Do public transport and road pricing go together?

Animation of US expansion from 1700-1900 - post office openings

It surprises me who’s still lukewarm about congestion pricing of roads. I’d have thought the focus on the carbon tax over the last year would’ve heightened understanding of the role of the price mechanism in managing resources better. Obviously governments find it too hard politically but even organisations like The Greens and the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offer only heavily qualified support for congestion pricing.

The PTUA doesn’t support congestion pricing in the absence of alternatives, arguing that it would be unlikely to win community support and would be socially inequitable. It’s position is public transport must first be improved to a competitive level. The Greens take a similar view. Senator Scott Ludlum says the party believes a congestion tax “would be an unfair impost unless significant improvements to public transport and other non-driving modes of commuting, such as walking and cycling facilities, are made at the same time”.

What this means in practice is neither organisation has much to say in favour of congestion pricing – neither could be regarded as a staunch advocate of this potential reform. I think that’s a real pity because congestion pricing and improvements in public transport go hand-in-hand. They are the veritable horse and carriage – you won’t get one without the other.

Cars are a very attractive transport option, especially in our dispersed cities. But even the streets of a dense city like Manhattan are full of cars. We could wait generations in the hope that land use changes will make Melbourne so dense that cars will necessarily become a minority mode. Or we could ignore the probability that motorists will shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles or to ones powered by alternative fuels and instead bet that higher fuel prices will drive cars off  Melbourne’s roads.

But waiting and hoping aren’t a good basis for policy. Realistically, we can’t expect Australians will forego the private benefits of a car unless they’re forced to. The only reason most CBD workers don’t drive is because they can’t – traffic congestion and high parking charges rule driving out. Even so, around a quarter of CBD workers in Melbourne still drive and that proportion rises pretty rapidly to 50% and higher once you move even a few hundred metres away from the city rail loop. It would be a bit hard to argue they make this choice because public transport isn’t good enough.

Investing in public transport without simultaneously constraining the car will only achieve a modest increase in public transport’s existing 15% share of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Consider that Melbourne’s train, tram and bus system would cost an unthinkable amount if we had to build it from scratch today – hundreds of billions of dollars – yet 85% of motorised trips are still made by car. It should be obvious that simply providing the infrastructure isn’t enough.

Congestion pricing is the only way to reduce the considerable competitive advantage cars have over public transport (in most situations) within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It’s therefore the only way to significantly increase public transport’s share of motorised trips. Of course good public transport has to be in place at the time congestion pricing is introduced. But what The Greens and the PTUA are missing is that you have to positively and enthusiastically embrace both.

The efficiency case for pricing is very strong and rejected by few. It’s the only practical way to manage traffic congestion. Its great virtue is that it prioritises travellers according to the value of their trip purpose. It also reduces accidents, as well as transport-related emissions and pollution.

The key concern of those with misgivings is the equity implications of congestion pricing. I don’t think it can be doubted that richer people will be better placed to buy road space. But I think there are a number of other issues that also need to be considered here. Read the rest of this entry »

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Do we still need to conserve water?

The Silk Road - one of 108 Giant Chinese Infrastructure Projects that are reshaping the world (click to see rest)

It seems the water conservation message is starting to recede as the Government and water authorities come to grips with the breaking of the drought and the oceanic task of paying for new infrastructure like the desalination plant and north-south pipeline. Some small evidence of this trend is evident from the latest invoice my household got from our water retailer, Yarra Valley Water.

Our consumption for the three months to 25 May was 626 litres per day. The invoice has the familiar graphic showing how to convert household consumption to per capita consumption, but there’s no longer any target to compare your performance against. We consumed 157 litres per day per person but there’s nothing to help make sense of that number. Unless you can recall the now-abandoned daily target of 150 litres per person, you won’t know if you’re consuming too much water or too little.

The other thing is water consumption charges still account for only a small proportion of the bill – in fact our 626 litres make up slightly less than a third of the total amount. The rest of it is made up of standing costs for “drainage”, “sewage” and “service” charges, which customers have no real control over*. So even if we worked harder at reducing our consumption, the financial pay-off would be pretty small. The pricing of water continues to offer little incentive for conservation, a point I made nine months ago.

Discouraging water use is now a financial liability for the Government and water authorities. They’re in deep water primarily because the former Government had a political problem – it needed to show it wasn’t out of its depth but had a plan to deal with the drought. But rather than navigate the politically troubled waters of low-cost measures like stronger conservation incentives (for example, by raising water prices) it did what governments usually do – spend big licks of money and rely on the costs being diffused over time across large numbers of customers.

This pattern of spending rather than managing is pretty much standard practice for governments. We currently have the possibility of immense sums being spent to address the congestion and capacity problems of Hoddle Street, when the vastly more efficient solution would be to price access to roads. We have the more likely prospect of even bigger sums being spent to construct a rail line to Doncaster when effective public transport can be provided by bus at much lower cost. Read the rest of this entry »


– Can parking be managed better?

SFpark, San Francisco's experiment with dynamic pricing of parking spaces

I’m disappointed by the discussion of parking in Melbourne City Council’s draft Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030 (note – it’s a big download). There’s an opportunity to improve the efficiency of parking space allocation through using technology and pricing in combination, but Council seems content to pass on it.

The broad thrust of the discussion in the report is that the number of on-street parking spaces will decline over the next 20 years to enable public transport and amenity improvements to be implemented. Council is mindful of the impact this will have on its own revenues and those of local businesses, but is persuaded by the social and environmental benefits.

A key recommendation in relation to on-street parking is that Council “will implement new parking technology systems that allow payment without requiring parking machines or meters (and) will remotely sense and assess parking occupancy”. Surprisingly, this recommendation is entirely unsupported by any explanation or discussion. As far as it goes, it nevertheless sounds good – it’ll lower costs by eliminating the need for parking inspectors and it’ll give drivers more flexible payment options.

What seems to be missing, though, is the opportunity to provide drivers with real-time information about parking availability. More importantly, it squibs the opportunity to improve efficiency in allocating parking spaces by setting a price that’s responsive to demand.

The current pilot project just introduced in San Francisco, SFpark, gives a sense of what can be done. Like Melbourne City Council’s plan, it involves sensors that automatically sense if a parking space is empty. SFpark however will convey that information to drivers electronically via a smartphone app. That should reduce the time drivers spend cruising for parking. According to Donald Shoup, a Professor at UCLA and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, several studies have found that cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in CBDs in the US. He cites a study he did of a 15 block district in Los Angeles where cruising for on-street parking created 950,000 miles of excess vehicle travel per annum, in the process consuming 47,000 gallons of petrol and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.

But the real innovation of SFpark is that prices are adjusted in real time in response to rises and falls in demand. The objective is to ensure that, on average, there is at least one vacant space in each city block:

SFpark will adjust meter prices based on demand to encourage drivers to make trips in off-peak hours and to use parking lots and garages. While high-demand spaces will gradually go up in price, other spaces will decrease in cost……Once a space is found, longer time limits and new meters that accept credit and debit cards will make it easier to avoid parking tickets. Read the rest of this entry »