Wednesday 31 January 2024

Don't make road pricing a tool in a "war on cars"

The BBC website, under its “Future Planet” science-based section, published an article on 23 January 2024 called “From London to New York: Can quitting cars be popular?” It has received quite a bit of acclaim, but although the article does make a case for the benefits of reducing car traffic in major cities, it is largely one-sided in a way that, largely, “preaches to the choir” about a wide range of policy measures with the objective of making driving less attractive in cities.

Road pricing is a powerful policy tool that can significantly improve the efficiency and the environmental impact of a road network, as well as providing an efficient way to fairly recover the costs of capital and maintenance of the network and ensure demand does not overwhelm supply. It can also generate net revenues for improvements, or simply net revenues as a return on the capital tied up in the network, for complementary purposes, such as improving infrastructure for alternatives.

However, undoubtedly the biggest barrier to implementation of road pricing is concern that it is a tool to penalise and punish, or to tax, rather than a tool to deliver better outcomes for those who choose to pay, as well as those who benefit from less congestion and well-maintained roads. This includes those riding buses on them, walking, cycling and those who live, work or own businesses, or community facilities adjacent to roads.  It is extraordinarily difficult to convince the public and as a result, many politicians, that any form of road pricing should be introduced, because many don’t believe there are benefits to them from pricing roads.  It is difficult enough to convince people that electric cars should pay a distance-based road user charge, because they are not subject to fuel tax, let alone convince people to pay governments to use roads directly.

This article doesn’t help in changing that perception.

There are real perceptions about a war on cars, the article cites someone who produces a podcast called “War on Cars”, so it isn’t entirely a conspiracy theory. There have long been policies to discourage car use in cities, whether it is removal or caps on parking, slower speed limits, traffic light phasing or reducing road capacity. Road pricing can have a range of objectives, but to treat it only as a tool to reduce driving, rather than also a tool to improve the conditions for those who remain on the road, is a mistake.

There are precious few congestion pricing systems in operation around the world. In Europe there remain only five cities of scale with congestion pricing: London, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Milan and Olso although plenty more have investigated it (and a few Norwegian cities with toll rings that exist primarily to raise revenue).  Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai all have pricing systems, and further east is Singapore. New York will be the first in the US, but Lower Manhattan is very different from pretty much any other urban area in the US.

The reason for this is public opposition. 

It’s absolutely true that after pricing is introduced it generally gains better acceptance, as sceptical drivers notice that the impacts are not bad, and in some cases improve conditions. This is certainly the experience in London and Stockholm, although it was not the experience in Gothenburg, because Gothenburg’s congestion tax was applied far too broadly, in geographic and temporal terms (to locations at times where/when there was no congestion). Opposition after it was introduced persisted for some years. A referendum held a year after it was introduced in 2013 saw 57% oppose it, but it was ignored as local politicians had committed to spending the revenue on large projects (and there was no other means to pay for them). 

The article quotes Leo Murray, director of innovation at climate charity “Possible” saying “We can't find a single example of a traffic-reduction measure that's been in place for more than two years that's then gone on to be removed because of a lack of public support”.

Well, I can. It’s the Western Extension of the London Congestion Charge. It was introduced in 2007 and removed at the end of 2010. It was removed because it was poorly designed (it granted residents in one of the wealthiest parts of London a 90% discount for driving into the central zone), poorly focused and implemented for partisan political reasons (the Mayor of London wanted to target a wealthy area, but perversely gave them discounts to drive to the centre of London that poorer area residents did not have). 

So, in short, you can’t just introduce road pricing and assume the public will accept it. Note the Stockholm congestion tax referendum is cited as giving its scheme approval, but in fact the referendum was held across many municipalities across metro Stockholm, where a majority voted against the congestion tax, and it was only by ignoring those other municipalities that it was said that the majority voted for the congestion tax. Stockholm Municipality voted for it, but only consists of 38% of the population of metro Stockholm. Had the votes in all Stockholm municipalities been taken into account, it would have been a vote of 52.5% against road pricing.

Again, the article seems to be dismissive of how hard road pricing is to introduce.

The article returns to London with the correct point that the congestion charge was more popular after it was introduced, but with the closure of the Western Extension, the congestion charge in London has the same geographic scope as it had when it was introduced in 2003, which is roughly 1% of the area of metropolitan London.  It hasn’t expanded because there isn’t the political will or public support, in no small part because congestion in central London has essentially returned to pre-congestion charge levels.  It is difficult to convince the public that expanding the congestion charge will reduce congestion, when the existing charge has not kept up with demand, and when significant amounts of road capacity is reallocated from general traffic to cycling and walking capacity.  London was a success, but why has no other UK city (Durham doesn’t count in this context) have a congestion charge?  It’s fairly basic – too many of those advocating for it, don’t want to deliver any benefits to those who would pay it.  Furthermore, it’s simply wrong to cite the ULEZ expansion and ignore the significant opposition to it.  

