Category Archives: traffic

Gérald Tremblay’s got the right idea

While Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay was announcing his vision (PDF, en français) for reworking his city’s whole approach to transportation, it’s very possible that I was — at that moment — sitting in traffic on the Métropolitain thinking, “God, what this place needs is a congestion charge.”

We went to Quebec City for a few days, and to get there, drove Autoroute 40 through Montreal. A section of it is an elevated “expressway,” the Met. Depending on the time of day, it’s either a parking lot or a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of terror. Six lanes of traffic on a road that’s really only wide enough for four, no shoulders to speak of, and everybody bumper-to-bumper whether they’re moving or not. At one point I was going 100 in a 70 zone, moving with traffic, and was aggressively tailgated by a jerk in a white minivan who turned out — when he passed me using a hole in traffic about six inches longer than his vehicle — to be a cop. A supervisor, indeed.

Not that I’m complaining about Montreal drivers. They’re awful, but predictably so, and I like that they give no quarter. You know where you stand with them, whether you’re sharing the road as a pedestrian, cyclist or driver. You get your chance when you take it, and not a second before — in certain other cities, look vaguely interested in turning a corner and everyone screeches to a halt until you’ve made up your mind. It’s awful.

But the Met is a road at the outside edge of its capacity. Even drivers fearless enough to roar along at 120 kilometres an hour in quarters close enough to touch the cars on all sides of them can’t keep the thing flowing. It can’t be made wider. Any redesigned interchanges would certainly just funnel more traffic on, particularly at the Décarie. It’s potholed and crumbling, too; repairs would mean closing lanes, since there are no shoulders to reroute traffic onto.

The Métropolitain is probably the worst road in Montreal — in strong contention for the worst in Canada — but almost every artery gets almost as bad at rush hour. The city can’t take more cars. There’s nowhere for them to go.

So Tremblay is proposing some gutsy changes. In a $5.1-billion proposal, he includes about $400 million for new and improved roads, but the vast bulk of his plan is for bike lanes and new buses and trams and expansions of the Métro (a staggeringly expensive proposition, taking up $3.8 billion of the proposed budget, but I’m not sure what the alternative is in a city already so dependent on its subway).

The gutsy part isn’t the wish-list, though. Everybody has one of those. It’s in how Tremblay proposes to pay for the thing.

Yes, he wants vast sums of money from the Quebec and federal governments, but he also wants to soak drivers. Tolls on the bridges onto the Island of Montreal. A $1-a-space tax on paid parking lots (generating $120 million from an industry whose total revenues, according to the City of Montreal’s information are only $193 million a year). Possibly tolls — congestion charges, really — for cars using the island’s highway network ( “Le péage pour les déplacements en voiture sur le réseau autoroutier de l’Île de Montréal serait également envisageable.”), which the Gazette‘s economics writer Peter Hadekel supports.

And specifically, Tremblay proposes a 10-cent tax on every litre of gas sold in Montreal, up from the current 1.5 cents a litre (unchanged, the city says, since 1996).

While I’m not sure it’s right to link driving charges to funding public transportation — tolls and other fees should simply be for services consumed, independent of the city’s other spending priorities — I like Tremblay’s honesty about the problem. People can’t drive into Montreal more than they are now. It’s wrecking the place:

Montréal reconnaît que l’automobile n’est pas un moyen de déplacement durable. La place occupée par le réseau routier et le stationnement, la pollution, les nuisances de la circulation, etc., en sont autant d’indicateurs.

Montreal recognizes that the automobile isn’t a sustainable means of transportation. The space taken up by the road network and parking, pollution, the nuisances of traffic, etc., are many indicators.

There’s a long way to go before any of this becomes reality (the Gazette reports deep skepticism on Montreal city council that Tremblay can get any of the money for this stuff), but the mayor is pointing out the right problem, and good on him.

Devising a middle-class transit system

Despite the Santa Clara County bus system’s having lost about 30 per cent of its riders in the past few years, most local governments would still be pretty pleased to have a transit system on the financial footing of the Valley Transit Authority. According to the San Jose Mercury News (free registration required), the VTA has “nearly broken even” for several years despite the pounding taken by Silicon Valley’s economy and a plunge in ridership from about 150,000 a day to 100,000.

Still, in the interests of attracting more riders again, the VTA is hoping for political support for a plan to cut its prices.

Among the lost riders: a 25 percent drop in the number of youths taking the bus and a 35 percent drop in elderly and disabled passengers.

That decline led to a task force of transit advocates, elected officials and riders that concluded lowering fares would be the best way to attract people back on buses.

“We questioned how much ridership would drop off when fares were hiked,” said Dolly Sandoval, a VTA board member from Cupertino, recalling the decision to raise rates. “Unfortunately, we did not expect such a large number of riders would drop off.

“If we want people to ride our system, we not only need to make it more convenient, we need to make it economically feasible.”

