators are watching us.  Within a day of Council’s motion, providers were already calling up Dale Bracewell, the Manager of Transportation Planning.)

By 2025, the focus is likely to have shifted away from traditional car-commuter congestion to how we charge users for curb space (looking at you, Amazon), how we integrate all forms of mobility into service plans, how we charge third-party providers as we do cell-phone services, how we manage automated vehicles from hover boards to trucking fleets – and how we get the most efficient pricing.  Imagine an urban-freight bidding war for designated space.  Fun stuff. **

We can’t with precision predict the interactions of technology change, social responses, new ways of doing business (like how much working-at-home is likely to continue) and, of course, real-estate prices and land-use changes.  Indeed, we may need another crisis like a pandemic or climate catastrophes to provide the political and social backbone for such a transformation at the speed required.  (Nature will provide; think of the pandemic as a practice round.)

But in Vancouver, concern about climate change is deep-seated and broadly felt. There is enough demand to require action, enough of a consensus to justify risk.  While anxiety and political calculations about TP may change, the goal is not so much the adoption of a particular application to deal with congestion as it exists now but to move towards flexible responses to accommodate growth while ensuring reliability in the transport system as we address climate, air quality and safety.

That was what the motion about Transport Pricing was really about.  Details to follow.


*The application of an equity lens is the distinguishing mark of a woke politician, and the current council in particular.  Staff will be expected to figure out how not to negatively affect ‘disproportionately impacted populations’ – leading everyone to figure out how they can get exempted.  (Hey, I’m a gay senior with bad hearing.)

**The first test for council’s sincerity will not be TP but  in another motion that calls for a report back by the second half of 2021 for residential parking permits on a city-wide basis.  When the equity lens is applied, the debate over who counts as disproportionately impacted will be a racial, class and neighbourhood fun-fest (though the more appropriate descriptor would begin with ‘s’).

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  1. Sadly, the NDP has emerged in BC as the enemy to responsible environmental conservation, as well as clean energy. This is of course understandable from a political perspective. A unified right, Liberals in BC both before and following the emergence and then death of Social Credit, were the enemy of workers and workers’ rights. It is and will be difficult to overcome this history and bifurcation of the province’s body politic. We’ll just have to pass over congestion pricing for the time being. The best that can be hoped for is that freeway construction and improvements in the larger urban areas will be overcome by sound transport policy and support for active transportation.

  2. Motorists entering the core are now the minority. The majority of the minority cannot vote in Vancouver.

    Case closed.

  3. The line “road pricing is the new bike lanes!” made me laugh. Maybe this Transport Pricing will make bike lanes a little less scary in perspective? Id take that as an unintended win!
    Another thought… Every city seems trying to magically erase congestion. How is the idea of abolishing minimum parking requirements not something often mentioned?!