Chances are if you drive in a city, you’re familiar with the pain of rush hour: the highway that slows to a parking lot, your car creeping along at 10 km/h — maybe 20 if you’re lucky.
This week, a New York plan to fight congestion by putting a price on driving into central Manhattan came one step closer to fruition. If it becomes law, drivers will pay an automatic toll starting in 2021 whenever they drive into that specific area. The exact price will depend on the day and time.
It’s known as “congestion pricing” and while it’s common around the world, it hasn’t really caught on in North America. Here’s why some experts say it should be viewed as the solution to both Canadian congestion woes and the high cost of improving infrastructure, even as they worry such a change is not likely in the near-term.
“There are some cities, New York being one of them, that are unafraid to be bold and willing to try new things, eager to go first,” says Shoshanna Saxe, a professor of sustainable urban infrastructure in the University of Toronto’s civil and mineral engineering department.
“Toronto has a harder time with that.”
Toronto has the dubious distinction of being one of four Canadian cities in the top 100 of the TomTom Traffic Index global congestion ranking. Vancouver leads the pack in the 34th slot, while Toronto comes in at 73, Montreal at 86, and Ottawa rounds it out at 91.
How congestion pricing works
Most are familiar with road tolls. You pay a fee to drive a highway or a series of highways and those tolls tend to go up or down depending on how far you drive on a given road. Congestion pricing tends to be more zone-based.
Although the exact systems vary by city, the goals are the same: reducing the number of drivers clogging up the roads. Singapore, which has had congestion pricing long enough to work through some of the bugs, moved to an electronic pricing system in 1998.
Singapore found that by putting higher pricing during rush hour times, it was able to more evenly distribute traffic throughout the day. As a result, travel speeds during rush hour rose 20 km/h. And when officials noticed people starting to speed in the moments before the pricing was about to rise, they introduced five-minute buffer zones and people safely slowed down.
In Stockholm, the pricing is specifically for the city’s centre. People are charged when they drive in and they’re charged when they drive out. The pricing system, which has been in place since 2006, is linked with a drop in traffic, an increase in public transit use, as well as decreases in traffic pollution.
What’s interesting is that the policy “wasn’t particularly popular” at the start, says Dale Beugin, executive director of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, which produced a 2015 report on “why pricing traffic congestion is critical to beating it.”
In fact, Stockholm initially introduced it as a pilot program because the majority of people opposed it. Seven months later, that same majority voted in a referendum to make it permanent.
“There’s something about really experiencing those benefits that’s different than just being told about those benefits,” Beugin says.
That’s where, at least so far in Canada, the stumbling block seems to be.
“The costs of this kind of policy are really visible,” he says. “You’re paying a price but the benefits of that policy are a little bit more abstract, harder to get your head around.”
Congestion pricing in Canada
Beugin wonders if New York’s push for congestion pricing is less a desire to try new things and more a result of hitting rock bottom. Congestion has huge annual costs. It’s estimated to cost Greater Toronto $7 billion a year, Greater Montreal $1.7 billion, and Metro Vancouver $1.4 billion.
In New York, he says, “it’s been such a pervasive problem for so long and the alternatives just don’t work very well.”
If approved, the money from New York’s system would be funnelled back into its subway system, which is plagued by delays and breakdowns. That’s ideal, says David Amborski, director of the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Ryerson University.
Amborski remembers when Toronto toyed with introducing a toll on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway that would have brought in roughly $200 million each year. It’s likely, he says, that different councillors would want to use that revenue in different ways — and not necessarily for transit.
“Making transit more efficient while at the same time driving up the congestion pricing will force people’s behaviours to change,” he says.
“These systems really work when you have a transit alternative.”
That’s worth remembering, says Saxe, the University of Toronto professor. You can make it more expensive for someone to drive downtown during rush hour, but “if those other choices don’t materialize, then you have revenue” and the roads will still be clogged.
Still, she cautions, it isn’t a quick fix, especially in cities like Toronto that have historically made transportation network decisions around the use of cars.
“There’s already a lot of people on the system,” Saxe says. “If we’re changing the system, it makes lives hard on the people who are dependent on it and there are real equity considerations there.”