British Columbia·Analysis

Taxing gridlock: Vancouver looks to Singapore, Stockholm for congestion fix

When Stockholm first tried out a new congestion tax — charging downtown drivers extra for using the city’s core — most Swedes angrily rejected the tax, but opinion flipped one month into a pilot project after gridlock eased.

‘This is not an anti-car measure,’ says expert who helped implement the highest congestion charge in the world

Tolls on the Port Mann Bridge are set to end Sept.1.

When Stockholm first tried out a new congestion tax — charging downtown drivers extra for using the city's core — most Swedes angrily rejected the tax, but opinion flipped one month into a pilot project after gridlock eased.

"People saw with their own eyes that it did work," said Daniel Firth, the Brit behind high-tech anti-congestion solutions that saw success in London, and later in Stockholm.

He's the new head of Vancouver's independent commission on Mobility Pricing.

The commission will try to find ways to offset the $132 million revenue hole left by the end of two bridge tolls as of Sept. 1.

Transit officials need infrastructure funding and experts say cheap tech options make this a ripe time to put a price on driving in high demand zones, despite driver opposition.

Firth is tasked with finding new funding and fixes for traffic jams by examining everything from gas taxes to parking charges.

But driver advocates don't like the direction he's heading.

Some drivers argue highways should be universally free, as taxes are already too high.

Any charge tied to driving distance is seen as unfair, especially for people who can't afford to live in Vancouver, or a city with adequate public transit.

Firth knows this subject is controversial and Vancouver needs a custom fit.

High-tech tax tools

But Firth and other experts say most people don't really understand how flexible and game-changing modern mobility pricing is.

With technology shifting by the second, road taxes can be aimed precisely at specific zones, lanes or even per-kilometre driven, making it a ripe time to put a price on premium pavement, say experts.

Cheap technology developed in the past decade enables cities to easily erect cameras to capture licence plates or employ GPS systems to monitor car use.

Five million transit trips are taken between Park Royal and Vancouver every year. (David Horemans/CBC)

Another option is a chip — often embedded in a decal — which is read as the driver passes a receiver. Registered users earn incentives, and the system helps bill for zone use.

Tools like this can influence traffic patterns, and even a 10 per cent reduction in cars can be as dramatic as how quiet streets seem in the summer, says Firth.

Other models see success

Just look at London. Since 2003 anybody who wants to drive into Central London pays $18.60 a day, the highest congestion charge in the world.

"The effect was actually quite spectacular at first," says transportation expert Werner Antweiler, associate professor with the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.

And while cities like London and Stockholm aimed charges at downtown cores to reduce traffic clogs, other cities focus on wider zones.

Charges tied to congestion are used in cities to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and enjoy views like this one from a SkyTrain, pulling into a station in Coquitlam, B.C. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

Singapore — a city that pioneered traffic taming — is now experimenting with a per-kilometre charge using a GPS tracking device to monitor distance, zone and time of day.

Major U.S. cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle have opted for user-pay "hot lanes" where drivers can register and pay extra to go faster in less-clogged lanes, shifting volume, says Firth.

Critics reject 'gimmickry'

But not all drivers like this new direction.

Motorist advocate Ian Tootill ended up in a user-pay fast lane in Florida by accident and said it was a panic to get out.

"It just makes life so unnecessarily complicated — Vancouver is never going to be London," said Tootill, the co-founder of Sense B.C. who does not believe Vancouver needs to invest in "high-tech gimmickry."

"I think this is a route that, once it's gone down, a lot of people that haven't paid attention, are going to be really, really upset."

In Seattle, Wash., overhead signs are used to warn drivers about changing conditions — as in this case because of the eclipse congestion — or of lanes subjects to automatic tolls. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

Stephen Roberts, 49, commuted from Mission to Vancouver by avoiding the Port Mann Bridge after a toll was introduced. Many drivers shifted to other "choke points" into Vancouver — like the Alex Fraser Bridge.

This just shifted congestion, say experts.

The new government decided to cancel that toll as of Sept. 1.

Roberts says new mobility taxes will punish people who can't afford to live in Vancouver and settle in outlying cities where there may not be access to bus routes or SkyTrain.

"Taxing how much I pay based on how much I drive is completely unfair. I don't have an option. I don't have another choice," said Roberts. 

This is a 'pro-car' measure

Firth expects "robust debate" on any mobility pricing initiative.

But he says drivers already pay with gridlock, gas taxes and unpredictable commute delays

"This is not an anti-car measure. It's actually the opposite. It's a pro-car measure. It's about finding a way of making it possible for us to carry on using cars in a big city," said Firth.

And who knows, maybe eventually the commission will opt to reduce gas taxes and collect the shortfall from drivers who are happy to shell out extra to cruise the fast lane.

Drivers say they'd opt for transit if it was cheaper and connected easily to their homes, but often in cities that are more affordable than Vancouver, this is not the case. (Yvette Brand/CBC)


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip?