A Canary in Dubai

Each new congestion charging system gets less attention than its predecessor. London’s was all the rage for a year before and 2 years after February 2003. Stockholm’s generated a blip by comparison even though it serves three times the cars and is a much slicker implementation. But hands up if you were even aware that Dubai just put one in?

I recently gave a talk to 45 engineers (only one of whom was in traffic). All had heard of London’s system, all but three of Singapore’s system, only two were aware of the Stockholm system and none was aware of Dubai’s. Sure, Dubai is further from Canadian consciousness than the others and sure Dubai’s was just installed, but there may be other factors at play.

Consider that congestion pricing is a tool whose time has come, that only journalists in affected cities will note new systems going in, that the international press has wearied of what is clearly a trend, and that your 3 year old will never drive on an unpriced road.

Consider that Dubai is also providing a more critical message. Dubai’s system is based on shortrange radio beacons and in-vehicle RFID tags. This gold-standard for electronic toll collection (ETC), works perfectly well for limited access highways in half the countries on the globe. In fact, it works for congestion pricing on limited access island cities like Stockholm pretty well, too. It works less well in Singapore because the central, congested areas are somewhat more diffuse and peter out onto untolled roads that motorists use instead. That flattens out peak traffic, but does not move people out of cars. It simply delays the confirmed solution.

Dubai’s system has experienced a stronger-than-usual backlash – much of it the usual suspects: distrust of government motives, an assumption of (and knee-jerk rejection of) taxes, entitlement to free access to roads, and misunderstanding of market pricing (but at a dollar each way, that is likely no where near market pricing). But there is another important element here: bad tools + bad design = poor results.

Only a small but critical fraction of the network was tolled which largely reroutes traffic rather than encouraging alternatives. This relocates the pain rather than relieving it. Like easing your headache by stubbing your toe. If you want to force consideration of alternate modalities, you have create a cordon. It also appears that a single price is in effect. This provides no signal about when not to drive – only where not to drive.

For once, I empathize with the local whiners – this does look more like tax collection than congestion abatement. Dubai’s system harms the fledgling reputation of congestion charging.

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