Saturday, June 02, 2007

A user-pay solution to traffic congestion

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman

Over the past 40 years, London, like every other city in Canada, has been on a road-building spree: Virtually every major artery has been significantlyexpanded, yet the traffic congestion is worse than ever. What can be done?

It’s evident that simply building and expanding ever more roads and streets in growing cities like London will not solve the problem. Experience from around the world suggests that no amount of road construction can keep pace with the rapidly increasing numbers of cars in countries that are blessed with sustained economic growth.

Some environmentalists contend that a hefty increase in gasoline taxes would eliminate traffic congestion, although there is no evidence to support this contention. Throughout Western Europe, many cities are plagued with massive traffic jams, despite modern roads and gasoline taxes that are more than two and three times higher than in Canada.

Many cities in Europe and North America have found that a combination of reduced fares and better service for mass transit can persuade some commuters to abandon their cars, but not nearly enough to end traffic jams. It’s a safe bet that even if mass transit were free, a large proportion of urban commuters would still prefer to travel directly to their homes,workplaces and other destinations by automobile despite the inconvenience of traffic jams.

Commuters are all the more likely to travel by automobile, when it’s not they, themselves, but the entire community that has to pay much of the costs for traffic congestion in the form of higher greenhouse gas emissions as well as expensive delays in moving people and merchandise. Moreover, these costs are not at all trivial. Transport Canada recently estimated that traffic delays cost nine large urban areas more than $3 billion annually.

What, then, can be done? Robert Lindsey, a professor of economics at the University of Alberta, commends the solution advanced by Ken Livingston, the socialist mayor of London, England, who is popularly known as “Red Ken.” In an illuminating commentary for the C. D. Howe Institute entitled “Congestion Relief: Assessing the Case for Road Tolls in Canada,” Lindsey points out that Livingston first invested in additional transit buses during his inaugural term in office and then, in February, 2003, levied a new system of road tolls called the London Congestion Charge on motorists driving into a 21-square kilometer area in the centre of the city between 7:00 am and 6:30 pm on weekdays.

Vehicles entering this core area are identified by cameras like those used on Toronto’s 407 toll road that automatically photographs the licence plates of passing vehicles. This efficient system is a considerable money maker. Under terms of the Greater London Authority Act, all of the revenues generated by the London Congestion Charge must be used to improve the city’s network of roads, streets and facilities for mass transit.

So far, Livingstone’s initiative has proven to be hugely successful. Both traffic congestion and automobile pollution have been considerably reduced. And virtually all in the city have benefited: Everyone who still drives into the heart of the city encounters fewer traffic jams, while all others enjoy the advantages of improved mass transit, including faster bus service on congestion-free roads and streets.

Of course, a system that works for a vast metropolis like London, England, might not be suitable for many smaller cities. However, Lindsey points out in his commentary that over the past 20 years, the Norwegian cities of Bergen and Trondheim – both less than half the size of London, Ontario –have also come up with systems for charging motorists entering into their downtown areas that have been successful in reducing congestion, cutting pollution and raising considerable revenues for improving urban transportation and financing environmental projects.

Lindsey makes a compelling case in his commentary for having Canada’s largest cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – experiment with roadtolls. Politicians and city engineers in smaller cities like London, Ontario, should also give serious consideration to this idea.

Make the polluter pay is a sound principle. And there is no better way to make car drivers pay for their pollution than through a system of road tolls that are well calculated to cut greenhouse gas emissions and ease traffic congestion.

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