Vancouver Province column: Why London-style congestion fees won’t work downtown

Congestion pricing continues to be on the front-burner for many cities. It’s obviously a tough issue that regions are struggling with. It’s an emotional topic too.

I penned the following column for the Province this past summer.

Why London-style congestion fees won’t work downtown
Published: Monday, August 20, 2007
Motorists in the Lower Mainland have endured a deluge of roadway headaches this summer, from traffic jams on freeways and bridges to construction-related delays across the region.
But they haven’t had to face what motorists in New York City might eventually be contending with: Paying tolls to enter the city core.
Though it’s far from a done deal, the U.S. government last week pledged $354 million US for a plan to ding drivers of cars and trucks between $8 and $21 to enter Manhattan during peak hours.

Backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this is a bold attempt to deal with worsening gridlock in North America’s largest metropolis.
Across the Atlantic, congestion charges have already been introduced in London and Stockholm. Both cities have enjoyed success in easing traffic and reducing greenhouse gases, thanks to the fee. Other major North American cities are now flirting with this idea, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Should Vancouver toll drivers who enter the downtown core or a wider swathe of the city centre? Some would say yes.
But while the inner cities of London and New York may be well-suited for congestion tolling, I believe Vancouver’s downtown is not.
That’s because many of the worst traffic jams in Greater Vancouver take place far from the downtown peninsula — at the bridges, tunnels and arterial roads in this region’s outskirts.
Even advocates of congestion pricing agree about this.

Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, says tolling drivers to enter downtown would only address a fraction of the city’s traffic woes.
“Congestion pricing can be done badly, and it needs to be done well,” he says.
Litman maintains that the fee works for cities with good commuter options, but that our region “has done an only mediocre job of improving public transit.” Then, there’s the issue of dollars and cents to pay for all of this.

Do we really want to create an expensive bureaucracy just to collect a new tax from downtown-bound motorists? Finally, there’s the issue of fairness. This kind of toll hurts suburbanites who are forced to drive to the city core from places like the Fraser Valley because of a lack of public-transit alternatives.
And that brings us back to the feisty New Yorkers.
According to an opinion poll cited by the New York Times, well-heeled Manhattan residents support the congestion-charge proposal — but folks from other New York boroughs, including Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, do not.

That sounds like the kind of urban-suburban divide that Metro Vancouver does not need in 2007.
So before jumping on the tolling bandwagon, let’s instead get on with the business of fixing our region’s current traffic and transit crunch — an outcome that would be appreciated in Whalley or the West End and all points in between.

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