Are we ready for road pricing?

Stephen Rees’s blog

The amount of coverage that Martin Crilly’s report got surprised me. After all it was not as if he was saying something new, or that anyone was bound to act upon his recommendations. The only substantive issue covered was would he approve next year’s fare increase if the Mayors endorse it. All the rest was editorial.

Stephen Rees

Stephen Rees

In an opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun, Craig McInnes forecasts that it will be up to the province to decide if the Evergreen Line gets built.  Which is also hardly a stunning insight. The decision to build the Canada Line that was forced through the former Translink board was achieved by “promising” that the two lines would both be built. And there is both federal and provincial money lined up to do that. Just no way for Translink to come up with its share. The Canada Line is now open, and there is no sign that the Evergreen Line will ever be built.

McInnes accepts Crilly’s assertion that there is now spare capacity in the transit system. He also endorses the idea that simply increasing capacity has not been enough to tempt people out of their cars and onto transit – which, of course, has not happened to any great extent. Transit ridership grew but only as total demand for transportation grew – transit share of the market has hardly changed. Therefore, the argument goes, since just providing capacity “didn’t work”, we need sticks as well as carrots.

I am not sure that this analysis is adequate. Firstly, the claim about spare capacity is new to me. It is not backed up either by figures in Crilly’s report or, so far as I am aware at present, in figures that Translink has made available. As I noted in my previous post, Crilly says that he has seen unpublished data at Translink. I regret that I am not prepared to accept his word for that. Firstly, because I have too much experience with the way that Translink creates its ridership “data” – and any statements about capacity utilisation have to be based on ridership data. But secondly, given that Translink is in a desperate cash crunch and badly needs to convince us all of its situation, why has this data set not been made available publicly?

But passenger demand was not just driven by new and more frequent services. The biggest increment in demand was due to the introduction of the UPass – and we are still seeing significant impacts on operating costs of that decision. Much of the new capacity that will start next week is to relieve overcrowding on routes serving UBC. Wherever this “spare capacity” might be on the system it is certainly not on Broadway. (And maybe Gordon Campbell cares more about his tube to UBC than the north east sector?)

There are indeed passenger counters at the new Canada Line stations. But they have only been working for the last three weeks. I have heard talk that the small number of passenger counters installed on a few buses are not proving reliable – but that’s just talk. And it also reminds me of the time when we first started getting data from the electronic fareboxes. The idea that everyone would swipe their ticket when they boarded a bus was quickly relinquished even before the new machines were put into use as they were not “swipe” but “dip” – which meant it took too long to board if all pass holders lined up and waited for the machine to return their pass. But, if we had data on cash payments and transfers – as well as good survey data on pass usage – we could factor up  farebox data to produce estimates of boardings by route and time of day. A huge advance. Except the service planners refused to even look at the data, since it did not confirm their “professional judgement” of ridership. The absence of “good survey data” was also a handicap. We had some data, but not nearly enough to be confident at the route and time of day levels.

So unless things have changed greatly since I left, I remain skeptical. But I also recognize that the bus operators themselves have a vested interest – and an on going campaign – on overcrowding and pass ups. And Translink themselves are saying that on Tuesday morning, when school starts again and everyone is back from their vacations, there will be overcrowding and stress on the system. As they always say just before Labour Day every year. If there really were plenty of capacity on the system to absorb new riders – as Crilly and by extension McInnes assert – then, surely,  there should be no problems on Tuesday.

The figures are needed since it is essential to understand how much capacity we now have, how it is utilised, and how much more would be needed if some or all of these new “sticks” were to be deployed. Forget road pricing for a moment (that is the least likely after all) Translink had its own parking tax quashed by the province, and the prospect of  increasing the current sales tax on paid parking vanished with the switch to HST. ICBC commissioned a study on pay as you drive insurance years ago – and has sat on it ever since. We know it would work, we know it would also be a much better way of allocating risk – the more you drive the greater your chance of a collision. ICBC refuse to even discuss the idea- even with the man who wrote the report for them!

