Why and how to toll roads in Toronto

It’s time to make Toronto’s transport systems work for everyone. Funding, congestion, and emissions are issues that are not going away. Urban tolling is a matter of discussion in hundreds of jurisdictions around the world and there are many deployments each with its own reason and design and its own success or failure profile. There are none that Toronto should mimic, but there are many lessons to glean. For the kind of tolling we usually think of – that of a limited access highway like the DVP – the current best practice worldwide is the one we proudly pioneered on the 407. We could use the same transponder-plus-camera combination for the easy opportunity and inherited idea recently resurrected by mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson – tolling the DVP and the QEW.

Unfortunately, tolling only these two highways is a flawed approach, expecting one subset of commuters to subsidize those using other routes into the city. It will divert traffic onto adjacent roadways creating new bottlenecks, new hazards for pedestrians and cyclists, and shuffle emissions into neighborhoods. London and Stockholm saw 20% drops in traffic counts after tolling schemes were set up that permitted no alternate access route for cars or trucks. Given free, nearby alternatives to the DVP or QEW, tolled traffic will drop far more than 20%, distorting traffic flow and producing less revenue than needed. The 20% ‘over-performance’ of the 2003 London scheme caused the initial £5 charge to be raised to £8 by 2005. Interestingly, this increase had only a miniscule effect; traffic counts showed extreme inelasticity since the original £5 fee had already exorcized non-critical demand. A core set of drivers are willing to pay to stay in their cars, but not all and not so many if there is an alternative.

Tolling these two roads would do little for congestion or emissions and would raise far less revenue than expected. As proposed, this program could not fulfill its revenue target in 10 years.

For urban livability, our mobility, and our health and sanity, Ms Thomson does Toronto a service by forcing this conversation to the fore. For this alone she deserves an audience in the current race and will carry a burden of our road rage. For this she should be thanked.

We need to start tolling roads – and not only for the unholy trinity of revenue, gridlock and pollution. As we electrify our personal vehicles, the fuel tax, already funding only 70% of our highways and virtually none of our urban streets, will continue to fail us. If you drive an internal combustion vehicle, how long will you subsidize my e-car?

Satellite-based road-use metering can now operate anywhere without 407-style roadside gantries. It requires only a modest number of mobile enforcement spot-checks. This technology is as private as your personal navigation device permitting payment without location data leaving your control – or your vehicle. It is more private that the 407 transponder and can even be anonymous (pre-paid). The smart road-use meter, a forerunner technology for the next-generation dashboard manages demand-based use-fees that depend on time and place. It provides for our road networks what “time of use” charging does for our electric grid.

To make this new shift from property and fuel taxes to pay-for-use charges even more attractive, it manages parking payment by the minute, removes the need for parking tickets, and can find a spot for you. It handles pay-as-you-drive insurance, providing fairer premiums to those who drive less. It even offers a voluntary switch from fuel taxes to variable pay-as-you-go fees saving money for the motorist who can avoid peak-hour travel in a single-occupant vehicle.

TIME 100’s Robin Chase calls this using Finance 2.0 to build Infrastructure 2.0.

But most importantly it is self-enforcing when it is voluntary since its advantages are designed to outweigh the rewards of cheating. Regional governments need build no tolling infrastructure beyond a geographic database of time-dependent prices for roads and parking. Nothing needs to be mandated. Disinterested drivers can ignore it.

Tolling in the style of the 407 is like elevator music no body likes. Using voluntary smart-meters loaded with incentives is like using an iPod to escape the Muzak.

Rescue Toronto’s surface transportation system with rewarding technology, rather than by shooting fish in a barrel.


Bill said...

Very useful analysis of road and cogestion pricing which can be applied to other cities nto as large as Toronto but with the same challenges posed by multi-lane highways crossing urban area - thank you

That said I wonder why- aside from the narrow self-interests of downtown businesses- why a 20% drop in traffic because of congestion charges is a bad thing. That also means a 20% or more improvement in air quality, doesn't it?
A call for more downtown low emission zones (a.k.a. congestion charging) is part of the critique of the UK system found here


Air Quality - Fifth Report of Session 2009–10

and discussed here:

Britain. A breath of foul air

Bern Grush said...

20% is not bad. No percentage is bad. It was a reminder that you can't predict revenue by counting the number of customers who come to your store for free goods.

20% drop is revenue has meant usually a 15% drop in emissions. The reasons are complex, but your assumptions is in the right direction.