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the road ahead

Vehicles idle in traffic in Vancouver on March 12, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Hours after Vancouver said it will charge tolls to drive downtown by 2025, an online petition was launched against the idea.

In its first month, more than 14,000 people signed. There were worries that congestion tolls – intended to lower both traffic congestion and pollution – will make Vancouver an even more expensive place to live.

It’s not shocking to see resistance to the idea, says Tom Green, climate-solutions policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF).

“When these schemes have been announced in different cities, if you poll people, the majority will be opposed,” Green says. “If you poll them nine months later, people will start to see the benefits – there’s this hump to get over.”

Vancouver is the first city in Canada to adopt the tolls, also known as road, mobility or transport pricing. Montreal is considering it.

In the U.S., New York had planned to launch the tolls in 2021 but was held up by the Trump administration.

Worldwide, cities including Singapore, Stockholm, London and Milan charge vehicles to enter their city cores.

In London, there’s both a £15 (C$26) daily congestion charge and a £12.50 (C$22) charge for older, more polluting vehicles.

A 2010 study showed tolls led to a 13- to 30-per-cent decrease in congestion and a 15- to 20-per-cent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in Singapore, Stockholm and London.

Although Vancouver’s city council voted last month to adopt road pricing for vehicles entering or leaving the downtown core, specific details – including the price of the tolls – haven’t been decided.

Are tolls fair?

The whole point of congestion tolls is to discourage people from driving and spur them to walk, ride bikes or take transit instead.

But what about people who live far away, work downtown – or need to go through it on the way to work – and don’t have those options available?

A 2018 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative warned that people will reject mobility pricing if they think it’s unfair.

“It’s very easy for opponents to portray this as a cash grab,” Green says. “The key is to build trust and have transparency in the decision-making with lots of input from businesses and anyone else impacted – it’s not something you just do overnight.”

One solution may be giving some a pass from paying tolls. For instance, a recent DSF paper on road pricing suggested giving exemptions to disabled people.

While Vancouver still has to work out the details, there’s one group that might not get an exemption from paying tolls.

“I don’t see Vancouver giving a free pass to zero-emissions vehicles because you would still have a congestion problem,” Green says.

More money for transit

Overall, people might be more willing to accept congestion tolls if they come with rebates for people who have lower incomes or who live in areas without much transit, Green says.

One of the selling features of tolls, to cities at least, is that they provide money that can help pay for other ways of getting around.

“Implementing this kind of congestion charging significantly increases municipal-government revenues,” says Derek May, senior project manager with Pollution Probe. “This provides cities with a great funding stream to support improved access and reach of public transportation and active transportation.”

There are other benefits for public transit. When there’s less traffic, buses can get around more efficiently – that means faster service, Green says.

Drivers would also get around more quickly on less crowded roads. Plus, congestion tolls could pay for road repairs and upgrades, which would benefit drivers.

Could toll zones expand?

If congestion tolls work in Vancouver, Green says the toll zone could eventually expand across the city.

“In regions where this works well, it often starts in a smaller area and expands,” Green says.

In 2018, TransLink, the regional transit commission, recommended congestion tolls across Metro Vancouver. The tolls would reduce congestion by up to 25 per cent and cost drivers an average of $3 to $5 a day.

Could the idea work in cities across Canada? Green thinks it might make sense for places struggling with congestion – as long as they with good public transit.

“It would be more difficult to implement in a city like Regina because they have such low density and so public transit doesn’t work that well there,” Green says. “Each city can explore how it might be useful – we certainly don’t see this as limited to just Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.”

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