Hamilton Interviews Hassan

I need a break. Here is the podcast of the Toronto Star's Tyler Hamilton interviewing Kamal Hassan, CEO of Skymeter about a technology that reduces congestion by metering parking and road use.


Eighty Words, Four Myths

Myth-vendor Peter Roberts’ recent anti-pricing petition on the UK government web site reads:

"The idea of tracking [1] every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong. Road pricing is already here [2] with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay. It will be an unfair tax on those who live apart from families and poorer people [3] who will not be able to afford the high monthly costs. Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion [4]."

That’s four myths in only eighty words (one of which my canon, to the right, ignored because everyone else except Mr. Roberts already knows it):

  1. These systems (yes, Virginia, GPS satellites) when applied to a tolling application do not need to “track” motorists. Nor would it be effective to do so. The record of a motorist’s use of the road will at worst be private and can even be totally anonymous (I’ll go deep on this in a later blog).
    [By the way, if a city or country did track every vehicle, that would be “sinister and wrong”.]
  2. It true, Mr. Roberts, road pricing IS already here, but is it only partly paid by fuel taxes in most jurisdictions and the rest is paid by other taxes, such as property taxes, in the case of Toronto. But your real error here is that we are really talking about congestion pricing not about road pricing, and too few – including your Prime Minister’s ghostwriter – draw the distinction. Road pricing is for funding roads, congestion pricing is for reducing peak hour traffic. There is NO congestion pricing in your fuel taxes regardless of how high they might be, since a fuel tax does not distinguish when and where you drive.
  3. Congestion pricing is NOT unfair to poor people. Poorer people (Roberts’ words) largely take transit to work (except for the very poorest, few of whom even have the luxury of a job in the city). Congestion pricing, when executed properly, as it was in three out of three instances (London, Stockholm, Singapore) and as it had better be done properly here in my beloved Toronto, invests the money into transit which is GOOD for poor people. It is also good for rich people who can now get to work and home on time without polluting the air that the poorer people need to breathe. Hello?
  4. Improving roads does not reduce congestion for any more than a new disk drive stays empty on your computer, or your local farm-land stays free of suburban houses. Worse, if you do improve a road somewhere, it just draws more traffic into the rest of the network. Transport planners have known since the 60s that road-building invites more cars and road repair blocks traffic. All the rest of us non-traffic engineers have pretty well figured this out, too. That is why it is not on my Seven Myths list.

    And you got how many signatures?

Tony Blair’s response missed the first three of these. Is that because his ghost writer didn’t think the audience could understand or because she also did not recognize them?

Until we dispel these myths, we will never address the only real question, which is:

“Do we want to pay for our prosperity by sitting in traffic queues , burning fuel which we pay real dollars for, and being late or away from family, or do we want to pay a variable congestion charge?” …or, heck, take the new and improved transit.

And to say as Mr. Blair does: “we have not made any decision about national road pricing” is an even bigger problem for me.

Of course there are no “immutable decisions” such as a firm start date or a detailed technology selection or exact pricing maps. But we know there is little choice. Sir Rod is only the latest of hundreds who have explained this. So to waffle for the kids sake, especially when you have declared you are not running again, is only to invite more distrust. Would you also say, Mr. Blair, that you aren’t really sure whether we should quit smoking?

Ken Livingston for PM, I say.

And what would you say, Dear Reader, if the total cost of congestion pricing to you personally amounted to the same amount of money that you spend burning extra gas while creeping along the roadway? That cross over is coming very soon – some think we crossed it. When that becomes so, and since congestion pricing reduces traffic (as has been proven 3 out of 3 times), you could get home sooner AND have cleaner air.

How hard is that?

[Next: more myths. This time from the Prime Minister’s reply.]


Hard road or high road?

Jeff Gray (Globe and Mail 07.02.26) calls Paris mayor Bertrand DelanoĆ«’s plan to reduce that city’s traffic by 40% by 2020, a hard road. No kidding. Since this “plan calls for bike, bus and ‘clean’ vehicle lanes, pedestrian areas, narrower roads, lower speed limits, a new subway line and possible new restrictions on cars entering the city centre”, but with no “direct mention” of congestion pricing (did he just hint at it?), it certainly will be a hard and, I assert, futile road.

