Wednesday 9 February 2022

Can 2022 see congestion pricing moving faster than a glacier?

For all of the fanfare and success of the late 1990s and early 2000s in congestion pricing being launched, it is 2022 and it is still possible for experts in the field to be able to name every single city in the world that has some form of congestion pricing on existing roads.  

However, let me first DEFINE what I mean by congestion pricing.

I do NOT mean the use of time-of-day tolling on toll roads (because toll roads already have pricing applied, it is simply the application of a demand-based rate not a flat rate), nor the introduction of toll or High-Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lanes, which are in most cases the provision of premium priced lanes to bypass congestion on other lanes, not the application of pricing on all capacity in a corridor.  As desirable as time of day tolling can be to manage demand, and as desirable 

It hasn't been because of technology either, it's not technically difficult or expensive to introduce a financial charge on a single or multiple sets of points on a road network.  Nor is it because of doubts about its effectiveness, because pricing is proven to influence demand away from roads at times they are well priced. See Singapore, Stockholm and London (at least in the first few years), followed by Milan and Gothenburg.

Furthermore, when considering the range of issues around urban mobility, congestion pricing is not only proven to be able to relieve congestion, but it also reduces noxious emissions and consequentially CO2 emissions. At a time when so many cities are proclaiming a commitment to addressing climate change, it seems strange indeed that so few bother with a proven policy that enables better use of roads and encouraging modal shift, time of day shifts of travel, and which is more potent that probably any other single intervention to change travel behaviour in cities.

This is not to say there aren't many cities with two other non-pricing interventions:

  • Low emission zones
  • Access control regulations

Many cities in Europe implement these (this excellent website identifies them by country).  However, this isn't pricing. Low emission zones tend to operate 24/7 and are a policy to change the engine type of the vehicles operating within the zone, and access controls are effectively bans or restrictions. 

So which cities have congestion pricing? First let me somewhat discount the ones that exist largely to protect historic centres.  Durham in the UK and Palermo in Italy, and arguably Valletta in Malta (albeit it is more sophisticated than London or Milan, as Valletta charges by the hour).  There aren't many of them, but the characteristics of their local street network are such that it is easier to justify charges that seek to rather bluntly reduce the amount of visitor traffic. An oddity is coastal holiday town Jurmala in Latvia (near Riga), which has a charge imposed during the spring/summer season, largely to control tourist vehicle numbers. It isn't based on time of day, so is similar to the vignette schemes operated in some European countries.

Norway deserves a special mention, because it has seven cities with urban toll rings, not all of which have peak charges. In all cases, they exist primarily to raise money with only Oslo, Bergen, Kristiansand and Trondheim having peak charges to help manage congestion.  Norway has a long history of successfully using tolls to pay not just for new highways and bridges, but also major urban road improvements, by instituting cordons.  So I'd argue that in the cases of those four cities, Norway has congestion pricing as part of the urban toll ring, because it charges ALL trips passing the cordons at peak times.  They are unlike toll roads that are only on a single facility.

Beyond that, the list remains small:

  • Singapore: Remaining the "gold standard", it is on a slower path to transition its technology, but is still the only two cordon plus corridor charging scheme anywhere in the world that prices incrementally purely to achieve an optimum level of service for its road network.  For Singapore, reducing congestion is the goal, because with that comes changes in modal demand that helps sustain more public transport services, reductions in emissions and overall net benefits for the city state in having a more efficient transport network. 
  • London: Despite over 20 years of there being legislation enabling local authorities in the UK to introduce congestion pricing, it is only London (and Durham) that have done so (noting London's powers are under different legislation) in the UK. It remains the only area charge in the world, although Valletta's scheme effectively functions as a more sophisticated one. Its hours are longer, but it is largely the same as it was when it was introduced. Unfortunately, because its gains were not sustained, its example has seemed to inhibit further congestion pricing across the UK.
  • Stockholm and Gothenburg:  These two Swedish cities remain the only two in Sweden to have the "congestion tax", and have managed to evolve their schemes over time. Stockholm's is more about congestion that Gothenburg, which largely introduced the scheme to pay for some large scale transport infrastructure improvements, most of which are not yet complete. Gothenburg's has been far from popular, although resistance has waned in recent years and it has been tweaked to reduce some of the key complaints.
  • Milan: Many Italian cities have permit schemes to access their central cities, but Milan has a congestion charge, which started as a low emission zone. Milan has a complex charging schedule based on vehicle emissions, but is otherwise it is a cordon scheme with a flat charge.
  • Dubai: The Salik scheme in Dubai is one of the few corridor schemes, and in most cases has a flat rate apply on all charging points. It was introduced to manage congestion even though there is no variation of charges by time of day.
  • Abu Dhabi: The newest operational scheme, called Darb, has parallels to Dubai's, but is superior because it is a cordon that does not require tags AND only operates at peak times 0700-0900 and 1700-1900 Saturday to Thursday.  It is still the newest congestion pricing scheme anywhere in the world. 
  • Tehran: Tehran's cordon scheme gives all vehicles 80 days a year of uncharged travel, but beyond that a fee is charged which is dependent on time of day, and a measurement of the duration spent in the charged zone.

Yes New York is under development, and over this year there will further detailed design and consultation undertaken, before a decision likely at the end of the year, but it is still not operational. There are numerous studies underway in cities ranging from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Chicago in the US, and Auckland, New Zealand may yet get approval to proceed this year. Hong Kong is on hold because of the limitations on travel due to Covid 19. Meanwhile, Doha may yet follow the two cities of the UAE in introducing congestion pricing in future years.

So what is it going to take?  Is congestion pricing doomed to be the idea that emerges in one city every few years or so? Has Covid 19 changed travel patterns in ways that make congestion pricing less or more urgent? 

There are a number of factors that affect it. Firstly, the motivations for considering pricing are usually mixed. Many politicians like the idea of revenue that can be used to fund whatever it is that interests them, but the public is understandably reluctant to support any proposals that simply look like a new tax. Few politicians are interested in congestion pricing as a tool to improve conditions for those who drive, to ease congestion and even fewer want it to replace existing taxes. This makes it difficult to get the public on side.

However, there are grounds for some optimism. New York seems likely to proceed, and that will be seen as a demonstrator project for the United States, and may rekindle interest in congestion pricing elsewhere. Yes, the conditions seen in lower Manhattan aren't replicated elsewhere in North America, and in Europe there is always some scepticism about concepts implemented in the US (although it already exists in the UK, Sweden and Italy), but New York will be a step forward in demonstrating how pricing can positively improve traffic and the local environment. 

Hong Kong is unlikely to proceed until Covid19 is behind the region. Auckland has a reasonable chance of proceeding to become the first city with a population over 1 million that is predominantly car dependent to have congestion pricing, but there probably won't be news on that for a few months.

Can we hope that maybe ANOTHER European city might advance congestion pricing? Maybe Copenhagen (again), maybe Dublin, maybe Brussels (already looking to replace registration fees with a time and distance based RUC)? It seems utterly extraordinary that Gothenburg is the last so far in Europe.

In the US, it seems unlikely any more will progress seriously until after New York has implemented its scheme, but with San Francisco advancing a cordon (with charges in some cases based on driver income) maybe it can get further, but the real reward in the US will be for something beyond cordons, towards corridor based charging.

In Asia, with Hong Kong on hold, Jakarta is constantly in the "nearly implementing" phase, but has major structural issues holding it back (particularly enforcement of number plates). 

Is there anywhere else looking promising?

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