On Thursday, the Eno Transportation Centre presented another of their webinars, this one with an irresistible title:

The webinar hosts three authors from the UCLA Luskin Centre for History and Policy who summarize the results of a just-released study:

We examined a century of programs to reduce congestion and found that several strategies were pursued over and over again in different eras. Los Angeles repeatedly built new street, highway, and transit capacity, regulated drivers and vehicle traffic flows, increased the use of information about traffic conditions, and controlled land use to influence traffic.

So what were the consequences?  No surprise, but here’s the spoiler anyway:

Congestion has been addressed in every era and in numerous ways, but always has returned.

The report gives the details decade by decade – every possibility from expanded road capacity to land use.  Except one:

Congestion pricing … based on proven theory of human economic behavior promoted for a century, proven in application to sectors of the economy other than transportation, and enabled by recent advances in telecommunications technology. It has a proven track record …

Big picture conclusion: except for a handful of cities in the world, congestion (or mobility) pricing is a policy intervention that has often been proposed but never adopted.  Despite the fact it works.  And may be the only thing that does.

TransLink, the Province, Metro Vancouver – they’ve all studied the issue, most recently in 2018 with the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission.  The conclusion was the same: some form of road pricing makes sense.  And then saw the concept under whatever name rejected by most political leaders literally within a day of its release.

Within a few hours of the Eno webinar, there was another Zoomy opportunity to get a local perspective.  A coalition of transportation interests – Moving in a Livable Region – held an all-candidates forum online with representatives from each party:

In a response to a question by Peter Ladner on the need for mobility pricing, the parties were effectively of the same position.  Nothing’s happening anytime soon.   Harrison Johnston of the Greens would consult more, George Affleck of the Liberals wouldn’t say, but turned the question on Bowinn Ma of the NDP to defend the removal of tolls from Metro’s bridges.

She was unequivocal:

From 58:22

Any decongestion charge must … work in a way that is socially just.

I have to be clear: it’s not in our platform … and John Horgan has stated very clearly today that it would not be supported by our government …

On the question of fairness and equity, the UCLA study is particularly interesting – and comes to a counter-intuitive conclusion:

The most vocal debates about the possibility of testing congestion pricing in Los Angeles have been about fairness. Equity challenges to the idea of charging for something that was previously free are  common, and likely even more so following the spring 2020 demonstrations against policy brutality and anti-Black racism.

Congestion pricing can be quickly dismissed as a tool to speed rich white people to their destinations while charging working class indigenous people and people of color to drive on roads they have no choice but to use. …

.. several authors have shown that congestion pricing in fact tends to advance the wellbeing of lower-income and nonwhite communities. The perception that congestion pricing would harm the poor and non-white residents is intuitive, but not empirically supported, and works to promote the interests of upper income drivers who would have to pay dramatically more under congestion pricing than would the poor.

So here we are: parties across the political spectrum are using equity and affordability as a protective argument to reject (or delay any action in the name of further study) the one thing that actually works.  And in doing so, they sacrifice their other priorities, from good land use to action on climate change, in an unstated but de-facto defense of motordom.

Regardless of who gets elected in BC, it looks as thought the result will be the same.  We’ll call for action, we’ll commission studies, we’ll approve plans, we’ll spend billions.   We just won’t do what works.


  1. I’m probably the least qualified person to comment on this, but it seems to me that the way to address the fairness and equity objections is to direct the proceeds from congestion pricing to public transit. That does two things – it benefits transit users, who tend to be at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and it provides a necessary alternative to driving that congestion pricing would require.

  2. Congestion pricing works in Europe. Low income car and transit passengers can get rebate
    so the program can be implemented in BC. Another mistake is continuing to offer FREE parking at all the Hospitals.

    1. Congestion pricing and road tolls is NOT very common in Europe. A few cities like London or Stockholm have it for inner cities. Some highways are tolled, like in France, Italy or Switzerland. Germany does it but only for trucks not for cars.

      While the overall concept makes a lot of sense everywhere and is now easy to implement due to GPS and widespread ability to track vehicle movement, it is nevertheless NOT very common NOR very popular.