The Parisian mayor, just as the Toronto Mayor or the New York Mayor or any other mayor won’t be getting anyone out of their vehicles by setting heart-felt targets and putting up posters about biking and buses. These kinds of programs take fewer people off the roads than the next graduating class of high schools and colleges put back on them.


The car, while as affordable as it is, is preferred by more people than any other form of mobility. How will these mayors incent motorists to make these changes?

Ask Ken Livingston.

Motorists (they are people, right?) are largely motivated by sex and money. Cars are sexy. Just like cigarettes used to be. And right now cars are cheap for the value of autonomy they return. When a mayor can actually get his or her political mind around congestion pricing, traffic in that city will be under new management.

Until then, just keep on talking.



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.


Toronto's Clever Mayor

Toronto Mayor David Miller has fooled us all.

Running up to the 2003 mayoral election, he said “We need to consider every possible avenue to address congestion in our city.” When asked if that included road tolls, Miller replied: “We have to look at everything” – clear evidence of his superior intelligence). His 2003 opponent John Tory, now the Ontario Conservative Leader was photographed the following day wearing a sandwich board that read: “Say No to Road Tolls.” In 24 hours the entire debate went silent. Miller went on to win. I am certain that both men knew full well that market pricing is necessary to solve congestion. I also suspect that their handlers knew no one could win with a pro-pricing position. So no pro, no con. Indeed market pricing is a conservative mantra, so Tory was disingenuous. Miller, not a Conservative, was caught between his intellect and party's requirements.

During the 2006 mayoral election, the pricing issue again crept in and was nixed by Miller throughout. Indeed, as recently as January of 2007, Mr Miller's reason for not considering congestion pricing was: “You just can't compare London to Toronto. Toronto's a new city built on a grid system. London's an ancient city.” I am still laughing at that one. A magna cum laude economics graduate from Harvard, Miller cannot possibly hold this as a viable reason not to consider pricing.

But in the past three weeks the dramatic expansion of the Green House Gas issue has driven Miller to shift his stance again. Or did he?

Let's rewind. You know from 2003 and from his sheer intelligence that if he did not have to please a road-weary electorate, Toronto's roads would be priced by now (or darn close to it) – and on their way to much needed upgrades. He has been lobbied to toll the Don Valley and the QEW, two major arteries into the city (he knows that won't work because it would just congest the parallel roads – and he's right). He has been lobbied to toll a cordon similar to the London Congestion Zone (he knows that won't work – and he's right again). He has been lobbied NOT to toll anything (he knows that won't work, but frankly doing nothing has been safest up to now).

But enter the Green House Gas fever and Miller says: road pricing “…has to be a region-wide initiative.” And he's absolutely right, it does have to be a region-wide program. And he has waited for just the right moment. I am not suggesting he is prescient, but my faith in his intelligence has been restored. I’m sorry I doubted you these last two years, Mr. Miller.

Market pricing is a tri-polar issue. The 'right' wants it for productivity and economic sustainability reasons. The 'left' wants it for environmental sustainability reasons (notice that both sides see congestion as unsustainable). But the 'middle majority' who has until now rejected pricing is being nudged by the green issue into begrudging acceptance of the reality of non-sustainability. Now Miller has said the right thing. But region-wide? How will that be accomplished? While there is reliable and private technology for this, this is a large undertaking. The hard part now will be how to get from no tolling (except for the 407) to regional tolling in a way that people will understand and accept. This will have to be done in stages, and my bet is that Mr Miller's “willing[ness] to consider charging parking levies in some areas of the city” will soon become a reality. I hope he will impose parking cash-outs on employers that provide free-parking, first.


Move to avoid road tolls?

On the 12th of February, I received a note from a colleague in London who works for a transport industry magazine, and who certainly understands the argument for congestion pricing:

“[We were discussing the huge number of signatures for the online petition] against road pricing, and the seemingly gathering protest at road pricing in general. The petition has been signed by [my boss], who reckons it's up to the traffic industry to manage the road infrastructure, rather than price people off the road. He has worked out using figures available in Autocar magazine how much his daily commute will cost him, and he reckons it will force him to relocate to a house closer to his place of work. This will then be a more expensive area, so the cost of his house will be more and the council tax will also increase, as this is done on the value of his house. Firstly, what would you say to this chap? Secondly, what are your opinions of the Daily Mirror campaign, which is gathering support and quite a bit of TV coverage. This isn't good news for those in favour of road pricing because our UK government isn't as forthright as Ken Livingstone. They're after votes and road pricing is certainly not a vote winner."

