Vancouver’s two-tier transportation system

Item date: 
April 20, 2012
Item context: 

Martin Collier was interviewed for this article as was UBC professor and Transport Futures advisor Robin Lindsey.  We only found out afterwards that this happened!... and the journalist may not have realized that Robin has spoken at several Transport Futures conferences.   He'll be speaking for the fourth time at the Goods Movement and Mobility Pricing Forum on May 31, 2012.


With one toll already in place, another on the way for the Port Mann Bridge, and others being discussed as ways
to pay for infrastructure, socioeconomic impact needs to become part of the conversation about driving in Greater Vancouver.

Or so say people like Ernie Crey, a longtime First Nations activist and advisor to the Sto:lo Tribal Council:
“Without a doubt the pending and existing tolls will and are affecting low income folks,” he writes via email... Now that the Albion Ferry is no longer in service, a visit to band members on the other side of the river necessitates taking the Golden Ears Bridge or driving the long way over the Abbotsford Mission Highway—both of which mean extra expense.

Daryl Dela Cruz... the founder of the SkyTrain for Surrey Initiative says the problem is that there aren’t many alternatives for commuters from Surrey other than the Golden Ears and the Port Mann bridges. Concerns have been raised about the aging Pattullo’s ability to handle increased congestion, and transit expansion projects south of the Fraser are now on hold because of a TransLink budget crunch.

“User pay is a reasonable basis [to pay for the new spans],” he says. “I also think there should be optimized payments where commercial traffic pays more, and there should be some option for some kind of exemption based on income.”

UBC Professor Robin Lindsey, who specializes in transportation and logistics, believes the best option involves flexible pricing of road tolls. “Tolls should vary by time of day and the type of vehicle involved (dynamic pricing). A larger vehicle involves greater wear and tear on a road and more pollution—there’s a greater cost associated with that. Travelers driving in peak times are not unlike first class passengers on a plane; they should pay more for a more valuable commodity. It can be seen as a market.”

However, Lindsey says the issue of drivers and income disparity should not be addressed in the tolling system; he argues that that is what the income tax system is for. He also believes that a regional approach is required to assess the effects of tolling—seeing where traffic congestion is being pushed, as well as analyzing benefits and costs to different areas.

For instance, he says Vancouver may benefit from decreased congestion, with drivers from Surrey shouldering most of the burden from the tolls—that imbalance may need to be fixed in the long term. Finally, he says commercial traffic is in some ways price insensitive. In addition to extra expenses simply being passed on the public, there may be too many decision makers at many different levels within a company. That obscures the impact of decisions around paying for tolls.

Ontario-based transportation planner Martin Collier of Transport Futures says most people still aren’t aware of the costs associated with driving: “People think of the roads as ‘free’, but the land is worth a huge amount of money. Maintenance—like plowing and paving—is covered through property taxes, so people don’t see what that costs either. Introducing dynamic pricing makes people realize what things truly cost—it’s like watching a taxi meter running. That’s when people start making decisions differently.”

Ultimately, he would like to see some form of tolling on all roads, to decrease overall traffic congestion. Collier says, in addition to
achieving sustainability goals, there would be social benefits around reduced collisions, commercial traffic would move more smoothly, and it would be possible to devote government funds to projects other than building more roads.

In the short term, he says governments could introduce exemptions for some drivers, such as those who require vehicles to accommodate a disability. However, he warns that could open up a floodgate of groups applying to get out of paying tolls. Collier also agrees with Lindsey that the income tax system remains the best way to tackle income disparity for drivers. For instance, lower income groups could be given some form of income tax credit on transportation, while transportation cost write offs could potentially be removed for those making more money.

In the meantime, Collier advances the provocative argument that there is already a two-tier road system in place. He says studies show middle class and wealthy men drive the furthest and pay the least per kilometre driven, with the greatest access to road space. He says the only way to make the system more fair is to clearly demonstrate the incentives involved in getting out of the car once and for all.