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The Challenge to Charge

By Dirk van Amelsfort

Every once in a while, somewhere around the world, a study will hit the newsstands about the economic losses of congestion. This is not new. These studies have been around for decades and if policies do not change, they will still be around for a long time.

Increased urbanization will make congestion problems worse, but focusing only on congestion is not enough for politicians aiming for attractive and vibrant cities. Air quality, traffic safety, social inclusion and urban design are huge challenges in many cities around the globe. Urban planners must consider all modes of transportation—walking, cycling, driving and public transit—if they want to create livable and vibrant cities.

We need serious solutions, and congestion charging needs to be part of that discussion. It starts with setting the prices right.

Adding Infrastructure Is Not a Solution

Politicians need to broaden their perspectives and look beyond investing in extra infrastructure. This political default of adding capacity, the preference for cutting ribbons, causes the downward spiral that many cities are facing. Too low prices for the use of private vehicles lead to overuse, and result in deteriorating traffic, environmental and living conditions.

Adding capacity is the short term political solution, but it depletes public funds, uses public space and encourages urban sprawl. It also ensures that congestion problems will get worse in the future.

Congestion charging in popular terms imposes a charge on drivers equal to the costs their driving incurs on society. The empirical facts are that congestion charging leads to lower demand for car travel, improved travel times, increased travel time reliability, lower emissions and increased traffic safety.

Congestion Charging Gives Results

Congestion charging also generates a revenue stream which can be used, for example, to enable investments in urban design, in walking and cycling infrastructure and in public transit. These are policies that often lack solid funding mechanisms.

That congestion charging has such positive effect is not a coincidence. Policy designs are built on a huge body of economic and transportation modelling research.

We can design congestion charging policies so that they deliver the intended results and meet policy objectives. In this design process, the potential concerns surrounding equity or privacy can also be addressed. They are design variables.

So why are politicians not seeing congestion charging as part of the solution? The most important issue is perceived low public acceptance. But that perception is not entirely true. There is a growing body of empirical and research evidence that says politicians have less to fear than they think regarding congestion charging.

But that is the topic for the next Insights article.