My reply:

I tend to distrust car magazines since they would naturally want to see as many cars as possible on the road – same for automobile associations, but some such as our CAA have begun to soften their stance slightly in the face of the "green" conversation (but still say "no" to market pricing). What makes this harder for me, a Canadian, to answer, is that my sense is that Brits tend to have a lower level of trust toward their governments than we do, here. That is not a judgment, as there are reasons to distrust governments almost anywhere. Remember, I am a Libertarian.

I suspect your boss is over-trusting Autocar and under-trusting the DfT [UK’s Department of Transport]. Be that as it may, one of the problems in the wrenching but critically necessary shift from a fuel-tax-based system to a pay-per-use system is: how do you make that switch over? If it were done smoothly, all in one day (yeah, right!) then we need to remove the fuel tax. Did Autocar do that? I didn't see the article, but I cannot see how they could, since the program for ramping up road-pricing is front of mind in the UK, but the program for backing off fuel taxes is not. In the Oregon (US) trials, people paying road-fees are forgiven their fuel tax. Are there pilots to do that in the UK? I've not heard of any. If these are indeed missing then that’s DfT's fault.

The fact that pricing's benefits out-weigh the costs for all of us is a complex argument -- too complex for Autocar's readership and clearly too complex for politicians. My evidence? No one in these contexts takes the pains to understand or explain them. While they are available on line for all to see, who has time? I can barely keep up with it and this is all I do.

Addressing your boss’ consideration that he might need to relocate is equally complex. Here in Canada, near Toronto, one can purchase a spacious home an hour's drive from work at half or less of the cost and property tax of an equivalent property closer in. While I personally prefer living in an apartment condo right in town and not owning a vehicle, I now own a car and live near town and commute. Why? I went and got married and now have kids. A downtown apartment condo doesn't cut it for me.

But back to your boss. Relocation closer to work is one of the presumed longer-range outcomes (and benefits) of road pricing. Many in Canada buy a home far out of the city center because it is very cheap and comfortable taking an SUV [that’s a “Chelsea tractor” for you Londoners] into the city each day. Had we used congestion-related distance pricing instead of fuel-tax on cheap fuel ages ago, our ex-urban sprawl would not be as large, and we would have developed differently.

So in a sense, there was an unwritten "deal" made to your boss a long while back: "Get a nice home out of the city and just give up a bit of time to drive in." He did that. The drive got worse, but he's adjusted little by little. Now it’s a lot worse – and worse for everyone, including the economy itself. In fact, the worsening is finally seen as unsustainable. So now we're telling him there's a new deal: "Sorry, we had that wrong, we need you to drive less, now." No wonder he's in shock.

So much of our urban economy is organized around having decided the gas-tax transportation economy nearly a hundred years ago, that to unwind it is not only hard to structure, but almost impossible to understand in detail. The reason is that there are so many interconnections.

While we who study it are absolutely convinced the end result is far better than what we have now, most people just look at the presumed new travel bill and simply see less money in their wallet. Your boss is a bit smarter and took one thought-step further than most do, he has already looking at the “move into town” scenario. This could be a smart move. Has he considered that purchasing a more expensive property has other long-term financial returns? Presumably the property will hold its value. Indeed, if he is among first to respond this way, he stands to gain more than most. If he thinks property values are high now, imagine how they'd be skewed for the last family to depart exurbia. He should buy a nice property now and start advocating for what is going to happen anyway.

Regarding the signatures against road pricing [about 2% of the population], yes, it is disturbing. Absolutely disturbing. Right or wrong, ours are democracies. Few politicians would or could ignore that vote. The fact that so many people understand neither the problem nor the solution is the responsibility of government, I think. When you add distrust-of-government to this, we have a problem, indeed. But in the end we will solve this, because as the problem worsens, more and more people will begin to understand while spot solutions will increasingly show diminishing value. Anyone who thinks this is easy is more foolish than those that would ignore it.