Does business oppose congestion charging?

Projected avoidable costs of traffic congestion (BITRE)

I’m very disappointed with the line one of the State’s largest employer associations, VECCI, is taking on road congestion charging. This issue was raised in a report prepared by consultants Acil Tasman for the Competition Commission’s (VCEC) inquiry into a State-based reform agenda.

Congestion imposes such a high cost on business – whether freight or personal business travel – that I’d expect the great majority of VECCI’s members would be better off with pricing. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics puts the current cost of congestion in Melbourne at around $3 billion per year, rising to $6.1 billion by 2020 with unchanged policies.

VECCI says it is opposes the idea of congestion charging for three reasons. First, motorists already pay both the CBD Congestion Levy and the fuel excise. Second, there’s no spare capacity in the public transport system to take displaced motorists. Third, the economy can’t handle another tax on top of the forthcoming mining tax and the carbon price.

In regard to VECCI’s first objection, the obvious point is that these existing imposts on motorists aren’t working – many Melbourne roads are still congested at peak times. Despite the lofty title, the CBD Congestion Levy is actually a tax on parking. It’s only had a very minor impact on traffic because most drivers don’t pay it personally – their employers do. It isn’t in any event peak-loaded and of course it does nothing to manage the level of through traffic. And as per the name, the levy only applies to the CBD. The $0.38 fuel excise tax (no longer indexed) does reduce the overall level of travel by motorists, but has no appreciable effect on congestion because it doesn’t vary with the level of traffic or time of day.

So far as the “no spare capacity on public transport” objection is concerned, a congestion price only has to remove a relatively small number of vehicles in order to get traffic moving at an acceptable speed. The vast majority of motorists won’t come seeking a seat on the train – they will continue to drive but, rather than pay with time as they do at present under congested conditions, they’ll pay in cash. Their numbers may increase over time, but so will public transport capacity. Also, revenue from congestion charging should be applied to improving public transport and increasing capacity.

VECCI’s argument that the economy can’t handle another tax is about as nakedly political as you can get. Australia is one of the world’s most vibrant economies and has been growing for 20 years. Motorists, both business and private, can afford to pay their way. In any event, a congestion charge isn’t a tax — as the name says, it’s actually a charge. Motorists pay directly for the quantity of road space they use and get a direct and immediate benefit – faster travel. That means motorists who travel more pay more. It also benefits drivers from all income strata by enabling them to reduce delays when they make high value trips. Read the rest of this entry »


Do we want cars in the city centre?

Possible road pricing cordon boundary, inner Melbourne - Clarke and Hawkins, 2006

I’ve noted before that only 30% of commuters who work within the Hoddle Grid – i.e. the area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – drive to work. However only a block or two beyond the city rail loop, the share of work trips taken by car increases steeply to 50-60%, and above.

Peter Parker at Melbourne on Transit offers an explanation. Using Metlink, he found a journey from Laverton station to Melbourne Town Hall in the morning peak takes 33 minutes. However if the Laverton traveller is bound for nearby Docklands (Waterfront City), the trip takes an extraordinary 54 minutes. Anyone travelling from Greensborough station to the same two destinations would have to allow an additional 29 minutes to get to Docklands and if travelling from Cheltenham station an extra 30 minutes.

In other words, once a traveller gets off the rail system in the CBD, further travel to near-CBD destinations is very slow. This is in part because the rail loop was not designed primarily to move people around the CBD and in part because trams are slow. Peter explains:

We have trams but unlike some compact European cities we don’t have a dense metro in the job-dense 2-5km core that allows for fast local travel. Instead for the ‘last mile’ we rely on slow surface modes, notably trams and buses, often without their own right of way.

Public transport’s mode share in the vicinity of Waterfront City is just 22%. This is despite the area having a frequent tram service. Given the huge investment in public transport in the city centre, any mode share below 50% is very disappointing, but the figure for Waterfront City is appalling.

I suspect there are two key reasons for the low mode share of near-CBD areas. The first is simply that the cost of driving and parking in these areas is still reasonably low – so workers drive because they can. Perhaps there’s a high proportion of workers in the CBD fringe whose status attracts a “company car”. Perhaps also there are more institutions like hospitals with shift workers who drive off-peak. The second reason is that movement within the city centre by public transport is too slow. That’s partly because the rail loop is not configured well for intra CBD trips and partly because trams are slowed by cars, particularly at intersections.

