Dot-com road hogs like Uber and Amazon will just make traffic worse unless we charge them

The explosion of e-commerce takes our free road space, hurting commuters.

The article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

Montreal commuters spent an average of 52 hours in traffic jams over the course of last year; Torontonians were close behind at 46 hours. While this was half that experienced by the world’s most-trapped commuters — Londoners and Los Angelinos have exceeded 100 hours — it’s small consolation, especially since Canadian cities are speeding into gridlock. Montreal now ranks as the world’s 27th-most gridlocked city, compared to 60th the year before; Toronto is the 53rd-most gridlocked, up from 84th the previous year.

Worldwide, as most cities grow, their traffic also gets jammed. To stop gridlock, transportation planners devise ways to curb the widely fingered culprit — the private automobile — whether by favouring public transit and bicycles as alternatives, or by discouraging driving using taxes and tolls. But the planners fail even when they succeed in pricing private autos off the road, as seen in London, where congestion is steadily rising while private auto use is down.

London’s congestion-pricing scheme, which now hits cars entering Central London with a fee of 11.5 pounds, was initially seen as a great success. With the levy discouraging private cars from entering the central city, traffic sped up impressively, from 8.8 miles per hour to 10.9 miles per hour in just one year after its 2003 introduction. But although the private car has been curbed in Central London — by 2014 the number of people entering Central London in their own car was halved and now accounts for just one person in 20 during the morning peak — in recent years traffic has been slowing. The average speed in Central London actually crawls more now than it did in 2003, having fallen to 7.4 miles per hour (16.5 mph across London as a whole). Journey times in recent years have been increasing in Central London by 12 per cent per year and throughout London by 10 per cent per year.

In part, traffic congestion came of natural causes. London is successful, its growing economy necessitating new construction and roadwork as unemployment falls and population increases by 10,000 people a month. And in part, congestion came of unanticipated causes, some the result of the congestion-pricing system that the government put in place. For one thing, the road space freed up by the decline of the private automobile was soon appropriated by others. Following Uber’s London launch in 2012, the number of Uber and other private-hire vehicles (PHVs) soared. London now has some 110,000 licensed PHVs and an unknown number of unlicensed ones. While in 2014, PHVs accounted for only one per cent of the vehicles entering the congestion zone, today they account for more than 10 per cent.

The explosion of e-commerce has also consumed road space, with delivery vans taking one million extra trips in Central London alone. London-wide, delivery vans now account for 17 per cent of all vehicles.

To better ration road use, some recommend a “smart” charge that would boost the congestion charge at peak hours. But a higher one-time fee per day, a trifling cost of doing business, would do little to curb the delivery vans or the PHVs, which are now exempt from even the congestion fee on the grounds that they are performing a public service. Uber is an especial road hog because of its cloud-based model, which encourages keeping empty vehicles on the road to ensure that one will always be around to quickly pick up a customer. London has some 30,000 Uber drivers.

To prevent the Amazons and the Ubers from clogging city streets for free or next to free, at the expense of almost everyone else in London, the government should abandon the one-time congestion fee in favour of a toll that charges vehicles in proportion to their actual road use. Doing so would reduce Uber’s market share in favour of traditional London taxis (whose dispatch systems avoid “dead miles” where vehicles are passengerless), reduce Amazon’s market share by diminishing its price advantage over brick-and-mortar shopping, and reduce everyone’s needless trips.

How much less would roads be clogged? The answer can be seen in Singapore, which began implementing such smart road-tolling technologies two decades ago. Although Singapore is a city of five million people with a high population density — much higher than London’s — traffic is a non-problem. Because fees for road space better match road use, Singapore drivers spend just 10.5 hours a year in gridlock, comparable to small, low-density cities like Saskatoon. Even during peak hours, commuters experience congestion just five per cent of the time.

But even that will be improved upon. In anticipation of future congestion — being an island nation, Singapore understands better than most that road space is a scarce resource — Singapore plans to introduce by 2020 a satellite-based toll system capable of rationing the use of all city roads via charges based on distance and time of day.

The future of successful cities is gridlock, or not. London provides a dystopian traffic future for us all; Singapore a utopian one.

Lawrence Solomon is Policy Director of Consumer Policy Institute. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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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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