Should the city find out what works in other places?
On April 6 city councillors will consider a motion to study best practices for reducing traffic congestion. The idea is to have this knowledge before 2018 when the city redoes its Transportation Master Plan.
This motion IS NOT to impose road tolls in Ottawa.
David Chernushenko made the case in a CBC radio interview.
Alistair Steele of CBC: Could road tolls help tackle traffic in Ottawa? That’s what one city councillor wants to find out, Capital Ward’s David Chernushenko is putting forward a motion to study congestion pricing. Other urban centres like Stockholm and London already do it but Mayor Jim Watson says he is not interested in looking into it. David Chernushenko joins me now on the phone to tell us more, good afternoon Councillor.
David Chernushenko: Good afternoon.
CBC: So the Mayor really put his foot down, he’s not interested in entertaining this idea in any way, were you surprised by that reaction?
DC: Well, the first thing is that I haven’t had a discussion with him and from what I can see it was through one of his communications assistants. I think he has not seen my motion nor had a chance to chat with me so I wouldn’t take it quite as categorical as that. But even if it is in the end I’ll have my chance to put forward what I am trying to get council to consider and there are 24 votes on council.
CBC: What exactly is in that motion?
DC: The key thing is to clarify since it’s always great to find a snappy couple of words, and “road tolls” seems to find its way into headlines much more quickly than the more complex idea here of “congestion pricing;” and no, that’s not just a euphemism for the same thing. What we know, what I always like to start with is, is there a problem that we need to correct? Well there are. There are two problems. One is that congestion is increasing in the city, and the second is that we’re having a very hard time paying to pay for existing road infrastructure repairs, let alone building new ones. I then ask, what are the tools out there to do that?
Typically the tool to reduce congestion has always been build it wider, build it bigger. Well, two things happen then: you spend a heck of a lot of money building it, you’re then in for decades or 100s of years of repairing the new road, but also it doesn’t actually solve the problem. We know that widening roads and widening bridges very temporarily create new space, and then it just attracts more drivers. So around the world we know that widening isn’t really a solution to congestion.
We do know though where other cities have taken an innovative approach to really asking, the problem we have is that at certain times of the day we’ve got congestion, the rest of the time we don’t, so it isn’t really widening we want, it’s shifting people’s behaviour. Various fiscal tools have been found to help with that.
If we give people the prompt that it costs more to take this road or this bridge at peak hour but less at another time, or a high occupancy lane you might be prepared to pay for and others not, or parking at certain times of the day is free but quite expensive at other times of the day in certain parts of the city, you can actually shift people’s behaviour and end up costing the driver and the citizen far less that it would have been to build a wider road.
So that’s what I want to see us consider, those various tools that are out there being used and see whether any of them might work for Ottawa.
CBC: So let’s make it perfectly clear then for people who are picturing a toll booth on a bridge, what do you mean when you talk about road pricing?
DC: It could be a toll, that’s one of them. It could be that if you’re entering a tunnel–and I would expect if we were ever to go that route it would be for new infrastructure. So if we are to build a truck tunnel under the downtown as is currently being studied, it’s highly likely that Ottawa would be considering that being a pay per use for the trucks doing it. If the day comes when a new bridge is built then it may be that we consider that–but otherwise there are a whole variety of those other tools which I just rhymed off some of them.
Whether it’s coming into the centre of the city at a very congested time, whether it’s a place where parking is over capacity and you can use rates and fluctuating rates to shift where people go and when, those are all possibilities.
CBC: What do we know about what other municipalities are doing, how are they handling congestion?
DC: Well we know it varies from doing absolutely nothing and just going down the old tried and failed route of building more and widening; right through to very very progressive… Vancouver hasn’t built a freeway in decades and is taking all sorts of other approaches around parking.
We know San Francisco has got a really innovative way of having variable parking charges where you can pull up your app and see where there’s parking space available and what it costs, and then you can make a choice, I think I’ll do that trip in a couple of hours not now.