Comparisons of this sort of thing are difficult because populations and geography don’t match, but for reference, Santa Clara County has a population of about 1.6 million; Ottawa’s transit system (which is mostly buses) carries about 350,000 people a day on a population of about 800,000; and Edmonton’s ETS carries about 120,000 out of 1 million or so in greater Edmonton, so despite its almost breaking even, the VTA is not an enormous transportation success.

The price cut is not what you’d call significant: a day pass for an adult will go from $5.25 to $5, and a monthly pass for an elderly or disabled person from $26 to $20. Twelve-and-a-half cents per commute seems an incentive unlikely to get them flocking onto the VTA’s buses like they did in the old days.

Here in Ottawa, the city is financially strapped thanks to Ontario’s messed-up system of putting social programs on municipalities’ tabs and a public unwillingness to pay any higher taxes (Mayor Larry O’Brien was elected partly on the strength of one slogan: “Zero means zero”), and the transit system is in the midst of a five-year program to hike fares by something approaching 50 per cent. The theory, according to the city manager, is that the system’s biggest problem isn’t price, it’s quality of service.

As a bus-rider myself, I’ve whiled away many minutes waiting at bus stops in the bitter cold and grinding my teeth while the noise bleeding from some guy’s earphones half-deafens me, calculating just how much cheaper this single ride is compared to what it would cost if I were driving myself. Roughly speaking, I spend $900 a year on tickets, maybe an eighth of the typical cost of ownership of the Mazda 3 I test-drove a few summers ago. There’s really no comparison, and it’d get worse if drivers paid any significant fraction of the cost of the public roads they use. Price is pretty definitely not the issue, especially for the middle-class riders who get to and from work in private cars in droves. They’re happy to pay a hell of a lot more for the convenience and comfort of their own vehicles.

If the reader comments on the Merc story are anything to by, Santa Clara County has much the same challenge. I suspect they’d be a lot better off if they stuffed the fare cut and invested the money they kept in improved service. The objection to that, of course, is that public transit isn’t just a means of saving on the public cost of roads, but also of helping people with less money get around the sprawling municipalities that are the result of cheap oil, free road travel, and loose zoning codes.

My solution, assuming that tightening up density requirements and charging private drivers for the convenience of using public roads aren’t options, is a two-tier transit service. It’s virtually impossible to turn a profit on a transit line except in the densest development (and even then, only at limited times of the day), but let private companies have those concessions, and let them operate intra-city transit the way they do inter-city motor coaches: let them charge whatever they can get away with, but provide comfortable middle-class-level service in exchange.

A candidate in Ottawa’s municipal election proposed almost exactly this last fall and a disappointing number of people found the idea laughable. Even if transit exists partly to serve those too poor and/or young to buy cars, if you run a system as though they’re the target market, they’re the only riders you’re going to get.

(Via Planetizen.)

Subsidizing sprawl

That government subsidies meant to attract large employers also appear to contribute to sprawl should come as no great surprise. If you’re looking for a place to put your business and a critical feature is that the place be cheap, you’re going to want land that’s as inexpensive as possible, architecture that’s as inexpensive as possible (what’s cheaper than a one- or two-storey building with concrete tilt-up walls?), and a bare minimum of amenities for your employees and their community (a couple of acres of surface parking should just about do it. Of course you’re going to locate as far as you can from an urban core.

Here’s Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group:

Of 86 subsidized corporate relocations in Minnesota between 1999 and 2003, involving 8,200 jobs and more than $90 million in government payouts, four-fifths were outbound from the Minneapolis-St. Paul urban core. People of color and transit-dependent workers lost out; more affluent, less racially diverse areas gained, registering increases in jobs that were five times that of the central cities.

The map of subsidized job shifts in the Twin Cities area, says Greg LeRoy, Good Jobs First’s founder-leader, resembles an “evacuation plan.”

Good Jobs First, which provided Peirce with his data, is on an excellent campaign to tie subsidies like this to requirements that companies receiving subsidies like free land or buildings or waived development charges locate their operations near transit or on brownfields or in troubled but inhabited districts.

As they point out, there’s absolutely no point giving a company a one-shot subsidy to move into your town if its arrival puts permanent pressure on your infrastructure that eats up any financial benefit it delivers.

In many cities, it’s a dirty secret that growth doesn’t pay for itself even if it’s not subsidized. So why on earth would a thoughtful government use taxpayers’ money to make things even worse?

(Via Planetizen.)

Bloomberg’s congestion charge: a step toward fairness

Brooklyn BridgeOn the heels of the New York City Parks Department’s effort to put a value on its trees comes a massive new sustainability plan out of the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Here’s the mayor’s speech introducing the thing, on Earth Day 2007. In a nutshell:

Our strategies focus on the five key dimensions of the city’s environment: land, air, water, energy, and transportation, so that we can absorb the coming growth – while continuing to strengthen our economy, our public health, and the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

That’s our vision: a city that finds creative solutions to the need for more housing and parks. That has much cleaner air – the cleanest of any large city in the nation that protects the purity of its drinking water – and opens virtually all of our rivers and creeks and coastal waters to recreation.

