Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Is Budapest congestion pricing heading for disaster?

That’s a question raised by Erik D’Amato in an article on the English language Hungarian website “Pestiside”. He also includes a good map of the proposed cordons.

He fears the following:

- Corruption means that the money set aside to implement the system gets siphoned off before it is completed, leaving it half finished;

- Technical failures;

- Mass evasion due to poor design;

- It is too successful.

Interesting perspective, and given I’ve been to Budapest a few times I thought I’d respond.

1. I can’t comment on possible corruption around funds for the system. I have heard plenty of anecdotes over the years about suppliers and operators of toll systems bribing their way into contracts, but none of it is hard evidence to report (of course if anyone actually has any, I’ll publish it). I wouldn’t have thought Hungary was necessarily worse than its neighbours though.

2. The risk of technical failure is real, and that’s because the timeline to get it designed, installed, tested and for publicity to users to be presented is ridiculously short. London’s scheme was designed to be deliverable in less than three years and be foolproof. Budapest cannot do it in one year without throwing serious money at it and using expensive expertise from other countries. I haven’t seen evidence that either is going to happen. HUF 15 billion (US$66 million) is a tight budget in that timeframe. My view is that one needs at least two years from a decision to operation to get a reasonable chance at reliable operation, assuming there are no legal or planning restraints in the way.

3. The risk of mass evasion due to poor design is for the same reason as technical failure. The timeline is too short. The article cites risks of people falsely registering as residents inside the cordon and of vandalism of equipment. Both are real, and need to be addressed by design. These are not the only risks of evasion and fraud, but you need a good six months of intensive design work on the ground and at desktops, with consultation of traffic and parking enforcement bodies (and staff) to identify and address these issues. Answers could include changes to policy, boundaries or may not be easily addressed with changes to the law.

4. The “too successful” risk is easier to address, as it is a function of price and design. That should be dealt with by modelling demand, which takes into account the likely higher value people put on paying to drive on what were free roads, compared to the parallel use of the same money for discretionary purposes. Again, this needs some work and should result in the design of the cordons, and pricing of cordons in a way that optimises traffic flow rather than bluntly just charges all that crosses. In Budapest, I would have thought that charging in evenings and most of the weekends would be undesirable, and that charges during the middle of the day should be much less than at peaks. However, that requires some work, which I doubt can be completed in a year in time for a system inauguration.

I would like Budapest to succeed with congestion charging, because the city does have a congestion problem and it is a positive step to shift towards such charges as a way of supporting transport infrastructure. It also would be a good demonstration of how it can succeed in a major post-communist era city. However, I share concerns that there are big risks that this can go badly wrong, not least because the timeframe for its introduction is short, I’ve seen little evidence of sufficient work having been carried out to allow it to proceed or for major issues to be confronted.

I hope I am wrong or that the city takes at least 12-18 months longer to get some help to address those issues.   Although it is important that the city address its looming funding shortfall for public transport, it would be worse if its main attempt to do so becomes a disaster, embarrassing the Mayor, city officials and those charged to get it right. 

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