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Welcome to Vancouver’s future: Variable road pricing

In a new focus on commuting, we ask a big thinker about their dream projects/improvements for their region. First up, Dr. Lawrence Frank, a planner in sustainable transportation who holds joint appointments at UBC's School of Community and Regional Planning and School of Population and Public Health. Frank is a recognized global expert on the integration of urban design, transportation and public health.

Vancouver consistently ranks among the world's most desirable places to live, but it is not without mobility challenges.

"We do have congestion here. At times it is severe, and the commute is horrible. The big picture is that we need some structure for the way investment is reviewed and prioritized that would have accountability at all levels of government. And make sure we have a way to evaluate health and environmental impacts, quality of life, of the major decisions we make. Right now there's no criteria that assesses projects or investments based on health, or they're very limited."

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Frank would also like to see transportation dollars used to build affordable housing near transit stations.

"One of the big issues is to have transit accessible. Vancouver made a wonderful go at investing in the downtown with all the money that came into the region from overseas. The downtown became fantastic, but people got displaced. The concern is whenever we improve the environment near transit the value of land goes way up and people get pushed away. We need a way to sustain a certain amount of affordable housing where transit is accessible, where transit-dependent people can live and use it. It's a safety net and we've done a bad job of that here."

In addition to a formalized structure for transportation investment at the federal level, Frank says provincial funding for transit infrastructure requires an overhaul.

"We have a carbon tax in B.C. and that's hands-off. That's your natural funding source for transit. A carbon tax would be used to fund things that reduce our carbon footprint. And there's no better way to reduce your carbon footprint in transportation than build transit and run it on hydro power. That's really the big political problem, we already have the right funding source, but we can't even use it because it's used for other purposes now. We have a tax that goes on gas that affects users – that's good in a way, it's a penalty – but it should come with a benefit for options. So you're penalizing on the utilization of the car in the form of a tax and that money's not being invested in infrastructure."

Metro Vancouver's proposed congestion improvement tax, with a May 29 referendum deadline, is designed so voters pay a half-per-cent sales tax to build a set of projects that are needed across the region. One issue, according to Frank, is the unclear duration of the proposed tax.

"That's a question the voters have, and it's a good question. The permanent tax or long-term source that should be put in its place is variable road pricing based on demand. That serves to smooth out the system, make it perform better. Until you do that, you're not going to manage demand. We're at an infrastructure deficit on transit right now; we've got people waiting for buses, three buses in a row. We've got latent demand for transit use in this region, and in other regions we could make it appealing if we had the money to build it. To get the money we're going to have to price the highway system. Until you do, there's not going to be a good revenue source."

How would this variable road-pricing idea work?

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"We have the technologies for variable pricing right now. The price is based on how much demand there is. It's like the airline industry – the last seat on the plane is expensive. There will probably be an app on your phone that shows current conditions. People can say: It's going to cost a lot to go over the bridge right now, why don't we wait an hour? It prices trips off the road that don't need to happen right then.

"Singapore and London have done it and those regions didn't fall apart politically or economically. Maybe Vancouver can show the world it really is the leader in sustainability, by being the first region in North America to institute a full-on variable road-pricing system to pay for its transit infrastructure. The region has to do something like that to show the vision and leadership it claims year after year as one of the two most livable regions in the world. How are we going to be that in the future if we don't build transit infrastructure? We can't do it, we won't."

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