“Plan” is probably the wrong word, though it’s officially called “Planyc” (“Plan Y-C,” I think it’s pronounced). Despite the acres of text and graphics emitted by Bloomberg’s office, and the sweep of his speech, almost everything in the plan amounts to a promise to do all the things that the city government is supposed to do but doesn’t — or at least doesn’t do very well — because they’re hard and expensive. Consider the bullet points of the subsection of the plan for housing:

  1. Pursue transit-oriented development
  2. Reclaim underutilized waterfronts
  3. Increase transit options to spur development
  4. Expand co-locations with government agencies [that is, share municipal office space with the state and federal governments]
  5. Adapt outdated buildings to new uses
  6. Develop underused areas to knit neighbourhoods together

and so on to 11. You get the idea: all fine principles, with many, many devils slouching around in the details.

So it’s no wonder that the thing everybody’s grabbed hold of is the single most concrete of the dozens of points in Planyc, the plan to charge an $8 congestion fee to enter the southern half of Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. New Yorkers outside the affected area, fearing that there’ll be traffic jams and new demand for parking lots on the edges of “the Zone,” are less than thrilled.

But an important component of the plan is that the congestion charge is to be deducted from the tolls commuters pay to drive the bridges and tunnels onto and off Manhattan, which vary quite a bit but are generally either about $6 one-way onto the island or about $4.50 each way. Commuters taking a toll bridge or tunnel are to pay only the difference between the toll and $8, effectively just raising the tolls to $8 everywhere.

(People who get it in the shorts are those who live north of 86th Street, the northern edge of the Zone, and have driven south for free. Of course, people who do that are in the best position to take transit — the ones who are really screwed are those who live in the Zone and drive out of it for work. Not that there are likely a lot of them; Bloomberg’s supporting documentation says only 4.6 per cent of New Yorkers drive into the Zone for work, and doesn’t even mention that there’s anyone who drives out.)

Despite the objections, a congestion charge is the only policy option that makes sense when you have roads that are absolutely crammed full and no prospect for widening them. (Widening a road is just about always a bad idea, but apparently it takes densities like those in the densest part of New York City to convince people that widening is literally not possible.) Access to a smooth-flowing road is a good not everyone can have, so it’s only fair to restrict it to the people to whom it’s worth the most. The New York City plan contends that delivery drivers, for instance, will spend less time in traffic and will make more than $8 a day in improved business. And the proceeds, which Bloomberg’s office estimates at a stunning $400 million a year, are to be plowed into public transit.

Indeed, if someone could come up with a system for doing it that didn’t collapse under its own complexity, charging for access to any public road would be the fairest way to distribute access. What we have now is a peculiar form of rationing, in which everyone who pays taxes kicks in to build and maintain roads, but access is restricted to those who can afford cars. Doesn’t really make sense. Bloomberg’s congestion fee is just a first gross-scale step in the direction of fairness.

Photo credit: Flickr/Squeaky Marmot.

A sticker wicket for California

A silver Prius from the rearDave at Rattling the Kettle, via the magic of WordPress’s tag-surfer feature, points out a story from USA Today last month about how the state of California has essentially handed the owners of certain hybrid cars several thousand dollars by giving the vehicles access to the state’s carpool lanes even if the driver is the only occupant.

The catch is that California has given out 85,000 access stickers and stopped, because that’s all that legislation allows, and now the stickered cars are tradeable. Hybrids with stickers are worth more than hybrids without.

Now that no new permits are available for hybrids, asking prices average $4,000 more for used Priuses with stickers than without, the survey by car-price tracker Kelley shows.

“It appears people buying Prius vehicles had a different angle” than just saving fuel or polluting less, says Eric Ibara, Kelley’s market valuation director. Kelley sampled prices of 30 2004-06 Priuses offered at used car websites. That’s sufficient to confirm the price difference, Ibara says. He says not enough used Civic hybrids were for sale to include them.

Technically, the Kelley Blue Book survey just found that asking prices for the stickered Priuses (“Prii”?) were $4,000 higher than for the non-stickered, but it certainly makes intuitive sense that drivers would be willing to pay more for cars that are allowed to travel in less-clogged lanes.

Now California is in an interesting bind, in which it’s forced to confront the question of what exactly its highways’ carpool lanes are for. If the primary value of carpooling is supposed to be that it leads to less pollution per commuter, the state needs to start issuing more stickers to environmentally friendlier cars, and stat. Not only that, but the benefit shouldn’t just attach to the drivers of hybrids, but to any car that gets great mileage and meets stringent emissions standards, whether it’s a hybrid or a Smart Car or powered by a battery plugged into solar panels at the owner’s house. The program ought to be interested in results, not the technology used to achieve them.

But if the carpool lanes are supposed to be about reducing traffic and dampening demand for more lanes on busy roads, well, this whole thing is a big step in the wrong direction, encouraging more single-occupancy vehicles, more congestion, more nightmares for California’s traffic engineers.

Don’t expect state legislators to have an easy time with that one.

Photo credit: Flickr/Beige Alert.