Clearing congested roads

The threat congestion poses to Australia’s capital cities is well documented, and various industry bodies have identified the risk to future economic development it poses. For example, Infrastructure Australia’s Australian Infrastructure Audit Report, released in May 2015, stated that congestion threatens economic growth and living standards, and could cost the country $53 billion by 2031.

This past October, the Grattan Institute released its own report – Stuck in traffic? Road congestion in Sydney and Melbourne – which provides detailed insight into the issue plaguing two of Australia’s major cities. It warns that, with populations growing at a strong rate, both cities could soon face traffic gridlock unless decisive action is taken to manage congestion. Subsequently, it made a number of recommendations, including the introduction of congestion charges, similar to the congestion tax and cordons employed in London and Stockholm.

“Sydney and Melbourne have been growing very fast. In the past decade, Sydney has grown by 20 per cent and Melbourne by 25 per cent, and the increase in population has been speeding up,” explains Marion Terrill, Transport Program Director at Grattan Institute and co-author of the report.

While she says both Melbourne and Sydney have adapted to that growth well and implemented infrastructure where it is needed, delays can vary dramatically in different parts of each city. “Congestion is not a problem for everyone everywhere – it’s just a problem for some. We never expect the roads to all be the same in different areas,” she says.

An outer suburb of Melbourne, for instance, won’t necessarily face the same congestion as the CBD where a significant proportion of the workforce will commute every day. Stuck in traffic? investigated congestion in the New South Wales and Victorian capitals by examining 3.5 million Google Maps trip-time estimates across 350 routes, which were sourced 25 times a day for six months.

“Google Maps data gives us the opportunity to look at congestion that is more detailed and specific to time and place, which is something we couldn’t do five years ago,” Marion says – adding that the report found commuters to Sydney’s CBD from Hurtsville in the south and Balgowlah in the north face some of the worst traffic delays, for example.

In Melbourne, the worst delays are for people commuting from Heidelberg, Kew and Doncaster in the northeast to the CBD. Likewise, drivers using the city’s Eastern Freeway and Hoddle Street in the morning peak are often delayed by more than 20 minutes – a delay, the findings show, which can vary greatly from day to day.

The report endorses a number of ideas for better investment, including comparing new expenditure on roads with non-construction alternatives through economic analysis.

One major consideration the report suggested for both the New South Wales and Victorian capitals is to establish a network-wide time-of-day congestion charge. It suggests both state governments could introduce the charge in the most congested central areas of each capital city, charging a low rate at peak periods in return for a freer-flowing network.

The cost to drivers could then be offset by a discount on vehicle registration, with the revenue from the charge being earmarked for the likes of public transport improvements, the report said.
Such CBD congestion charges, or congestion taxes in some instances, have been successful implemented internationally, notably in London, England, and Stockholm, Sweden.

London’s transport body, Transport for London (TfL), introduced a congestion charge in February 2003, aimed at reducing congestion within a specific area of the central city, only applying to weekday traffic and excluding Bank Holidays or the days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

As an £11.50 ($20) daily tariff, the congestion charge means motorist can leave and re-enter the zone as many times as they want in a single day. Without barriers or tollbooths, drivers pay to register their vehicle’s registration number on a database, with cameras reading the plates to identify who has or hasn’t paid the charge.

The scheme offers exemptions and discounts to certain categories of vehicles and individuals, including licensed taxis, private hire vehicles and motorcycles. Residents of the congestion charge zone are eligible for a 90 per cent discount, and businesses operating a fleet of at least six vehicles can register for a cheaper fleet scheme charge.

The initial aim of the charge was to encourage motorists to use other modes of transport and, over the nearly 15 years since its introduction, it has produced significant outcomes for the city. Traffic entering the original charging zone has remained level at 27 per cent lower than pre-congestion charge conditions in 2002, according to TfL. It noted that this means nearly 80,000 fewer cars are entering the charging zone each day.

The TfL document also detailed that cycling levels within the congestion charge zone are up 66 per cent since its introduction. 

Like London, Stockholm adopted a congestion charge of sorts in the early 2000s, a system which is also still in use today. Magnus Jensen, Operations Developer – Congestion Tax and Infrastructural Fees, from Transport Styrelsen, AKA the Swedish Transport Agency, explains that the idea to introduce a congestion tax to Stockholm had existed for some time before it was actually implemented.

“The choice of congestion tax to reduce congestion and emissions was not decided overnight, it emerged through several years of political and local discussions, proposals and investigations,” he explains – adding that the common denominators of those conversations were to reach environmental goals and reduce congestion.

“Since the 1990s, there have been political discussions regarding the implementation of road charges, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 2000 that the term ‘congestion charge’ took hold.”

