Fairness on the road

Road tolls don’t deprive people of options, they add travel options for all, improving the quality of life.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, was first published by the Financial Post.

Andrew Coyne’s slam-dunk case for combating congestion with toll roads rather than public transit made a believer of Matt Gurney, who in a response column last week agreed that even great public transit systems have failed to cure congestion and accepted that toll roads are inevitable, both to raise revenue and to address increased congestion that will accompany population growth.

But Gurney nevertheless remained uneasy with Coyne’s argument, on grounds of fairness. “Put tolls on the roads, if you must,” Gurney said. “But the other side of the bargain has got to be giving people an option to avoid those tolls in a responsible, efficient way.… for those who’d love nothing more than to transit their way to work and back, give them a chance.”

Here’s the good news for Gurney. Road tolls represent the only chance for relief for most who take transit as well as for most who drive. Moreover tolls — or as Coyne puts it, pricing roads the way functioning parts of the economy are priced — give everyone responsible, efficient options they didn’t have before.

Gurney correctly predicts that road tolls won’t deter many people from using the roads, but that’s because tolls don’t need to. As a rule of thumb, removing just 10% of the vehicles on a congested stretch of road solves the congestion. The road then becomes free flowing, carrying many more vehicles than it did when congested, just as water trickles out of a clogged pipe but flows smoothly when the blockage is removed. In fact, highways that are priced dynamically — the price goes up when road use starts to get heavy, down when traffic eases — experience no congestion at all.

The desire for ‘fairness’ is precisely what has crippled public transit

The current “physical and mental health” costs borne by commuters that Gurney laments would then ease as they’d spend less time on the road: Tolls would let them sleep in, or give them more family time, or more ease of mind knowing that their trip time was predictable.

Who are the 10% who would be deterred by price from commuting at rush hour? Some would be independent tradesmen or businesses who would rearrange their schedules to avoid stretches of road at pricy times. Some would be entrepreneurs who had flexible schedules. Some would be office workers who would decide to car pool to share the expense, or to switch to express buses or other easily added transit. Some wouldn’t even be commuters — they might be shoppers or tourists or suburbanites who get together with friends in the city over coffee, all of whom would have the flexibility to avoid peak times.

Over time, the demographics of the commuter would change, too. Many businesses and individuals locate outside cities to avoid high real estate costs, reasoning that they will save more moving to a suburban location than they’ll spend on travel. With tolls changing that calculation, some will move back into the city and, of course, many that planned to move out would reconsider, eliminating tomorrow’s commuters. Likewise, some suburbanites working in the city would decide to switch to a job in the suburbs. Through the price mechanism, a healthy new balance, undistorted by the false economy of “free” roads, would result.

Cities that have used price to ration use of downtown roads have seen benefits across the board. After London introduced its pricing scheme a decade ago, the average speed of buses in the downtown area immediately increased by 15%-20%, making bus ridership so attractive that it grew an astounding 23% within just one year. But the improvements brought by tolls gave others attractive new options too. Taxi use rose 20% because trips took less time and cost less, bicycle use increased 20% too. More people shared rides, more walked, accidents dropped. And that was accomplished with a limited tolling system. Singapore, long the world leader in city tolling, is taking tolling to a new level, with satellite-based city-wide tolling that will change prices on the fly to eliminate all congestion hot spots, offer drivers a choice of routes to minimize costs, and also a choice of parking spots, to rid the roads of drivers slowing down traffic by circling city blocks in search of parking.

The high-profile alternatives to tolling — subway or rail systems — are no alternative at all, at least not for the great majority. In Gurney’s Toronto, for example, the various subway routes proposed by provincial and municipal politicians would be so underused, and thus so expensive, that many billions would be lost, leading to fare hikes for all Torontonians and less transit use than would otherwise occur. The proposed subways — designed to relieve a two-hour morning peak problem at a couple of existing stations — are so wasteful, in fact, that the transit system could save at least $1.5-billion by inducing some to ride earlier through free rides during the two hours preceding the morning peak, according to a recent study by the Consumer Policy Institute.

Ironically, the desire for “fairness” is precisely what has crippled public transit. Until politicians got into the game, transit systems were run strictly for profit, meaning they ran buses, streetcars and subways where justified by the demand for them. Then politicians, in the name of fairness, forced transit systems to serve unprofitable low-density routes, leading to impoverished transit systems that soon lost the ability to grow organically.

If politicians got out of the game, transit systems would soon gain new customers, justifying new routes and new amenities for long suffering transit users. If Singapore-style tolls along all city streets came in, transit would be all the preferable for users, and all the more profitable for transit operators, justifying more investment and more options still. Prices matter. They help make everything fair.

Lawrence Solomon is research director of Toronto-based Consumer Policy Institute and executive director of Energy Probe.

More on tolls by Consumer Policy Institute

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .

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