My op-ed in today’s Sun:

Opinion: ‘Free’ streets, highway network an illusion

One researcher has determined there are at least 90 different ways to put a price on something we all need one way or the other: the road-based transportation network. Whether through flat fees, tolls, distance-charging or a myriad of variations, the idea is fundamentally simple: you pay for what you use.

It’s fairer, more transparent, potentially more equitable and ideally more affordable than what we have now.

Economists love it: Those who drive more will pay more; those who drive less will pay less. Price will affect behaviour.

Politicians find it appealing as a revenue source to fund the mounting demands for infrastructure and the maintenance costs for what we already have.

Transportation engineers and urban planners think it’s a great way to reduce congestion.

Environmentalists believe it will encourage less use of the car.

The trucking industry can see that might make it easier to move goods.

Conservatives like its market-based approach; liberals can see ways that it provides equity.

Cities that have tried it love it.

So why is it so toxic?

Because it takes away the illusion of ‘free.’ It matters not that we pay for the road system in a variety of ways — through gas taxes, property taxes, income taxes. For most of the last century, we have hidden those costs. Once a car is purchased, the insurance paid and the gas tank filled, the next trip seems to be free. And we like free a lot, even if it’s an illusion.

And woe to the politician who stands between us and free.

Visible road pricing is what’s called a category shift: taking something we believe we have already paid for, and then putting a charge on it. The reaction is emotional and hostile: Government gets charged with a ‘cash grab,’ and a host of less printable descriptions.

The key word there is ‘visible’. If a transparent scheme of road pricing is politically unpalatable, how about one that isn’t?

What if road pricing was more like a cellphone plan? How much, for instance, does a single call cost? I’m sure you have no idea. So what if driving was more like that: a service you paid for based on your use, but which seems more like a flat fee with options, paid for once a month, taken out of your account invisibly, but always offering you competitive deals and cheaper alternatives? Government, on the other hand, gets a reliable, sustainable source of revenue, but without the backlash.

It’s happening already. Car sharing, for example, is changing our relationship with the automobile: you contract for a service, not the vehicle, which someone else looks after. You can bet the fleet managers of your car-share plan know to the metre how long you’ve driven, when you’ve driven, what you’ve driven, sometimes even where you’ve driven — and billed you accordingly. But it’s all embedded in the software and paid for separately. That’s a new kind of road pricing.

That wave will soon become a tsunami with the arrival of autonomous vehicles, transferable pay media between transit and car-sharing, and dozens of new financial plans and relationships between fleet managers and drivers.

Once the tax is hidden in the price of the trip, then it may be politically possible to use pricing to create incentives, particularly to address the problem of unwanted congestion.

This process will take some time; It likely can’t be imposed on existing drivers with their own cars unless there are services they voluntarily want. But at a certain point, everyone will be contributing to the transportation system as a whole through some form of pricing —— whether variable transit fares on Compass cards, surcharges on car sharing, or, for a while, tolls on new infrastructure, and traditional taxes — until the system is rationalized through acceptable technology, incrementally introduced.

Now is the time to establish the principles on which, ultimately, any pricing system should be based. It ideally would:

  • Include the full economic, social, and environmental costs of driving.
  • Provide incentives for users to benefit according to the time or frequency of road use.
  • Make the choice seamless among car, bike-sharing and transit, reinforced with up-to-the-minute information.
  • Dedicate the revenues to alternatives that make cities better places to live and move.
  • Offset inequities, just as we do with some sales taxes.

Now is also the time to familiarize the public with successes elsewhere — and their competitive advantages. In particular, to show how we collectively save money, whether through more efficient management of our system or building less infrastructure that we won’t really need.

Road pricing is coming one way or another. It just won’t be called that.


To follow the road pricing discussion, go here.