Our Traffic Problems Solved — Simply

Commentary, Transportation, Frontier Centre


Okay, I know a lot of you are at the lake or the seaside or the campground right now, and one of the biggest reasons you’re there is to get away from the rat race. So one of the last things you need is some newspaper scribe bringing up the subject of rush-hour traffic, inching forward through the gridlock while you and your engine both overheat. Your fingers drum the wheel while you think about all the other things you’d rather be doing until some arrogant jerk, who is convinced he is the only one in a hurry, speeds up the shoulder and wedges his way between you and the driver in front.


But wait, I bring up the irritation of daily commuting only because I have a solution, or rather, because Winnipeg’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy has a solution — congestion pricing.


In a study released Tuesday, Winning the Battle with Traffic Congestion, traffic engineer Stuart Donovan explains how cities such as London and Stockholm have reduced traffic by as much as 25% in their downtown cores and reduced gridlock by 30-50% without spending billions on new roads and overpasses and without expensive, nagging campaigns to increase ridership on buses, trains and subways.


The key is charging motorists a small fee to use busy streets and roadways at peak hours. This encourages drivers to seek alternatives such as arriving at and leaving the office at off-peak hours, telecommuting, moving to within walking distance of the office or using public transit. Businesses, too, consider having supplies delivered outside of rush hour to avoid extra transportation costs.


In Stockholm, vehicles’ licence plates are photographed when then enter the designated congestion zone — an area of several square kilometres with the worst traffic in the city; drivers are then charged a fee based on the time of day they enter.


There is no charge for driving downtown between 6:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. From 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., the charge is the equivalent of about $1.30. From 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., it’s $2.00. During the busiest hours — 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 4 in the afternoon to 5:30 p.m. — the charge jumps to more than $2.60, but is just $1.30 during the middle of the day.


According to two Swedish academics cited by the Frontier Centre, even these minor charges had the effect of reducing overall traffic downtown by 20% to 25%, with even greater reductions during peak hours. Traffic queues were reduced by between 30% and 50% citywide and “mainly disappeared within the cordon.” Use of public transit rose 5% to 10%, vehicle emissions fell 14% and traffic fatalities and injuries declined by nearly 10%, too.  

Public planners tend to look for big, dramatic solutions — social engineering, infrastructure construction and so on — when small economic signals might have the same desired effect.

So why is there so much resistance to small, simple solutions such as congestion pricing? Because too many politicians, bureaucrats and other public policy-makers are wedded to command-and-control thinking. They truly believe the only way to achieve a cultural shift is to regulate and punish the public until the masses change their thoughts to conform to the planners’ worldview.


It never occurs to most policymakers that citizens are rational economic creatures, nor does it occur to them that market-based ideas can produce social outcomes at far, far less cost to public treasuries and taxpayers.


According to Mr. Donovan, “travel delays increase dramatically as demand approaches the capacity of the road network, such that a small increase in the number of people driving creates large delays for everyone. (Similarly, a small drop in vehicle traffic can reduce delays dramatically.)”


Placing a price on driving in a city core gives an advantage to high-capacity vehicles. In a car containing only the driver, the $2.60 peak-hour fee is paid by just one person, whereas with a carpool it might be shared among three or four people, and on a bus it would be factored into the ticket price, but spread over 30 or more passengers.


There are not many Canadian cities where even peak-hour congestion is bad enough to adopt congestion pricing just yet. But parts of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary might try it. It’s a smarter way to deal with traffic snarls than taxing away billions for new freeways or hectoring drivers to get on a bus.