But in the real world, we don’t live like this, and most of the world’s population has to travel at least some distance to get to work. The more concentrated people live, and the greater the distance they must travel from home to work, the greater the congestion problem. Road capacity is finite, and cities will have to plan around this fixed capacity to have a sustainable future. In many of the world’s cities, there are already too many cars on the road.
The economic health of our cities depends on mobility, and the huge drag on the economy from gridlock in places like Toronto is a stifling disease that needs a cure.
Some cities have already taken action. If, for example,you’ve ever travelled to England, you’ve likely run across the London Congestion Charge.
This fee, implemented in February 2003, is charged to drivers who bring their vehicles into an area of central London referred to as the Congestion Charge Zone (CGZ) between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday to Friday. The standard charge is roughly $21 per day.
The charge was decades in the making and faced its fair share of political challenges, but it can be argued that the results speak for themselves. Government org Transport for London reported in 2007 that the number of chargeable vehicles entering the CGZ had dropped by 30 per cent, while the number of taxis, public transit buses and bicycles entering the zone had risen.
While the goal of the charge was to reduce traffic congestion, rather than improve air quality, some studies have also noted double-digit declines in the levels of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.
The system also runs on a cost-recovery model. Any surpluses after operating costs are covered must be reinvested back into London’s transportation infrastructure.
London created the Congestion Charge Zone for one simple reason – the city was grinding to a halt because of road congestion. Not only did the city come up with a model that makes drivers assume their fair share of responsibility for addressing the problem, it also created a revenue model to repair and maintain crucial infrastructure.
‘Comprehensive mobility pricing’
It takes plenty of intestinal fortitude for a politician to take such drastic action. Canada’s municipal leaders could learn a thing or two as our major, and even not-so-major, cities wrestle with growth-slowing traffic congestion and limited budgets to deal with crumbling infrastructure. We too, must think, and act, outside the box.
The good news is, some of our municipal leaders are.
Postmedia News writer Andrew Coyne recently commented on a report that surfaced from a council made up of Vancouver-area mayors. “Regional Transportation Investments: A Vision for Metro Vancouver” referenced “comprehensive mobility pricing” as a way to deal with that area’s transportation challenges.
Instead of a piecemeal approach of toll roads and improvements to public transit that only have short-term impacts on the number of cars on the road, the idea is for something much more comprehensive and continuous that, as Coyne puts it, manages demand for road space, system-wide:
“Radically, (the mayors) admit that ‘even substantial new investment in transit can’t solve the congestion problem on its own,’ for the same reason building new roads doesn’t: Even if you persuade a few drivers to give up their cars, and even if that speeds up traffic for a time, the benefits are short-lived. ‘Reducing the ‘price’ of driving in this way,’ the mayors note, ‘only stimulates demand and, very soon, more people are making more trips and travelling further.”
Instead, the report suggests the best solution may be to impose a system that charges drivers, but charges them less to use less-congested routes or during off-peak times, and to impose a similar pricing scheme on public transit.
Such a strategy may in fact encourage people to reconsider where they chose to live vis-à-vis where they work, which is believed to have happened to some degree in London, as a result of its congestion charge.
Paying our fair share is the only sustainable option
Reducing gridlock in this manner can also have an economic benefit, since goods and materials can reach their destinations faster. Even more important is the opportunity to create a sustainable revenue model to cover the never-ending costs of maintaining our transportation infrastructure.
Case in point: Here in Ottawa, it’s become an annual summer event for the Queensway, our primary east-west artery, to be shut down over a weekend while an old bridge is swapped out for a new one being built adjacent to it. These bridges are perhaps 50 years old, and here we are already replacing some and rebuilding others. There are 50+ bridges and overpasses on the Queensway between Ottawa’s rural west and east. That means continuous bridge projects for decades to come, without even taking into account the expense of general road repair and maintenance.
Residents may grumble about how over-taxed they are when faced with the prospect of having to pay for their driving habits, but rising gas prices don’t appear to have impacted them much. Far too many suburbanites across the country still opt for an SUV as a commuting vehicle. And don’t forget, the best-selling vehicle in North America continues to be a gas-guzzling half-ton truck.
Despite how much we complain, most Canadians are still not feeling, or aren’t yet prepared to acknowledge, the pinch of our car culture. If we all took our cars out on the road at the same time, no one would be able to move anywhere. We are all part of the problem; isn’t it only fair that we should all share in fixing it?
I applaud the vision Vancouver’s mayors have shown. I only hope they follow through with a bold plan of action that will inspire other Canadian cities to follow suit.
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