The Metro Vancouver Mobility Pricing Independent Commission will release its report tomorrow. (Expect to hear the pat-pat-pat of running feet as politicians distance themselves from anything that looks like a ‘road tax.’)

This report will be just the opening round as everyone in the region deals with the inevitability of transformative change in our transportation system.

Regardless of the options, one of the key (and most contentious) issues is the concept of ‘fairness.’  In April, economist Marc Lee at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives provided of the first, detailed outlooks on this issue, in the CCPA’s report “Getting Around Metro Vancouver.”

From the April 16th CCPA news release about the report:

Mobility pricing takes away the illusion of ‘free roads,’ based on the principle that drivers must pay for the infrastructure and services they use. But fairness needs to be at the core of mobility pricing for it to pass the test of public opinion,” says Marc Lee, a senior economist with the CCPA BC Office.

For example, the high cost of housing in Metro Vancouver means low- and middle-income households may be forced to move further away from the central city to find affordable housing and spend hundreds of hours a year commuting.

“A key fairness concern is that low-income drivers who have no option but to drive are penalized while more affluent drivers, who live more centrally, can travel more quickly without noticing much impact on their budget,” Lee explained. …

For Metro Vancouver, his research shows that a fair mobility pricing system could learn from implementation of BC’s carbon pricing where a low-income credit is funded out of carbon tax revenues. …

Using mobility pricing revenues to expand public transit can further address congestion by getting more people out of their vehicles and would significantly benefit low-income households that tend to be more reliant on public transit. …

In the release, Lee argues that a fair mobility pricing system must:

  • address low income with a credit to assist people who have no option other than to drive; that is, to invest in mobility for disadvantaged groups as a matter of ‘transportation justice’.
  • expand public transit first, the idea being that investments in public transit are the only way to guarantee accessible mobility for all residents over the long-term.
  • level the playing field with other modes of transportation, which would pull ride-hailing and car-sharing services into the mobility pricing mix.

The dilemma, however, is this: a mobility charge that tries to ‘decongest’ the region’s traffic has to be high enough to change behaviour, which thus penalizes low-income drivers more than higher-income. Yet, if lower-income drivers are given a credit to offset the charge, it could eliminate any incentive to change behaviour.

Marc argues that the low-income car users would realize they could actually save money, both by receiving a credit and by driving less.

In any case, the ‘decongestion charge’ has to be visible in some way to have an effect. And we just hate visible charges, especially connected to the car. (It’s why media cover the increase in gas prices so relentlessly; it’s one of the only visible costs we see repeatedly.)

Expect, as well, that the definition of ‘low-income driver’ would raise the bar rather high, as is the case for the carbon tax; about 40 percent of British Columbians get a credit of some kind, and Marc suggests about one-third to 40 percent of mobility charges would be allocated to the a mobility credit.  A cash grab this is not.

Even then, I doubt a credit system would negate the belief by almost everyone that in some way or another, a mobility charge would be unfair for them, regardless of whether they were saving money. It’s the visibility that offends. We spent most of the 20th century providing a road system that seems to be free (hey, they’re called ‘freeways,’ aren’t they?) and hiding the costs of the car as much as possible.

Roads, in fact, are seen as one of the true democratic spaces in society. Assuming you have a car, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, drive a beater or BMW; you have the same right to the road.

The last thing people want to see is driving becoming like housing — another way for inequity to divide us.

To avoid that, people are willing to put up with congestion more than they’re willing to admit.