But let us suppose for a moment that a sudden light goes on somewhere in Victoria and some new and really effective policy is introduced that changes the way that people view the cost of driving. Now we have a good example of that – the dramatic rise in gasoline prices to $1.50 a litre here and $4 a gallon and more in the US not so long ago. And, as far as that goes, the increase in unemployment and the loss of easy financing, that has encouraged more Americans than ever to try to use their transit systems. All over the US demand for transit has increased, and car use is down. But not a single system can cope with this – they simply do not have the operating funds. Every system is both cutting service and raising fares because its tax base has fallen due to the recession. We can see quite clearly what happens when you start applying the “stick” but also have inadequate capacity to cope with demand. All you have to do is set up a Google news alert with the search term “transit” and you will get a page full of links to US local news sources bewailing the current crisis of transit there every weekday morning (it quietens down at weekends).

I will even accept, for the sake of argument, that there may be some spare capacity on Translink – but I cannot accept that there is anything like enough to cope with the sort of shift in mode share that we actually need to see to make any real difference. And, for the want of anything better, I will restate that in 1999 we said that 11% mode share was not good enough and that by 2009 we should be at 17%. Without seeing any data, I am willing to bet that it is nothing like enough to accomodate that sort of shift from single occupant cars to transit.

Road pricing is a very good idea indeed.   It was a very good idea in 1967, too, when Gabriel Roth published “Paying for Roads”. At that time the technological requirements seemed a bit like science fiction. These days, that is no longer the case. But it is not the technological issues that have held back road pricing. There is nowhere, yet, that has adopted a comprehensive system that charges for road space that varies by location and time of day. There are a few places that levy a flat fee to enter a central cordon. There are a few others that charge varying amounts for queue jumper lane usage depending on congestion (so called HOT lanes – High Occupancy or Toll). If Metro Vancouver were to adopt regionwide road pricing it would be unprecedented – and for that reason alone I think it is unlikely. But even if we accepted some system that made the best use of available technologies – such as GPS satellites and cell phones – I think it would still take a great deal of time and effort to create the necessary billing and payment system, even if we could resolve the obvious concerns about privacy.

It could be done, but it would require a major shift in public opinion. Because the reaction that can already be seen is the common belief that we have already paid for these roads through our taxes – and that we are “entitled” to use them whenever and wherever we want to. The notion that road space at peak periods is a scarce resource that is either rationed by queueing (as we do now) or pricing is way beyond common understanding. Not that that could not be overcome. But again that would take time and resources.

Oddly enough, we do have a provincial government that prefers user fees to taxation for government provided services. They just promised us another income tax cut, which they promptly took back in higher MSP fees. Post secondary education used to be supported by taxes, now it is supported by fees – and student loans. We now even pay to use provincial parks – and we always have had to pay for healthcare services such as ambulances and prescription medications. So in terms of political dogma there should be no problem. But then there is the prospect of public outrage such as we saw over the vehicle levy (a flat fee not related to road use at all) – or, come to that, the HST. Which they seem to be sticking to despite the furore and fuss.

We cannot use a cordon price system here. We no longer have a single, dominant central place that creates a “many to few” (origins – destinations) morning commute. We also have very little through traffic in downtown to be diverted to a ring road. Geography also does not help. Simply tolling water crossings (another much discussed option here) misses off the predominant movement east-west on the Burrard Peninsula which has no water crossing. Congestion is widespread, but occurs only at limited times of day. So a real road pricing system is needed which varies the price by location, direction of travel and time of day. A driver westbound towards the Port Mann at 7:30am (lots of congestion) ought to be paying much more than one southbound on Highway 99 at 9:30pm (none at all). And it needs to cover more than just the major and provincial road networks if there is not to be a major impact through diversions to minor roads.

At present Gordon Campbell seems to be in denial. He was on the box again last night saying the Evergreen Line will be built. He is convinced that Translink has the resources even though the Commissioner doesn’t. And nor does anyone who knows much about the system expect there to be discovery in the next month that will turn up more than relatively small sums compared to what is needed. Actually, the decision not to proceed with the Evergreen Line is one of the easier ones. After all, we don’t have it now and thus won’t miss it. That is not the case with the the current threat to transit service. If that is cut – and it costs more to use the system – there will be significant anger. And I can only hope that it is directed at Gordon Campbell – since it will be the result of people doing his bidding. But history shows that it was Translink that has always borne the brunt of the consequences of Premiers’ incompetences (and there has been plenty of precedent there).

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