Congestion Charge as a Traffic Management Tool not a Revenue Tool.

London has a well known Congestion Charge, which effectively limits traffic volume in the core of the city, to a level where the traffic that is there can get around with some ease. It has been in effect for some years, and the charge for a car is currently set at 11.50GBP (over $20.00) per day. See London’s website and Wikipedia.

The discussion in Toronto over the last year has centered on possible charges, the so called Revenue Tools, that might be implemented to produce revenue, to pay down transit improvements. Little thought has been given to the impact such revenue tools might have, if any, on traffic volumes. I suggest that given the worsening congestion, it is time to look at some mechanisms specifically to limit traffic, and not revenue related. Instead of ‘Revenue Tools’, lets call them ‘Traffic Management Tools’, and which belong in a traffic control tool box.

A congestion charge is one such tool, designed to reduce traffic volumes in the core at times it is most congested. This might be possible to a degree using Parking Taxes and Highway Tolls, two of the proposed Revenue Tools, but I suggest it is necessary to focus in directly at the problem, which, by my observation, is TOO MUCH TRAFFIC. The congestion charge in London is proven to reduce traffic, and moreover, it’s charge is adjustable and its perimeter flexible.

London’s charge applies to vehicles observed in a specified area between stated times of day and days per week. It is categorically not a toll gate – license plate readers are scattered throughout the charge area, so it is not a question of getting in, but of being observed when in. There are also a variety of exceptions, with for instance deep discounts for vehicles licensed to addresses within the charge zone.

In Toronto, such a charge should apply to an area where congestion is a major problem, which is obviously downtown. We can debate how far out to go, but College/Carlton to the Lake, Spadina to Sherbourne, might be a good start. The purpose of the charge is to discourage some drivers, enough drivers, to lighten the traffic volume so that the roads work and congestion is all but gone. Instead of driving, a displaced drivers might carpool, use transit, or not travel at all. I would suggest the charge commences at a relatively inoffensive $5.00, and consider adjustments yearly based on results and user and resident feedback to that point. The high-tech nature of the apparatus used to monitor traffic would allow considerable flexibility in adjusting fees, times, etc.

Payments would be deducted through an account like a Presto account, or paid on-line by the next day, after which it goes to collection and cost increases.

Depending on how such a system is set up, delivery services, if required to pay a charge, might be persuaded to deliver to A charge zone addresses before the charge start time, such as before 7am.

A congestion charge then is not proposed to raise revenue, but very specifically, to manage traffic. Based on London’s experience it would pay for itself but not produce significant revenue. It is a very focused charge aimed to reduce traffic.

Reduced traffic emanating from the charge would have, in Toronto’s case, quite a list of positive effects. Drivers who choose to pay the charge would spend less time in traffic congestion, and their productivity would increase. Transit vehicles would get around faster, and given quicker round trip times, would be able to offer increased capacity with same number of vehicles, with virtually no extra cost.

Toronto does its best to ‘manage’ traffic with half a tool box. Road improvements, adjusting traffic signal timing, and restricting turns may help a bit, but congestion is uncontrolled. A Congestion Charge is a traffic management tool, a very important tool that should be in the traffic management tool box. Otherwise there is no end in sight, as the downtown population and vehicle counts continue to grow, and commuters flood in. When I look at the approaches to the Gardiner ramps in the evening, I wonder how much longer those back-ups can get, or how much time drivers will sit in them? Is there a break point? I suspect the next thing to happen is some major downtown employers will start to make noises about moving, as congestion eats away at productivity, leisure time and tempers.

So let’s ‘manage’ the traffic as we manage most other things.

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