To prevent autonomous vehicles clogging our cities, we need to talk about road-pricing

Here we go again. Image: Getty.

Every policy has its time and its age.  With the advent of autonomous vehicles, traffic jams could be solved for good. But it is arguably more probable that the opposite will prove true: autonomous vehicles might have us drowning in road congestion.

Even without autonomous vehicles, urbanisation and motorisation have always been the main drivers of traffic jams – so it’s unsurprising that it’s around cities and in larger metropolitan areas where we find the highest levels of road congestion. These places with already strained capacity will also experience the largest increases in autonomous transportation.

Today, for each minute in rush-hour traffic, car users spend an additional half a minute stuck in traffic jams. Take Paris and Brussels for example. Around the EU parliament, the average driver unnecessarily wastes 104 hours a year stuck in traffic; while in the French capital, the morning commute takes 68 per cent longer than necessary and 2 per cent longer than last year.

A handful of cities bravely started fighting the jam-surge by cordoning their inner cities and charging for entry by car. But the tale of one of these, London, clearly demonstrates why such ‘cordon’ tolls are inadequate now, and especially for a time of autonomous vehicles.

London implemented a toll in 2003 and as a result, downtown car travel demand dipped slightly with travel times substantially improving. Fast-forward to 2017, the toll has been adjusted upwards several times, but travel times are worse than ever. Why? Because the toll does not account for the distance and time driven.

And so, some commuters faced with the toll made the most convenient choice and switched from their private car to ride-hailing services such as Uber. Since simultaneously parcel delivery services soared and construction decreased road space, streets are clogged once more.

This causes two problems. First, bus travelers, who are in the majority in London, suffer from this decision. Second, a few years down the road, when an autonomous vehicle trip might come at transit prices, demand for these autonomous cabs will explode – and, as a result, so will jams.

Autonomous vehicles need not be the sword of Damocles; with some ingenuity they could instead be our savior. But it will take political leadership to find a better solution than Julius Caesar, who in ancient times went to the extreme and forbade all day-time cart-travel in ancient Rome.

To a policymaker, road pricing is a toxic political endeavor. In Brussels, for example, just the publication of a study on the topic sparked an online petition against road pricing, which garnered more than 170,000 signatures in only 10 days. While road pricing is a sound policy, public mistrust towards the policy is evident.

The potential misuse of the substantial revenue for partisan political interests is one concern. Related is the fear that, during the political implementation, a well-meant policy is turned into another hidden tax – or merely a costly instrument to charge foreign drivers as in the case of a recently announced German highway toll. These concerns can fully be met given the correct setup and clear communication of the policy.

The most important, but usually tacit, emotional response for favouring a state of congestion over a system with tolls is that congestion affects people of all incomes equally. Road pricing, by contrast, is perceived as the upper class trying to gain another advantage over everyone else.

But the truth is far more subtle than this. Thirty years ago, wealthier people started moving back into inner cities that were finally cleaner and safer, which led to the exorbitant housing prices in downtowns. Today, as a result, the wealthier can live closer to work and commute less.

That means it is a mix of the middle and lower incomes that are spending the most time in the car, breathing exhaust instead of working or enjoying time with their loved ones. Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City summarises perfectly how long commutes do tremendous social harm: a commute of more than 45 minutes, for example, increases the probability of a failed marriage by 40 per cent. Other research shows that long-term exposure to fine-dust pollutants increases the risks of dementia and coronary disease by up to 10 per cent.

Even when we exclude the social harm road congestion does, the mere economic loss to society is staggering and estimated to be more than 1 per cent of GDP by the EU commission and the World Health Organization. This translates to a €165 billion annual loss for the EU28: a figure that for now just keeps on growing. 

The cure is not a bitter pill but a well-proven, readily available and low-key remedy in the form of a GPS locator and an app that could easily be implemented in any modern smartphone. A number of recent studies demonstrate that even in cities with the worst congestion, peak tolls of between 10 to 20 eurocents per kilometre would let you arrive at your destination on time and – best of all – allow more people to travel by car than currently. The revenue can then be spent on providing better and cheaper public transit as well as updating bicycle infrastructure and pavements for families.

Across the political spectrum, sensible road pricing is the elephant in the room. Tellingly, the words “incentive”, “pricing” and “tolls” were completely absent during the recent European conference on autonomous vehicles in Brussels.

Don’t abandon hope yet: it is rumoured that road pricing is once again part of the Dutch coalition discussions in Amsterdam. What’s more, heavily affected metropolitan regions such as Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo have demonstrated in the past that they can implement sensible road policies.

Today, road pricing should be on all policy makers’ minds. In the autonomous not-so-far future, it’ll be the job of industry and the public to force the politicians’ hand

Martin Adler is a transport and urban economist, VU University Amsterdam researcher, and fellow at Policy Network.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.