Comment: We need more road tolls to tackle congestion, by Tim Williams

Too many politicians are seduced by expensive ribbon-cutting mania for new infrastructure - when better use of existing infrastructure could be a better answer to congestion, says Tim Williams.

Tim Williams
Tim Williams

I have been pointing out for some time that there is no evidence that building or widening roads can ease congestion. Indeed, the opposite. The evidence globally is that adding to road capacity in our cities usually only results in a short-term benefit in terms of congestion and that very quickly the new capacity gets filled up by the extra demand created. Roads induce demand and congestion tends to equilibrium. So any transport strategy that includes only supply side measures without managing demand will fail to manage congestion.

Congestion is not just a matter of supply. It’s a matter of demand. More supply creates more demand because roads are free or under-priced and there is a latent demand to travel by car, which gets realised when new roads or are built or existing capacity widened. The M25 motorway is the famous example in the UK. Originally forecast to be at capacity some years after opening, it was more or less full at peak hours on day one. A counter example, which proves the point, is that the taking away of significant road capacity doesn’t worsen congestion and actually leads to lowered demand, as some car users either travel by other modes, routes, or times of day. This is what happened when Seoul took out the massive Cheonggycheon Freeway, exposing and regenerating the river underneath and uplifting the surrounding area. Previously carrying over 100,000 vehicles a day, a combination of new public transport with the removal of the road actually improved congestion in this key area, raised property values significantly, increased employment in the zone and dramatically improved the environment. Demand from people to use and invest in the space increased as vehicle demand and road supply declined. 

Academics have always agreed that demand management and road pricing are essential elements of the congestion management toolkit. But politicians and the media here, as in most places, either don’t believe it or think the public won’t back the road pricing regime required to suppress demand and manage congestion. London is an exception, of course, where an elected mayor succeeded in getting congestion charging accepted, but it is a relatively unusual success and Boris, of course, rowed back on extending the congestion zone, due largely electoral concerns. And the level of the congestion charge has been eroded by inflation, with politicians fearing to raise it appropriately. As a consequence, its impact has declined somewhat over the years.

So few are immune to fears of a consumer rebellion on charging for road space. But London still has its congestion charge and mayors supporting it have been re-elected. So political boldness and evidence can win the argument, but they are in shorter supply than we need. Too many politicians are seduced by expensive ribbon-cutting mania for new infrastructure – when better use of existing infrastructure could be a better answer to congestion.

What does help, as is shown by the London example, is business support for policy innovation. In London, sometimes demonised ‘big business’ showed itself to be progressive and hugely influential on the issue of congestion charging. It would never have happened without leadership from business group London First, which campaigned for it at the highest levels because no other innovation would reduce congestion (which it has done). The group helped politicians who knew that this was the right way to go – particularly Ken Livingston, the first elected London mayor – to get this radical policy accepted by the media and the community.  Big business and a reforming mayor were on the same side, showing that great public policy is not ideological and can be developed cross-party. But boy does it help the city policy innovation process when business agrees with reforming and bold politicos. 

As I am CEO of Sydney’s version of London First, this is not a historic or abstract issue for me. My role is to identify key issues on which global business and bold city reformers agree. Improving Sydney’s congestion is high on the list at the moment, given that [independent statutory body] Infrastructure Australia identified seven of the eight most congested corridors in Australia as being in Sydney at the moment.  The challenge here, as in London, at the turn of the century is whether increasing supply of transport is the answer, or whether we need to focus on demand management, which means road pricing. I personally believe the time has come for a strategic road pricing demand management strategy, but we are still working through the global evidence. I’d be interested what readers think works best in their cities or what they think is needed for their cities.

Tim Williams is chief executive officer of Australia-based independent think tank The Committee for Sydney. He was previously senior special adviser to a number of cabinet ministers in the Department of Communities and Local Government.

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