The CBD is one of those places where I think it’s very hard to justify commuting by car, given the enormous investment in public transport infrastructure and the extremely high accessibility it provides to the rest of the metropolitan area. It’s such a vital asset to the city as a whole and to the State that its amenity should not be despoiled by the noise, fumes and danger of too many cars.

The Melbourne City Council has proposed some worthwhile improvements, such as a maximum speed limit of 40 km/hr in the CBD (although I’d prefer 30 km/hr) and a plan to eliminate cars, taxis and vans from Swanston Street (although I fear the potential for pedestrian/cyclist conflict has not been fully resolved). Read the rest of this entry »


Will networking make public transport the mode of choice?

What's the biggest danger?

According to a report in The Age last month, new research published in the latest issue of Australian Planner shows that higher suburban densities are not a precondition for vastly better public transport. Reporter Andrew West says:

City dwellers have been presented with a false choice – live in apartments and enjoy good public transport or retain the house and land and rely on cars

The research by Dr John Stone and Dr Paul Mees contends that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.

They say the contribution made by urban consolidation “to recent public transport patronage growth is modest and makes little impact on the density of the whole urban region”. Most residents of Australian cities will continue to live in houses and suburban subdivisions that are already built so “alternatives to the car will need to be effective at existing urban residential densities”.

They argue instead for a ‘networked’ model of public transport. Improving the way existing public transport resources are managed – especially by providing higher frequencies and improving coordination between services and between modes – will yield significantly higher transit patronage in the suburbs without the need for broadbrush increases in density.

I’ve argued before that increasing residential density, by itself, will not necessarily increase public transport patronage significantly, much less shift travellers out of their cars in large numbers.

I’ve also argued that there are generally better gains to be had from using existing resources more efficiently rather than relying on strategies based around huge new infrastructure investments or massive land use changes.

And I think the idea of networking public transport is absolutely critical. By embracing transfers, networking provides faster travel paths to all parts of the metropolitan area than is possible by radial routing.

However it’s not obvious to me that ‘networked’ public transport, by itself, would have the sort of major impact on mode share in the suburbs implied by The Age’s report. I can see that it would make public transport much better for existing users and I’ve no doubt it would increase patronage, but I’m not persuaded that it would be enough to address the ‘false choice’ that The Age says Melburnites have been presented with. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s wrong with cars?

One of the key themes of The Melbourne Urbanist is the need to price road space. Cars will be with us in one form or another for a long time yet, whether we like it or not. Autonomous travel provides enormous benefits but cars also have a dark side, so they can’t just be ignored.

I’m therefore pleased that Bern Grush from Skymeter, a Toronto company specialising in road use metering technology, has given me permission to publish the stylishly written Preface from his forthcoming book, (tentatively titled) Overcoming Global Gridlock.

The book is about the need for road pricing and how it can be achieved. Here he lays out the issues and challenges with the car. But a warning – this is not the standard anti-car diatribe you’ve read countless times before. He’s actually pro-car although, as he puts it, in a balanced way. Read on:

Overcoming Global Gridlock – Preface

“We have reached a crisis point with cars and trucks. We face mounting congestion. We need to reduce both emissions and oil consumption pretty much everywhere. In many countries funding for road building and maintenance is becoming ever harder to sustain.  All the while, demand for personal mobility and goods movement continues to expand. And there is little to indicate many people are willing to give up the private vehicle.

If the autonomous vehicle has so many problems stacked against it, but demand for it is increasing, you can see that something has to give. This is predicted for the coming decade or two.

Cars are important to us. Judging by their use and abuse, the mile-for-mile preference we have for them over other forms of mobility, the growth in their numbers, the increasing number of vehicle miles travelled each year and a hundred other indicators, it is the car we are addicted to rather than oil.  Oil is just one symptom. Most of the sustainability problem as it is now will survive the end of oil.

We can list a lot of bad things about our cars, but there are also a lot of good things.  Perhaps the good outweighs the bad – I, for one, think that it does. There are a lot of reasons we have so many cars and there are many solutions offered to deal with their overwhelming ubiquity. We needn’t review those things here. You already have an opinion. You already like or dislike cars. I am probably unable to change your mind. You already have a car (or two) or wish you had one. Or perhaps you have even managed to get rid of yours. Or not yet. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is road pricing a good idea?

