Over at the National Post, John Turley-Ewart posted Toronto environmental-mania gets worse. Far improved over the average congestion-related post, I had only two complaints.

John is right that the mechanics of Councillor Cho's parking-rate-based-on-passenger count idea would be a nightmare. But I am still glad the Councillor suggested it. It shows that congestion thought processes are alive at City Hall and that cannot be all bad. If only they can keep thinking long enough…

John was even more right that road toll money must go to maintain-and-build roads as well as transit. Part of our accountability problem is that we have been careless about investing in transportation services with the vehicular and road taxes we do collect. While there is much debate regarding whether our fuel taxes are sufficient to cover the cost of roads (it isn't), the fact that we assign those taxes to a general fund and then use other tax bases for roads helps obfuscate the fact that our transportation systems (roads, transit, bike and walkways) have started going bust long ago. Having transportation finance organized in a way that allows one government to redirect road taxes to other purposes while forcing another to raise property taxes to cover transportation shortfalls only adds to the deeper underlying problem: the automatic entitlement we believe we have to free access to roads. Many motorists whine: “Hey, I pay with my gas tax!” Well, they don’t. That money, insufficient as it is, can be used elsewhere while property owners make up the shortfall. That means that most of the bicyclists and pedestrians that have the gall to get in the way of our cars are helping to pay for the roads we drive on whether or not they drive (even renters generate property tax payments, albeit indirectly).

Of course transit is also heavily subsidized (well it was back when), so the full picture is impossible for most of us to sort through. But one thing is clear; the current financial architecture and usage entitlements are unsustainable (sorry if that word sounds borrowed from “environmental-mania”).

The one John got wrong, however, is the critical one. The one that almost everyone assumes to be a first principal. The one that totally freezes the mind at all levels of government – and in the press. In his words: “What Toronto needs is a vastly expanded transit system – along the lines of the kind you find in Madrid and Berlin. Only then will people be able to leave their cars at home. But until that time, all the talk about getting Torontonians out of their cars is little more than noxious hot air.”

If he were right, as so many may assume, we should just save the hot air now. There is no way that a vastly expanded subway system to match Madrid’s or Berlin’s will be installed in our lifetimes. Look at the Madrid or the Berlin subway maps compared to ours, and decide for yourself.

Rather, the solution to this quandary has already been tried and proven: you add the necessary bus routes on the same day that you institute a business district congestion charge. As the London Congestion Charge settled in, subway ridership went DOWN and bus ridership went UP. Few guessed this would happen. Why so? Only a minority of any urban population lives 3 blocks from a subway stop. A significant percentage is driven there by a spouse or parks near one in order to avoid taking a bus. The bus is horribly slow due to congestion and its infrequent arrivals due to lack of interest drives a simple equation: people hate buses because when competing with automotive congestion they are even slower than a car. A bus will only make you later. We actually do value our time. When the roads are priced and the bus can whip along, taking the bus is not only better than taking the car, for many it is also better than taking the subway, precisely because buses are suddenly faster, arrive more frequently, and is more likely to stop a block away than would the subway. The best way to get from A to B is to get onto a single moving conveyance close to A, zip over close to B and get off. So car+subway, or bus+subway, or bus+bus+bus, or other time-consuming combination does not cut it. If we had the right balance between road pricing and bus (and jitney) services, we would all have smarter choices. I guarantee you that of you gave our transit engineers money for a several hundred more buses while decongesting the roads, they could rework the schedules pretty fast. I am tired of waiting 10-15 minutes at a bus stop.

Lastly, I couldn’t help note the sarcastic “environmental-mania” in John’s title. It is true that there is an element of fad in the current green blitz. Anything that gets overexposed in the press always has that problem. But I for one (a free-market libertarian that advocates congestion pricing for its right-wing economic and productivity value every bit as much as for its left-wing environmental value) welcome Green House Fright and the Second Coming of the Club of Rome as the prod that will finally turn our collective attention to our personal transport assumptions.

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