John Roughan: Traffic congestion proposal should focus on road use


How often have we heard a congestion charge proposed for Auckland’s traffic? It makes perfect sense but every time, after a mayor, council or authorities in Wellington have put forward the idea for discussion, decision-makers have been unable to find the courage.

Will it be different this time? A congestion charge is tipped to feature in a carbon emissions reduction plan to be announced by the Government on Monday. I’ll believe it when I see it. That is to say, I’ll believe it when I see the electronic charging gantries in place, the gap between words and action under this Government is wider than I have ever seen it.

Congestion charges, a form of tolling, make perfect sense economically because they can ration road use efficiently, clearing a road or a lane for people who find it worth the cost to get somewhere more quickly, thereby reducing congestion in the freeways too. There must always be a free way too.

Tradies were quick to protest at the idea of congestion charges this week but they would find they are among the road users who would benefit most. They already include travelling time in their charges to customers and they would easily include the cost of road tolls too.

Among other busy people to benefit would be parents, usually mothers, talking children to after-school activities, aged-care visitors and many other people in social services who have to travel a great deal in the course of their day.

Shorter travelling times would make all those people more productive, enabling them to save time or earn more money and generate more economic activity overall, which would benefit us all.

Unfortunately economic efficiency and productivity are not top of this Government’s priorities. If a congestion charge is in Monday’s emission reduction plan, its sole purpose will be to reduce the use of private motor vehicles, not make it easier for them to get around.

The charge is predicted to be part of a two-pronged attempt to get people out of cars, the other prong being cheaper public transport, which will probably get bigger subsidies in the Budget next week. Some are even arguing for bus travel to be free. I have news for them.

Bus travel is already free for me and I rarely use my gold AT Hop card, even for trips to the CBD. The car is simply more convenient. I will pay a congestion charge if I have to, and I’m sure the great majority of drivers will do the same.

Congestion charges are not an effective way to reduce carbon emissions, they are much more effective – and cause less resentment – if their purpose is honest to their name, a tax to ease congestion.

And, like all taxes, they need to be well designed if they are not to have perverse, unintended and uneconomic consequences. A congestion charge limited to Auckland’s CBD, which has been suggested by the Helen Clark Foundation, is a thoroughly bad idea.

Auckland is not like London or even Wellington. Its CBD is not as dominant in its economic and social life. Most Aucklanders work in the city’s other commercial and industrial areas. It is possible to live and work entirely on the North Shore or in West or South Auckland and never go near the city centre.

Put a congestion charge on the CBD alone and firms will move their head offices to an area where their staff and customers can come and go by car without being charged. And it would happen quickly. Companies will not wait to see whether the Government’s intention becomes reality.

The announcement alone will be enough to start the exodus, especially as they must be reviewing their leases and future accommodation needs in the wake of the pandemic anyway.

All this is so obvious I find it hard to believe the Government is really contemplating a congestion charge confined to the CBD. The rationale offered recently by a “think tank” calling itself the Helen Clark Foundation is that the CBD is the only part of Auckland that is well served by public transport.

It also thinks a charging cordon around the city centre would be “fair” because it thinks low-income people don’t work there. Thinking like this could discredit a good economic device.

Auckland’s congestion could be fairly easily reduced, I think, by putting a toll on the right-hand lane of the city’s motorways and maybe other arterial roads. The charge could rise and fall depending on the volume of traffic on the road at the time.

Drivers would quickly see how a price can ration demand to make everyone better off. That’s the congestion charge we need.

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