New Mobility
November 27, 2020

Congestion Charging is so last century. Welcome to the new age of Transport Pricing

When I first heard about the proposal for ‘Transport Pricing’ in the City of Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan that went to council a few weeks ago, I thought, sorry, that’s a lost battle.

The political capital required to start ‘taxing the road’ is so high, reports that recommend it – like this one – are typically dead on arrival.  As elections approach, political leaders jump over each other to reject anything that looks, sounds or smells like a toll.  Here’s Bowinn Ma from the NDP, passing along the blunt words from John Horgan (who won the 2017 election by taking tolls off the Port Mann): “I have to be clear: it (congestion pricing) is not in our platform … and John Horgan has stated very clearly today that it would not be supported by our government …”

Not that it matters.  Congestion charging as it has been demonstrated in a handful of cities so far, notability Singapore and London, is way out of date – so 20th century.  Using gantries, cameras, IED passes and other visibly intrusive technology to establish a geographic cordon for pricing entry and exit for one particular part of a region will never pass the fairness test.  Why wouldn’t we include other places – for instance, the North Shore – where congestion is bad and getting worse?  (Minimally, there will have to be ‘discussion’ among the municipalities on either side of Lions Gate Bridge.)

Again, so much more political capital required.  Add in an equity requirement*, and good luck in getting a majority vote.  That’s why so few cities have done it.

So I was impressed when Council, by a bare majority, voted to support the part of the report that had actually recommended Transport Pricing (despite media, and my own, perception of what was being proposed).  Staff, having played in this rodeo a few times before (a previous report listed 14 examples), really wanted one key thing from council:  ‘Authorize us to develop a road map that will get us to Transport Pricing (TP).  Do not take it off the table, ship it off to the region, qualify it into irrelevance or remove any deadline for response’ – and that’s what they got.

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For years the MTA subway map of New York has been a city icon – and much debated in the graphic world as it tried to achieve an almost-impossible set of needs: accuracy, elegancy, clarity, trying to combine a huge amount of information on what happens below ground with some utility as an above-ground navigation tool.

This new online one, suitable for the way we actually get information, seems to do the job.  So, transit nerds, set aside some time to explore.

From Curbed:

Today, the MTA is unveiling its new digital map, the first one that uses the agency’s own data streams to update in real time. It supersedes the blizzard of paper service-change announcements that are taped all over your subway station’s entrance. It’s so thoroughly up-to-the-moment that you can watch individual trains move around the system on your phone.

Pinch your fingers on the screen, and you can zoom out to see your whole line or borough, as the lines resolve into single strands. Drag your fingers apart, and you’ll zoom in to see multiple routes in each tunnel springing out, widening into parallel bands — making visible individual service changes, closures and openings, and reroutings. Click on a station, and you can find out whether the elevators and escalators are working.

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He came at a time when TransLink was maligned and demoralized, thanks to Christy Clark’s pointless and destructive referendum.  He led the organization to its greatest success, to become the best transit agency in North America.  And to improvements which continue to roll out. (If not for the pandemic, we’d still be seeing significant increases in ridership.)

I suspect he received calls from headhunters every week.  And with opportunities that became irresistible.  I will not be surprised if he becomes the next Secretary of Transportation in a Biden administration.

Here’s the interview PriceTalks did with Kevin Desmond last year – still revealing for the backstory of a public servant who will be much missed but with whom we received much benefit.

The Sky’s the Limit for Kevin Desmond, CEO of North America’s Transit Ridership Leader

Happy hiking, Kevin.

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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:

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Heads up, transit nerds (or anyone curious about the literal insides of our transit system): local Vancouver blogger Mike (born and raised!) DownieLivespent the day in Vancouver with Translink, checking out their bus simulator, an electric trolley bus, SeaBus, the West Coast Express and the SkyTrain.”

Love his enthusiasm when he’s driving a trolley. ( And totally not surprised to see trolley advocate and driver Derek Cheung in the background.)

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We have a culture that makes excuses about the fact we don’t require a public basic service for a basic human need. Instead of providing public washrooms it has defaulted to businesses, restaurants and department stores to provide public washroom facilities.

It was Stanley Woodvine, The Georgia Straight  writer who wrote on his twitter account how dire the Covid pandemic was on the homeless throughout the city. Without libraries and community centres open to use washroom facilities, and with park washrooms closed, there are no options. Mr. Woodvine recalled what happened in San Diego between 2016 and 2018 when a Hepatitis A outbreak occurred. The outbreak was directly linked to the lack of public washroom and hand washing facilities, and sadly San Diego had been told by two grand juries investigating municipal government to install more washrooms downtown. The reason San Diego did not do it? Financial.

But with 444 cases of hepatitis and  the unwanted international attention,  the city installed new washrooms and initiated more street cleaning, bringing downtown San Diego’s public washroom total to 21. No matter what the cost, ensuring every citizen has access to a washroom is basic human dignity, and a tenet of public health.

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There were streetcars being operated in Vancouver from 1890 to 1947 when routes were converted to trolley operations. There are still trolley buses operating in the city.

But take a look back at the postwar advertising on the number 5 street car. There’s an ad for “Taking a Boat to Bowen Island” with Union Steamships for one dollar for a return ticket. Maxwell House coffee is being advertised as being “Good to the Last Drop”.

There’s also a stellar Vancouver Sun poster with an art moderne sailboat design stating “Refresh Yourself, Read The Sun”. The background foilage, the open window at the back of the streetcar and the street car employee in shirt sleeves suggest this photo was taken in a Vancouver summer.

