The rice must flow

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There’s a difference between road tolls and congestion pricing

By Bob Oliver, Tech-K.O.

Last year, the Government of Ontario implemented a pilot program to test the effects of High Occupancy Toll lanes (i.e., HOT lanes) on select highways in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. This region’s network of highways supports some of the highest volumes of goods movement in North America, and is crucial to the system of trade that exists between Canada and the U.S. It is also crucial to the movement of people throughout the region – between home and work and among centres of service, be it hospitals or shopping malls or soccer fields and hockey arenas. In other words, the region’s highways support its capacity for commerce and quality of life.

That is why traffic congestion is a problem. When the roads and highways are congested, travel times increase. This means that the region’s overall capacity for value creation and for economic productivity declines. It also makes the daily routine of getting around much harder and more frustrating for individuals and for families.

“Road pricing” is a solution that has been recently gaining traction in Southern Ontario. The province’s HOT lane pilot is one example. Under the program, any passenger vehicles that have more than one occupant (i.e., not a single-occupancy vehicle or SOV, but a high-occupancy vehicle or HOV) can travel along a dedicated HOT lane. All other SOVs are prohibited from using this lane unless they pay a charge. Thus, travellers have an incentive to carpool. In this way, a road with a HOT lane should be able to move more people, since fewer vehicles are on the road at any given point in time. Furthermore, those travellers who need to use the HOT lane can purchase access, presumably because the value of arriving at their destination sooner is worth the extra charge.

This approach comes under fire from critics, some of whom say it favours the rich; that is, people who can afford to pay for HOT lane access. The derisive label “Lexus lanes” is often employed in these instances. But this criticism seems to miss an important point. When a portion of the drivers choose the HOT lane, traffic congestion on the remaining lanes lessens and everybody arrives at their destination sooner than would otherwise be the case.

This approach to road pricing is intended to improve the efficiency of the existing infrastructure in delivering on its purpose; namely, to support commerce throughout the region, as well as people’s access to family, friends and important services. An effective visual example of this principle is demonstrated by Doug MacDonald, former Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation from 2001 to 2007, in a video in which rice flowing through a funnel represents the dynamics of vehicles flowing through a section of highway – watch.

The takeaway from this video is that if the flow of vehicles into a highway system can be metered effectively, then the system throughput capacity can be kept optimal and the detrimental effects of traffic congestion can be avoided. The idea is that all travellers can get through the system and arrive at their destination faster – even those that enter the system last.

To support a collaborative exploration of road pricing options and to learn from experts in the field, transportation stakeholders gathered in Toronto on May 12, 2017, for the Transport Futures Road Pricing Leadership Summit, organized by Marty Collier of Healthy Transport Consulting. Fresh in the minds of most delegates was the political firestorm surrounding the City of Toronto’s proposal to establish road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway – the two primary highways that bring vehicle traffic into and out of downtown Toronto. The Premier of Ontario denied permission to the city to implement road tolls, and the Mayor of Toronto claimed it a betrayal, citing the need of the city to raise revenues to pay for transportation system maintenance and improvements.

But putting politics aside, experts at the road pricing summit objectively described how the proposed road toll might actually have increased congestion, were it to be implemented. Under simulations conducted by Professor Baher Abdulhai at the University of Toronto, for example, hypothetical drivers would attempt to exit the highway to avoid the toll, thereby creating a backup in traffic at off-ramps, impairing system throughput. Therefore, experts warned against using road pricing schemes primarily as revenue tools, recommending instead that pricing be used to mitigate congestion and enhance the efficiency of the transportation system overall, as it can improve regional prosperity and quality of life for all.

In retrospect, the premier’s decision might actually have saved the future of road pricing policy in Toronto from a crippling political setback.

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