Congestion charging

This article was published in 2016, in Newsletter 126.

The topic of congestion charging has come up again. The City Deal will start a public debate about the benefits of ‘fiscal demand management’. Now those three words are interesting to me, so I’ll discuss them here.

Road space is scarce. Actually, there is plenty of space, but not at the time of day when everybody wants to use it. Building more roads does not solve the problem. Nowhere on the planet has building more roads reduced congestion. Roads attract traffic, allowing more people to waste time and money driving a few feet behind a car in front in a traffic jam. And time is money for many people.

Therefore the word ‘management’ is really just a recognition of the reality that we have to manage this road space better. And the obvious solution is to reduce demand for road space in critical locations. The airline industry does this by changing the price of the seats. The theatre industry does the same: matinĂ©e performances are less expensive. The train companies do the same. A train ticket that allows you to take any train, but not via London, is cheaper than a train ticket that goes via London. That is demand management.

Bamboo bikes for hire at the Ibis Bencoolen hotel, Singapore. Pedalling around the city has become a far more pleasant prospect in the years since 1975, when it implemented congestion charging in the form of an Area Licensing Scheme.
Image as described adjacent

The word fiscal is the word that scares many people. It implies that you have to spend lots of money to travel into the city. And frankly that’s what the last congestion charge proposals suggested. But there are many other ways to do it. Singapore charges people who drive past points on the road network. Each point has a different price based on the ability to keep traffic moving at a reasonable speed at those points. These prices are changed frequently, every 30 minutes, so you have a choice as to whether to go early, late, or pay more money. And it works. Singapore has reduced traffic congestion such that deliveries and people can move around the city quickly and easily. Oh, and they used the money they raised to spend on alternative transport systems.

The other method to reduce demand is to apply the basic principles of the core traffic scheme to a larger area. Fundamentally, that means cutting the city into say four or five sectors and not allowing traffic to move between those sectors. This means that if you live in one sector and want to pop to the shops in the same sector there is no problem to do that in a car. But if you live in one sector and want to go to work in another, then you’ll have to go out, around and then back in again.

That model of zoning cities works. Groningen, in the Netherlands, has a 60% modal share for cycles because in the 1970s they split the city into zones and stopped through traffic. There is less traffic congestion now because of this.

I have an alternative. Do both. Close roads at strategic locations, but allow those who can justify the cost to pay for going through the barriers, and make that cost based on the level of congestion and pollution. If there is nobody on the roads, it should be free. If there is lots of congestion, make it expensive. If there is lots of pollution, make it expensive. This would raise money to help subsidise say the Park & Ride sites, to build more cycleways, and to improve the bus services in and around the city.

We don’t need a congestion charge. We need a road fare. Just like we have bus fares, and train fares. That would make fair roads.

Robin Heydon