New York’s implementation of the Central Business District Tolling Program is cited as a key example, and questions whether New York has learned from elsewhere, although it is a stretch to call it congestion pricing.  The article says “The scheme will also operate a fluctuating charge system, with smaller fees during off-peak hours, providing flexibility”. The charges don’t “fluctuate” unless it is meant that they have just two time zones over a 24 hour period (which are different during weekend. Off-peak is… 2100-0500 weekdays. Unless you are currently driving around 2000 or 0530, you probably don’t think this is “flexible”.  The London Congestion Charge has shorter operating hours, and although it is a flat fee, 0700-1800 weekdays provides a bit more flexibility to avoid it. 

Its program is designed primarily to raise revenue for the ailing subway network, which is desperately in need of capital renewal.  Reducing congestion and emissions matter, but it has been designed, in terms of hours of operation and scope, to raise money.  This is all very well, but lower Manhattan is hardly translatable to most other cities in the USA. I’m sceptical as to whether it will generate more than some more studies in the next five years, just because of the tendency of many engineering consultancies to simply look to “copy and paste” what is done in another city onto whatever city they are commissioned to study.  That would be a mistake and would take road pricing backwards in any city that simply commissions a quick study from people with no experience on the topic, to just “do a New York”.  This is what happened in the UK for a few years after London (although Manchester had quite a different scheme design), and nothing came of it.

The BBC article goes off-topic when it claims Oregon is “considering following suit”, by saying it is testing a “more extensive system” based on vehicle-miles travelled. No it is not. This is the OReGO program, which is testing road usage charging (RUC) as a way of charging electric and other ultra-fuel efficient motor vehicles to use all public roads in Oregon, as a replacement of state fuel taxes. It is absolutely not planned to reduce car traffic, and is not focused on cities. It is about sustainable and fair charging of light vehicles to pay to maintain the road network, and it is really important to keep these objectives distinct and different. 

I hope New York can spur wider interest in the US for congestion pricing, and not on the basis of overly simplistic drawing a cordon around a downtown area. There are a range of different solutions, depending on the definition of the problem, but regardless of what is considered, it is extraordinarily difficult to get social licence, so to speak, for congestion pricing when a key objective is not to reduce congestion and improve travel times for those that are expected to pay.

In that context the global examples worth citing as success stories are Singapore, Stockholm and the evolution of the Oslo toll ring to a congestion charge.  London as a success story lasted around five or so years.  The world is littered with studies that went nowhere. Hong Kong has been studying congestion pricing for nearly 40 years, Copenhagen, Helsinki and the Netherlands more generally have tried and failed due to public opposition.  Consider that many would perceive those cities (and country) to have enviable standards of public transport, and levels of cycling, and it is still difficult.

Congestion pricing can deliver so many potential benefits for cities, firstly by freeing up sclerotic networks that drag productivity and efficiency down, by adding to the cost of freight and the cost of services needed to make cities function.  So much is invisible, because it is not delivered by government, but electricians, plumbers, builders, painters, tilers etc, all can do less at higher cost, because of congestion, and almost none of them have any modal choice.  Road freight supplies the food, the clothing, the consumables (toilet paper!), the appliances and building materials that keep people alive and keep infrastructure maintained.  Then there are people who need cars for specific trips, either because of where they are going or what they are carrying, or more generally there is urgency in a trip, such as for medical purposes or an urgent appointment, or a flight.  Big cities work well with all modes well catered for, and operating efficiently, but buses can't always have their own lanes, and get caught up in traffic.  

Roads that enable traffic to flow efficiently help all of this, they also help contain emissions by not wasting fuel on either idling or erratic stop/start movements (this includes EVs), and improve access, as gridlocked streets hinder everyone (let alone emergency services from time to time).  It is entirely understandable and logical to seek to reduce car traffic on some city streets, because of how space inefficient they are, but cars have their place. In central London many users of the congestion charge are occasional drivers, on one-off trips for any variety of reasons (e.g., medical appointment, collecting a purchase) and the use of taxis and rideshare services reflects demand that is met by more car use elsewhere.  Road pricing can deliver significant modal shift and can reduce travel demand, but in doing so it shouldn't be seen as a tool to punish drivers, but just the application of a concept (price) to an underpriced and scarce resource - road space.

While I always encourage those seeking to promote road pricing, the record of the past 25-30 years (since technology has made electronic pricing feasible) is that it is very difficult to implement because of public acceptability.  Seeing it or promoting it as a tool to wage “the war on cars” just makes that even more difficult. 

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