Mobility pricing in Metro Vancouver must be fair for drivers and public transit commuters, says new report

April 16, 2018

Congestion-induced delays have become the norm on Metro Vancouver roads and bridges and problems will worsen with a growing population and additional cars, says a new report on mobility pricing.

Mobility pricing is a solution to the region’s transportation challenges depending on how it is implemented, says Marc Lee, author of Getting Around Metro Vancouver: A closer look at mobility pricing and fairness, released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

“Mobility pricing takes away the illusion of ‘free roads,’ based on the principle that drivers must pay for the infrastructure and services they use. But fairness needs to be at the core of mobility pricing for it to pass the test of public opinion,” says Lee, a senior economist with the CCPA BC Office.

For example, the high cost of housing in Metro Vancouver means low- and middle-income households may be forced to move further away from the central city to find affordable housing and spend hundreds of hours a year commuting.

“A key fairness concern is that low-income drivers who have no option but to drive are penalized while more affluent drivers, who live more centrally, can travel more quickly without noticing much impact on their budget,” Lee explained.

“Ability to pay is a central fairness principle, particularly for low-income households and other disadvantaged groups including people who cannot drive because of age or disability,” he added, noting that if all households had equal income and resources there wouldn’t be a problem.

For Metro Vancouver, his research shows that a fair mobility pricing system could learn from implementation of BC’s carbon pricing where a low-income credit is funded out of carbon tax revenues.

In examining real world mobility pricing systems in London, Stockholm and Singapore, Lee also found expansion of public transit is essential to ensuring accessible mobility.

“The need to invest in public transit is a central lesson from case studies of mobility pricing in other jurisdictions because the availability of reliable and fast transit options greatly reduces the need to own a car or multiple cars,” he said.

Using mobility pricing revenues to expand public transit can further address congestion by getting more people out of their vehicles and would significantly benefit low-income households that tend to be more reliant on public transit.

Lee anticipates that many drivers will balk at additional charges, at least at first.

“Getting car drivers and passengers on board is not impossible, but a pricing scheme must be perceived to be effective and fair,” Lee said. “Ultimately, drivers may prefer to pay with their time by queuing at regional choke points rather than paying more to relieve that congestion.”

The perception that drivers fully pay for their trips is false, he added.

“Most of the costs of driving are private: buying and maintaining a vehicle and paying for insurance and gas. But there are substantial public costs for vehicle infrastructure and services including road and bridge construction and maintenance, policing and public subsidies to fuel production industries. There are also external costs imposed on society as a whole through carbon emissions, air pollution, urban sprawl, noise and the environmental costs of upstream fuel extraction and processing.”

Getting these details right is important because, inevitably, new ride-hailing services and autonomous vehicles will be available in Metro Vancouver and will further clog up streets in the absence of mobility pricing.

An independent commission appointed by Translink and the Mayors’ Council, which are responsible for Metro Vancouver’s transportation network, is currently considering two broad mobility pricing models for Metro Vancouver that are influenced by politics and local geography:

  1. Congestion point charges, which could result in tolls on most regional bridges and other key choke points on highways.
  2. Distance-based charges, which could vary by time and location.

The commission is expected to issue its final report in the coming weeks.

“If the political hurdles can be overcome, well-designed mobility pricing could be an important part of the solution to manage congestion and accelerate the shift away from vehicle dependency in Metro Vancouver,” Lee said.

Lee argues that a fair mobility pricing system must:

  • address low income with a credit to assist people who have no option other than to drive. It is also a matter of transportation justice to invest in mobility for disadvantaged groups.
  • expand public transit first because investing in public transit is the only way to guarantee accessible mobility for all residents over the long-term.
  • level the playing field with other modes of transportation by applying mobility pricing to ride-hailing and car-sharing services.

Read the report.