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Traffic Jams are a Blight on Society

In early November 2015, Canada’s ‘Ecofiscal Commission’ issued a 59-page report, We Can’t Get There From Here: Why Pricing Traffic Congestion is Critical to Beating It, the full text of which is online.

The Ecofiscal Commission, founded in November 2014 and based at McGill University describes itself as, “a group of experienced, policy-minded economists from across the country, seeking to broaden the discussion of eco-fiscal policy reform beyond the academic sphere and into the realm of practical policy application…[and aiming] to serve policy-makers across the political spectrum, at all levels of government.”

The term ‘eco-fiscal’ describes the policies this commission says it is dedicated to developing policies that simultaneously improve “economic prosperity” and “environmental sustainability.”  A basic feature of these policies will be pricing polluting activities to provide an incentive for reducing the activity and to raise revenue for innovating and recycling “back into the economy to generate further benefits.”

Essentially, the report attempts to define the scope of the problem—the scourge of too costly traffic congestion (read “traffic jams”) in economic, social and environmental terms in the four identified Canadian cities suffering therefrom—namely Metro Vancouver, Calgary, The Greater Toronto Area, and Greater Montreal.

The report recommends pilot projects for each city necessarily “customized to their local context.”  In Ontario, news reports indicated that the provincial Liberal government, whether in response to the commission report or on its own initiative has already formed the intention to implement a road pricing ‘project’ by year-end.

Ontario’s citizenry is thus now on the alert (or should be) that a decision is pending as to “where the … high-occupancy toll [HOT] lanes [will be established] and what the fees will be for using them.  These news reports go on to say that the intended new HOT lanes will allow motorists without passengers to pay to use high-occupancy vehicle [HOV] lanes designed to encourage carpooling.  In addition, this plan will include adding HOV and HOT lanes to new or expanded highways.

For Metro Vancouver, constrained geographically by mountains, the Fraser River and the ocean with “polycentric travel patterns with multiple hubs of activity, and a complex governance structure with involvement from multiple municipalities and the provincial government,” the report recommends applying “variable pricing to each of the region’s bridges and tunnels that cross waterways” as “one way to price access to key driving arteries to reduce regional congestion.”  In other words, tolling not just on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges as currently in place, but on all the bridges and tunnels throughout the region.  

Road pricing as a solution for traffic congestion is not a new idea.  Certainly, it is highly contentious.  Where it has been in effect for many years—London, England and Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, studies and anecdotes say the deterrent effect has worn off.

Negative incentives have a way of generating workarounds not necessarily in compliance with desired outcomes. In Sao Paulo, for example, where citywide access is based on license plate numbers, most households have sufficient vehicles with appropriately numbered plates to ensure daily access.  Vehicle numbers reportedly are higher than ever.

Whatever the solution might be, traffic jams are a blight on society, creating stressed and exhausted commuters who get to work with depleted energy and return home at the end of their tether.

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