Posted on January 21, 2011
“Solution” to traffic congestion comes down to “let the rich pay” — and the rest can walk?
The alluring subhead on Andrew Coyne’s “Stuck in Traffic,” in the latest issue of Maclean’s, declares: “We now spend the equivalent of 32 working days a year stuck in traffic. Our rush hours rank with the world’s worst. Here’s how to fix it.”
But his solution would create one transit system for the well-to-do and leave the rest of us still staring at the licence plate in front of us — if we’re not jammed on the B-Line.
This is a debate that is coming to Metro Vancouver soon. Without new sources of revenue, Translink will be unable to make new transportation investments.
Transport Canada calculates that congestion is costing the economy $6.6 billion a year in direct costs and Metro Vancouver has the highest congestion costs per vehicle. The number of cars is up, the number of trips is up, the length of trips is up and the average Metro Vancouver commuter spends 67 minutes a day in traffic. (In Toronto and Montreal, set aside 80 minutes.)
For public transit users, it’s worse: up to 106 minutes. Invest in more public transit? Nope, says Coyne, “you’d have to convince a lot of those drivers to give up the comfort and convenience of their cars.” Forget it. Not happening.
The solution? Charge for road use, Coyne says. Impose tolls, put on congestion charges and weed out the people “who place so little value on their time that they are willing to spend years of their lives, literally, sitting in traffic.” This will eliminate the “tragedy of the commons,” when failure to charge for access to a resource leads to overuse.
Coyne is really is talking about a “tragedy of the commoners” caused by letting the less well-off pretend they’re on a level playing field with their betters. Once those folks are out of the way — “taking transit, catching a ride with a friend, walking or simply cutting out needless trips” — the remaining tolled drivers will enjoy rapid, congestion-free commutes. Example: the privatized and tolled Highway 407 in Ontario.
Unless the provincial government relents on its refusal to expand gas tax or carbon tax to fund transit, road pricing must play a role in funding transit investment. Translink has studied congestion charges, tolls, distance-based insurance, vehicle levies and other models. It’s easy to design new fees, much harder to find political will to impose them.
In my view, that’s because social equity is missing from the equation. Many drivers lack reasonable alternatives to driving; they sit in traffic because they have no choice, not because they’re lazy or their time is worth less.
As Coyne points out, the costs of inaction are high, and borne by all of us. To find a solution, however, will require benefits for all, not just those who can afford to pay the toll.