London England is known for it’s charge for entering the centre of the city.
Stockholm did an experiment with it, then had a government run on a “we’re going to end the charge for entering the city centre,” then the government got elected with that platform, and then the people rebelled and voted through a plebiscite to put it back because it was working.
So, a wide variety of experiences, I’m not sure which would work in Ottawa, or wouldn’t. All I’m calling for in this motion is when we do our next Transportation Master Plan lets include a study of congestion pricing around the world and see what might work in Ottawa.
CBC: You have posted this notice of motion on your website and you’ve written at the top “this is not a road toll” you’re not proposing a road toll, rather you want to look at what other jurisdictions are doing regarding urban congestion and road pricing. Can you understand why some of your colleagues and some residents might look at that and think “here comes another cash grab”?
DC: Sure, because it’s what we’ve seen before. In North America mostly all we’ve seen is on an American freeway, previously in Quebec, still exists on highway 407 around Toronto we’ve seen that. There may be a place for that. That may be something people feel they are ready to do if it’s going to get them a smooth ride without the congestion.
But it’s far more complex than that and so I ask people not just to balk immediately at that idea. I also have to remind them that time that you’ve spent, the inefficient use of the one hour commute that could be a half hour commute, the “late for my kid’s hockey game,” the employee who out on a sales call wastes a half an hour idling and trundling along in slow moving traffic, that costs too.
So is there a way to tackle one cost, get rid of one cost by maybe adding it in another place? Let’s explore that.
CBC: So Councillor, we’ve heard the Mayor’s reaction. I recall, probably 10 years ago when your predecessor Clive Doucet proposed a similar idea the reaction around the council table was just short of apoplectic, what hope do you have of getting even the study accomplished?
DC: Well I’ve heard from… Of the ones I’ve… I’ve not talked to many councillors since that time and I’ve heard from at least six or seven that they support it, or they’re intrigued by it. They’re not just outright opposed to it. I think a number of councillors got caught out, weren’t at the committee meeting where I proposed it, got called by the media and asked “what do you think about a road toll” – and what would I have done if someone called me out of the blue and asked what I thought of a road toll, I’d probably say I don’t want to pay it.
I think there’s a chance we can have (a bit of a cliche) an adult debate on this and if in the end councillors decide it’s not a road (pardon the pun) they want to go down I hope we’ll at least have had that discussion before doors are closed to some innovative ideas that might actually be helpful to some problems we face in Ottawa.
CBC: Or are we going to see another sharp division on council between urban councillors who have to deal with these problems of congestion in their wards and those who represent suburban dwellers who are doing the driving downtown.
DC: It shouldn’t be because this isn’t just about downtown driving. This is about possibly getting infrastructure that is needed in other parts of the city, it could be about repairing under-maintained roads in other parts of the city. Sure, one form this has taken is the charge to enter the congested periphery of the city. But guess who’s actually doing most of the driving and is therefore inconvenienced at the moment. It is more people who are coming in from the outer parts of the city.
If I live downtown and I don’t have to drive but someone who does can find a more efficient time of day or tool that actually makes it easier in their daily commute, they could be the winner, more than… Well we could all be winners if we see less congestion downtown.
It’s not at all about us downtown vs. them outside the greenbelt.
CBC: And finally, what’s the next step for this proposal?
DC: Well it’s coming to… A funny thing happened at the last Transportation Committee; just as it was about to be presented four councillors were called away to another commitment and I chose not to push forward with it. I thought it’s just going to come around to bite me if I get a majority of the five people who are still in the room. So I turned it into a notice of motion which means that on April 6th, the next Transportation Committee it will come forward as a motion. In advance I’ll have a chance to chat to others. At the meeting we’ll have a chance to chat. If enough Transportation Committee members support it it goes forward to full council… Remains to be seen.
CBC: Councillor, thank you very much for joining us today.
DC: You’re very welcome.