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- Bon Voyage
August 5, 2011
WINNIPEG, MB, Aug. 5, 2011/ Troy Media/ – The findings of a recent study on highway and street congestion in the United States were at odds with the approach traditionally supported by politicians when dealing with gridlock.
The reams of traffic data the economists from the University of Toronto analyzed illustrated empirically that “vehicle-kilometres traveled . . . increase proportionately to roadway lane kilometres for interstate highways”. Or, to be more concise, “roads cause traffic”.
The basis for this decidedly counterintuitive conclusion is the three-pronged ‘fundamental law of highway congestion’: “people drive more when the stock of roads in their city increases; commercial driving and trucking increases with a city’s stock of roads; (and) people migrate to cities which are relatively well provided with roads”. Basically, motorists increase the amount they use their cars when there are more roads available. As evidenced in the American statistics, any increase in the amount of road space available caused exactly proportional increases in driving, making it essentially impossible for further road construction to relieve overcrowding.
Answer more than simply adding more roads
In Canada – a country with some of the worst commute times in the developed world – we should take this research to heart. The economists’ data show that alleviating the pressure on a transportation system requires more than simply adding more roads. Also of significance, however, is the researchers’ discovery that just building larger public transit systems is an equally insufficient solution. Because there are always drivers waiting for extra space on the road, a former driver taking the bus only provides the opportunity for another motorist to fill their place on the street, with no change in the overall amount of congestion. When tackling the challenge of traffic, therefore, a more holistic approach is necessary.
Instead of expanding highways and roads, which creates new demand, what is needed is a means of curbing demand. For the Toronto scholars, the answer is to establish a congestion charge – a toll – that drivers pay for using roads. This is likely easier than ever in the digital age, as all vehicles could be equipped with some type of GPS monitoring device that electronically tracks when and where citizens have driven, and charges them accordingly.
If having free roads supports private automobile usage, then this financial disincentive encourages citizens to find other means of getting around. A complementary measure would be to then invest in an improved system of public transit that includes more buses, lower fares, more dedicated bus lanes, more rapid transit lines, more park and ride stalls, and more bike lanes. Taken together, these two initiatives discourage travelers from contributing to the congestion problem, and make it more attractive to opt for more efficient (and more environmentally-friendly) public alternatives.
So far in Canada, civic leaders have been unwilling to seriously broach the topic of charging people to use roads. What they, and their constituents, might consider, however, is to view roadways in the same fashion as infrastructure like hydro or water systems, where we pay taxes to build it, and then a fee for using the service.
An equitable method of paying for roads
Such a perspective is rather appropriate – just as there is only so much electricity generated at any one time, there is only so much room available for cars on the road – and could result in an arguably more equitable method of paying for road use than the system we have now.
Currently, citizens who choose to, for example, walk or telecommute to work still fund all street maintenance and construction through their tax dollars as much as car commuters, even though they likely use the roads far less frequently. Meanwhile, residents who live in lower-taxed municipalities outside a city’s limits, but work in the city proper, make use of the city’s roads without paying for them. A system of road pricing could help mitigate both of these inequities, by charging those who use the valuable transportation infrastructure for that privilege.
There is a growing recognition that this country, the only OECD state without a national transit strategy, needs to take transportation policy more seriously. Working to establish the aforementioned programs – which are not unlike what is found elsewhere in the world – could be an important and effective initial step towards an appropriate 21st century transportation plan. It is, however, just the beginning, and next week I turn to the second, more long-term goal: effectively integrating alternative transit systems into the design of the city itself.
Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a downtown development consultant in Winnipeg.