The major catalyst was the city’s increasing population, which had a number of flow-on effects for mobility and the environment, Magnus explains.
“The population of Stockholm County was growing at a rate of some 20,000 people per year, which inevitably meant more traffic and an even greater burden on city roads. It also means a lower standard of access and mobility if no new roads were built.

“During rush hour, the Stockholm traffic system came close to reaching its maximum capacity,” he says, adding that the traffic situation could also cause environmental problems in the form of more noise and emissions.
This culminated in a comprehensive investigation, which lead to what was dubbed the ‘Stockholm Trials’.

In June 2003, Stockholm City Council adopted a proposal to conduct a trial implementation of congestion charging for the city centre, which was formally decided upon through the Swedish Parliament. The Congestion Tax Act 2004:629 was issued a year later.

Trials of the tax began in January 2006 and concluded July that year, with an evaluation process from a number of different perspectives conducted continuously after the trial.

Magnus says there were a few obstacles to the implementation of the tax, notably the impact it had on travel routes.

“A small proportion of motorists changed their routes to avoid the congestion charge, he says. This altered travel pattern remained to some extent after the trial ended.

“During the trial, traffic decreased on most major roads, but increased on others,” he adds. “In general, these increases are however significantly smaller and fewer in number than the large-scale decreases.”

He notes that an important lesson learnt from the experience was that the increase in traffic on possible bypasses did entail greater vulnerability to disruptions to the traffic system as a whole.

The nature of the payment system was also changed due to the results from the trial. During the trial, payment was due within five days of the passage, which was later changed to 14 days and the vehicle owner was charged by the day. Magnus says this has since changed again: “Since 2008, a payment slip/decision of the total amount of charges for one month is now sent to the vehicle owner,” he says.

“The payment is now due the last day of the month, the month after the decision is made. Extra costs are added if the payment is not received in time.”
He says another key lesson taken from the trial was that good and comprehensive public transport makes it easier for people to switch from their cars to public transport alternatives.

“Although the expanded public transport during the trial did not reduce motor traffic to a demonstrable extent, relatively well functioning public transport was however a prerequisite for the effects produced by the congestion charge,” he adds.

Prior to the seven-month demonstration/ trial period (after which the system was switched off), Magnus says public support for the charge was at 25 per cent, but grew to 50 per cent following the trial and a public referendum in favour of reinstating congestion pricing. “Stockholm residents realised the tangible benefits of congestion pricing, coupled with investments in transit service.”

A referendum on the continuation of the tax was held in conjunction with the general election in September 2006 and the new Swedish government reintroduced the charge, which came into effect in August 2007.
Still in place today, the tax encompasses essentially the entire Stockholm city centre, with electronic control points at all entrances to the area where the congestion tax is applied on entry and exit.

The examples from London and Stockholm may prove great instances to learn from in relation to introducing some type of congestion charge to Australian cities.

In the case of Stockholm, Magnus outlines a couple of recommendations for other transport agencies or cities looking to implement a similar concept – the success factors and technical aspects of the system, which stem from the Stockholm Trials and general learnings up until now.

“The public’s and leading politicians’ tendency to accept road charges has shown to depend on a variety of factors: how the system is designed, how urgent and important its purpose is perceived to be, how many are affected and what car alternatives there are,” Magnus explains. “But, the process in which the proposition has been developed, deployed and decided is also of importance, as well as opinion formation and personal circumstances, like values and travel habits.”

Likewise, he recommends utilising accumulated knowledge and experience from cities that have already made the journey to aptly introduce similar charging systems. “Investigate and create accessible participation forums, invite a cross-functional team of expertise both with system knowledge, but also competencies like communication, legislative, business development and consumer researching,” he says. “Use existing networks like EasyGo, a tolling payment system applicable in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Austria, to share and receive knowledge, find out what’s next in technical innovation, or create an exchange program with every key part of the process.

“It is very important that the vehicle owners continually have confidence in the system and that their integrity is protected, so that the agencies can operate it with high credibility. In Sweden, we have had a strong focus on keeping the system secure for our citizens and visitors.”

Terrill says she doesn’t think the idea of a congestion charge has been well received by all involved in Australia, but London and Stockholm are good case studies. “The public were initially sceptical of it over there, but people did find it quite beneficial and became supportive of it in the end,” she notes.

Part of the successful integration of a congestion charge into Australian capital cities, she says, will be to encourage change in how the public will pay for the roads, particularly if the charge is offset by cheaper vehicle registration.

“We could think about it as paying to drive on roads, but in different way, and the charge is just one of the suite of opportunities available.”

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