If Australia wants to manage congestion, it needs to look at road charging

Rush hour in Melbourne. Image: Getty.

Average travel speeds in Australian cities are decreasing. And congestion is only likely to worsen as our population continues to grow.

Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher recently gave an important speech, albeit largely unnoticed, in which he made the case for a universal road user charging scheme. Charging people to drive has previously been the dream of transport and economic policy wonks – serving politicians tend to see the idea as political poison.

Fletcher trod gently, cautioning his Sydney Institute audience that “there is a lot of work to do” and that any move in this direction would be “a ten to 15-year journey”. It is still remarkable that a federal minister even took these first steps.

Singapore introduced the world’s first electronic road pricing system back in 1998 to manage traffic volumes in the city. Image: Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures/Flickr/creative commons.

Fletcher warned of the potential impact of electric vehicles on fuel excise revenue, but automated vehicles represent an even bigger change.

The future of road use is made unclear by the looming arrival of these vehicles. Despite predictions that these could be the answer to traffic congestion, complications include the interaction of autonomous and traditional vehicles and the complexities of human behaviour.

Autonomous vehicles could even lead to greater congestion. The ease of travel in these vehicles might encourage travellers to take more trips as they reduce the time cost of being stuck in traffic by being able to read emails and stay connected while the car drives itself. Empty vehicles travelling to pick up goods and passengers could further clog roads.

So it is prudent to target road congestion now, especially when current strategies aren’t helping much. Building more road capacity or even improving public transport can’t solve congestion.

The best strategy is management of demand via a pricing mechanism that reflects the cost of the congestion caused by one more vehicle on the road. With prices that vary by location, time of day and distance travelled, such a scheme would encourage people to take non-essential trips at a different time, or not at all.

The charge could be efficient, as the trips that are discouraged are those for which the congestion caused outweighs the benefit derived. And it would be fair: drivers adding to the delay faced by others pay more, while those who drive in non-congested areas or at non-peak times pay less.

The ability to observe road users’ willingness to pay for road space will also give a better signal to planners of where additional road capacity will be of value to the community.

The European experience of road user charging has produced multiple economic and social benefits. Image: Federation European Cyclists/Flickr/creative commons.

Don’t treat it as a revenue raiser

So Fletcher deserves plaudits for raising the issue. But he got one important thing wrong: he said that the fuel excise tax funds road spending.

Pointing out that fuel excise receipts would fall with the advent of more fuel-efficient vehicles, and electric cars in particular, he argued for a road user charging scheme on the ground that it would raise revenue for road spending.

Linking fuel excise to road funding is a furphy and gets us onto the wrong track at the very start of the road-pricing journey. Fuel excise is merely one source of general government revenue and is not in any way hypothecated, meaning pledged by law to be spent on a specific purpose – in this case roads.

It is no more relevant to say that falling excise revenues will put road funding under pressure than it is to say this will put pressure on health spending or the age pension.

Furthermore, about 75 per cent of road funding comes from state and local government revenue, while fuel excise is a federal tax. It is true that falling fuel excise receipts would add to the federal government’s deficit problems. But there is no reason why a loss of fuel excise revenue must be replaced by another charge on motorists, or why motorists alone should fund additional road spending.


Take care to avoid an inefficient, distorting tax

The government should take a holistic approach to repair its pressured budget. It should restrict the most wasteful spending, wherever it is, and introduce or increase the most efficient, fair and simple taxes. It is not helpful to limit our thinking to motorist-based taxes to solve that part of the budget problem caused by falling fuel excise receipts.

The other problem with introducing road user charging as a revenue raiser rather than a congestion reducer is that a scheme designed on those terms is likely to produce poor results.

If we approach the task asking how we can maximise revenue, we’ll end up with charges on the wrong roads, at the wrong times, priced to maximise financial return rather than optimise congestion. For example, we might charge heavily on major roads, just to increase revenue, when some targeted charges on minor roads might do more to reduce traffic. In short, we’ll have one more inefficient, distorting tax.

So kudos to the minister for opening the debate. Let’s talk about road user charging, but let’s talk about what it should really achieve.The Conversation

If we start by asking the right questions, road user charging could be the best congestion management policy we’ve seen in Australia. It could improve the driving experience without the need for big spending on more road capacity, and make sure we get the most economic and social value from our roads.

Marion Terrill is transport program director, and Owain Emslie an associate, at the Grattan Institute, Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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