What Americans mean by a 'McMansion'. Click for slideshow.

I’m not aware of anyone who disagrees seriously with the contention that car travel is underpriced. The consequence of this inefficiency is we drive more than we otherwise would and more than is socially optimal.

The idea of road pricing is that drivers should pay the real costs they impose on others through traffic congestion, pollution, noise and carbon emissions.

There’s also another force at play here which exacerbates the problem of excessive driving. There are some costs that drivers actually do pay – standing costs like depreciation, insurance and registration – that are “disconnected” from the perceived cost of travel.

A person deciding whether or not to drive somewhere will tend to take account of the cost of their time plus petrol, but they usually don’t perceive the standing costs. This under-estimation promotes more driving.

There have been various experiments with road pricing, such as the well known Singapore and London central city cordons (giving rise to amusing interpretations such as this one by Boris Johnson). However this is a technologically outdated approach – transponders and/or GIS technology mean it is now feasible to charge motorists in relation both to distance and traffic conditions i.e by location and time.

A driver who paid a price for a litre of petrol that included both external and standing costs would have a strong incentive to drive less. A gauge on the dash showing the total cost ticking over with every kilometre would provide an even more powerful nudge to think long and hard about the wisdom of driving.

Road pricing can be thought of in simple terms as a two-part per kilometre tariff that recovers both external costs and those standing costs that can be disaggregated. One part is a charge reflecting the general cost of using the roads. The other is a variable price reflecting specific costs like congestion in peak periods.

There are potentially some important benefits for the wider community from road pricing: Read the rest of this entry »


Will providing better transit be enough to cope with city growth?

Policies on Public Transport and Private Transport - you can't have one without the other

It might seem counter-intuitive, but you can’t increase public transport’s share of travel significantly unless you simultaneously do something about cars. Yet this simple relationship is usually ignored by governments and lobbyists alike.

Back on 23 August I looked at the question of how our cities could grow larger but still be liveable. Public transport has a vital role in meeting this challenge, but the task is daunting. Notwithstanding current overcrowding on the train system, public transport’s share of all motorised travel is only around 11% in Melbourne and a little higher in Sydney.

The standard recipe for increasing transit’s share of travel is to offer a better product. This is popularly thought of as more trains and more light rail (only occasionally more buses).

It usually involves providing some combination of greater route coverage, higher frequencies, longer operating hours, faster speeds, better connections, more information and higher levels of comfort and security.

Improving quality seems a self-evident solution. After all, the area of the city with the best public transport offering – the CBD – is also the area where public transport scores best against the car. For example, 43% of all motorised work trips to the inner city in Melbourne are made by public transport and this study suggests the figure for the CBD is probably upwards of 65%.

This strategy works – but only up to a point. Consider, for example, the Melbourne inner city municipality of Yarra. It has a pretty high standard of train and tram services, yet 86% of all motorised weekday travel by residents of Yarra is still made by car (or 74% when walking and cycling are also included). Read the rest of this entry »


How to pay for public transport?

Additional revenue from fare increase, Sydney - three scenarios (Independent Inquiry)

I was pleased to see the call earlier this week by The Age’s city editor, Jason Dowling, for tolling of roads to be introduced in Melbourne (Losing our way on roads).

He sees it as a way to reduce congestion and generate revenue for public transport improvements. Road pricing is something I’ve advocated on a number of occasions (here and here), but what particularly caught my eye in Mr Dowling’s article was his opening line:

“Everyone pays for public transport, first through taxes and then through fares, and it is time everyone had access to it, just as they do to roads”.

Few would disagree that Melbourne would be a more attractive place if it were as easy to access a train, tram or bus as it is a car. Somewhere along the line, however, the issue of cost has to be considered. Transport projects are very expensive. The State Government is spending about $2.5 billion on increasing the capacity of Victoria’s rail and road systems this year.

At that rate it will take many decades to improve the capacity of Melbourne’s public transport system. Just one project, the Regional Rail Link, is costing $4.3 billion in total and is only proceeding because the Federal Government is contributing $3.2 billion. Read the rest of this entry »