While Union Steamships have not survived, there is still ferry service to Bowen Island, and Maxwell House Coffee and the Vancouver Sun are still going strong. As for the defunct street car service, there is an excellent article from Spacing.ca detailing its history including the date of the last streetcar rolloff on April 24, 1955.

Images Vancouver Archives

 

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Here’s a brilliant idea~why not mount cameras on city buses and enforce the bus lane? That’s something that New York city has been doing with ABLE (automated Bus Lane Enforcement) and since last October have issued 40,000 warnings and violations.

Using Automatic Bus Lane Enforcement cameras on four major routes capture drivers that are caught by two different  buses on the supposedly reserved bus lane. While you can imagine transgressing vehicle drivers are none too happy about the enforcement, it has sped up bus route times by 34 percent on some routes.

As Dave Colon with NYC StreetsBlog observes “Under state law, drivers are given warnings for the first 60 days a bus uses an automated enforcement camera. After that 60 days, there’s a graduated fine structure, starting at $50 for a first violation and increasing by $50 every subsequent violation in a 12-month period, for a maximum of $250 per ticket.”

And here’s the interesting part~once vehicle drivers are nailed for being in dedicated bus lanes they don’t do it again. As Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg dryly states People don’t get a lot of repeat violations. They learn the cameras are there and that it makes sense to stay out of the bus lanes.”

New York Transit bus acting  president Craig Cipriano cautions that it’s not the point of transit to write tickets, but to move buses and keep vehicles out of the dedicated bus lanes. You can view the YouTube video below where Mr. Cipriano in his  trademark New York City accent outlines how the bus cameras work .

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PT: It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Daily Scot (né Bathgate) on this blog – even though on some weeks he does text a daily observation.  Here are some:

 

DS: A great idea from TransLink, for those with bikes who would like to rack them on a bus but are too intimidated to do it for the first time:

 

DS: Port Moody must use the suburban planner’s manual: shared asphalt walk/biking path when there is a wide road begging for a separated lane.

 

DS: Turks and Caicos meets Coquitlam.  Fun colours on the North Road border as it takes on a population closer to the West End.

 

DS:Corten steel is back.  Victoria does it!  LeFevre & Co. are the developers – do great work and restored a lot of heritage buildings over the years.

 

DS: Every helmet is missing on these Mobibikes.  Is that because of Covid?

 

 

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PT: One of Translink’s most valuable assets is its CEO, Kevin Desmond.  He was the needed leader after the appalling debacle of the BC Liberal’s imposed referendum, he led the agency to the best performance in North America, and he has an even bigger challenge in restoring confidence and ridership in the Covid era, current- and post-.  (It’s on the way; ridership is already up about 40 percent.)

Here’s his latest call to action (with my added emphasis in bold) in Linked-in here:

 

Kevin Desmond: COVID-19 has dimmed the vibrancy of urban centres across the globe and spurred some to question whether we are witnessing “the end of cities.”

The pandemic has disrupted our lives in so many ways that it’s hard to predict what tomorrow will bring, let alone which changes will become permanent. However, I firmly believe that cities will rise again – with a recovery driven by transit.

After all, cities have been at the heart of every prosperous society. We are, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser puts it, “an urban species,” living off the fruits of collaboration that cities – and public transportation – provide.

But the pandemic is testing the key tenets of what makes cities and transit work, namely bringing people together. Public transport is facing a crisis unlike any other since the late-1940s. What then took place over two decades – an 80 per cent erosion in transit ridership, brought on by the rise of the personal car and suburbia – was realized in just two weeks earlier this year, as COVID-19 emerged. In response, public health measures have kept people safe, but have stunted transit.

As a society, we can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes and allow transit to whither.  Effective public transport is synonymous with equitable and sustainable urban development. Metro Vancouver was a leader on this front before the pandemic, with record-setting ridership that led North America. Notably, the sharpest increase in transit ridership was in communities outside the City of Vancouver.

Unfortunately, in the short-term, I believe the return of traffic congestion is inevitable. We have already witnessed a dramatic decline in transit ridership and a sharp rebound in traffic congestion. Early data show that driving in Metro Vancouver is already up by around four per cent compared to one year ago. I think we can all agree the future we don’t want is one with more congestion.

That’s why it’s critical that we rebuild public confidence in the safety of transit, through initiatives such as TransLink’s Safe Operating Action Plan and our recently launched Open Call for Innovation, focused on improving the cleanliness and safety of the system. Now is the time for our industry, worldwide and here in the Lower Mainland, to seek out and embrace innovations.

Looking beyond the immediate future, we need to contemplate whether the rapid societal changes initiated by this crisis, such as social distancing and tele-commuting, will persist. If so, that will have significant implications on transit ridership – a crucial consideration for TransLink, which depends heavily on fares for operating revenue.

 

We also need to ask: how might our urban landscapes change? Already we’ve seen cities reimagining their streetscapes to create more space for pedestrians, cyclists, and restaurants. Many of these changes could positively improve the livability and vibrancy of our cities I believe we need to consider how transit can complement these measures and contribute to this new urban experience.

Time will tell which changes will hold, but TransLink welcomes conversations on how our region can increase efficiency while balancing diverse priorities throughout the transportation system. Improving the livability of Metro Vancouver is central to our mission and drives our organization every day.

As we help the region Build Back Better, I believe the region’s values – which we learned about through our largest-ever engagement in Transport 2050 – will endure and help inform the decisions we need to make together. Transport 2050 will also help us navigate the next 30 years, with its inevitable population and economic growth, and face the trio of challenges presented by affordability,

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