      Why is that ?
      Editor’s Note: Switzerland does not have tolled roads. You pay an annual tax on your vehicle called a “vignette”.

      1. NYC will implement congestion pricing in 2021 and I think other big cities will follow. Many cities have extra charges when you pay for your car insurance.

  3. This is still a relatively new idea. Not tolls, but using pricing as a tool to manage congestion doesn’t yet go back a generation. This is a big change. A necessary change. But so was abolition. Black rights. Women’s Rights. LGBTQ rights. Big changes take at least one and usually two generations. They just do. Old farts who will never ever change their mind need to leave this planet. Look at climate change, a much more critical overarching problem. The necessary changes are beginning to show themselves and are finally getting public buy-in two or three generations after the problem was identified – more than a full generation after it should have been understood by the general public.

    Not saying we should just expect that it will happen in two generations. It is the same vested interests behind inaction and they’ll make sure that those who are opposed will think it’s their idea. We still need to keep pushing, commenting, letter writing, pestering politicians, talking to friends. But these things almost never take less than a generation.

  4. Mike Buda of the Mayors Council posted in the chat during that zoom webinar something about CRED:
    Credits, Rebates, (E something) and Discounts, as a way of addressing equity.

    Yes, this needs a lot of public education, but when/where will that start???

    The Mayors Council got this far (https://www.translink.ca/Plans-and-Projects/Mobility-Pricing.aspx), then got stuck in political traffic.

    Why don’t groups like the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition want to touch this???

    Someone should sponsor radio traffic updates, with a simple message:
    “Stuck in traffic? Fed up? Had enough? Want a quick solution?
    There is a simple, proven way to get rid of this gridlock.
    It costs a fraction of the billions you will pay for highway expansions.
    Interested? Visit http://www.xxxxyyyy

  5. Congestion pricing is political suicide and always will be in North America. Any government foolish enough to bring it in will see themselves promptly vote out in the next election by their opponents who will campaign on scrapping the tax. Vancouver isn’t central London with a warren of narrow streets the needs are different.

    1. “Always will be” is an awful long time. We eventually accept all sorts of things our gum-flapping grandparents would not have put up with because they experienced the past but their kids live in a different world with different needs. Their grandchildren just accept it as necessary and normal.

      What you are talking, Bob, about is conservative governments, unable to progress.

      1. Conservative gov ? Was it not Christy Clarke’s (right of centre aka conservative) gov that put a toll on an expensive bridge just to see a Green-NDP coalition cancel it ?

        1. Without the tolls (or the promise of tolls), the Liberals would never have been able to sell or build either the Golden Ears or Port Mann bridges. They didn’t “put” tolls on them.

          1. PM bridge was tolled for about a year, then NDP realized that the Surrey swing ridings didn’t like it so they promised to kill it once elected, and did in 2017, with the “green” coalition support. That one seat advantage (40 seats plus 3 Greens) was enough to boot Christy Clarke with 42 seats. Otherwise, she’d still be premier today AND (tolled) Massey Bridge would be well underway, too.

            Good politics – bad policies !

            As stated, no party is proposing tolls anywhere, or congestion pricing in MetroVan, although it makes a lot of sense esp with ever more EVs and thus, plummeting fuel surcharge revenues to BC Government, regardless of who wins next week. As such, it will come by stealth most likely.

          2. And yet governments have been able to crank out billions to deal with Covid, so there goes that argument about needing a toll to finance bridge construction.

          3. The Port Mann tolls were not fair and it was good politics but not good policy to end them. Having said that, those south of the river were quite willing to pay the toll for a shiny new bridge if it brought an end to the bottle neck. So it is also unfair to everybody else that they ended. They made their bed.

            What should have been promised was a fairly allocated system of tolls on all the choke points with variable pricing. I will never forgive the NDP for that missed opportunity. The NDPs short reign has been a constant string of missed opportunities. The Greens were certainly not going to challenge their new political partners so early in their weak relationship position. They were never wagging the dog as many liked to claim.

            While it’s certainly true that the tolls would likely remain if the Liberals got in, it was not congestion pricing. And they’d be forging ahead with another sprawl-inducing bridge. So as much as the NDP has been pretty disappointing they were still a big improvement IMHO.

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