1. Transport
June 22, 2017

To prevent autonomous vehicles clogging our cities, we need to talk about road-pricing

By Martin Adler

Every policy has its time and its age.  With the advent of autonomous vehicles, traffic jams could be solved for good. But it is arguably more probable that the opposite will prove true: autonomous vehicles might have us drowning in road congestion.

Even without autonomous vehicles, urbanisation and motorisation have always been the main drivers of traffic jams – so it’s unsurprising that it’s around cities and in larger metropolitan areas where we find the highest levels of road congestion. These places with already strained capacity will also experience the largest increases in autonomous transportation.

Today, for each minute in rush-hour traffic, car users spend an additional half a minute stuck in traffic jams. Take Paris and Brussels for example. Around the EU parliament, the average driver unnecessarily wastes 104 hours a year stuck in traffic; while in the French capital, the morning commute takes 68 per cent longer than necessary and 2 per cent longer than last year.

A handful of cities bravely started fighting the jam-surge by cordoning their inner cities and charging for entry by car. But the tale of one of these, London, clearly demonstrates why such ‘cordon’ tolls are inadequate now, and especially for a time of autonomous vehicles.

London implemented a toll in 2003 and as a result, downtown car travel demand dipped slightly with travel times substantially improving. Fast-forward to 2017, the toll has been adjusted upwards several times, but travel times are worse than ever. Why? Because the toll does not account for the distance and time driven.

And so, some commuters faced with the toll made the most convenient choice and switched from their private car to ride-hailing services such as Uber. Since simultaneously parcel delivery services soared and construction decreased road space, streets are clogged once more.

This causes two problems. First, bus travelers, who are in the majority in London, suffer from this decision. Second, a few years down the road, when an autonomous vehicle trip might come at transit prices, demand for these autonomous cabs will explode – and, as a result, so will jams.

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Autonomous vehicles need not be the sword of Damocles; with some ingenuity they could instead be our savior. But it will take political leadership to find a better solution than Julius Caesar, who in ancient times went to the extreme and forbade all day-time cart-travel in ancient Rome.

To a policymaker, road pricing is a toxic political endeavor. In Brussels, for example, just the publication of a study on the topic sparked an online petition against road pricing, which garnered more than 170,000 signatures in only 10 days. While road pricing is a sound policy, public mistrust towards the policy is evident.

The potential misuse of the substantial revenue for partisan political interests is one concern. Related is the fear that, during the political implementation, a well-meant policy is turned into another hidden tax – or merely a costly instrument to charge foreign drivers as in the case of a recently announced German highway toll. These concerns can fully be met given the correct setup and clear communication of the policy.

The most important, but usually tacit, emotional response for favouring a state of congestion over a system with tolls is that congestion affects people of all incomes equally. Road pricing, by contrast, is perceived as the upper class trying to gain another advantage over everyone else.

But the truth is far more subtle than this. Thirty years ago, wealthier people started moving back into inner cities that were finally cleaner and safer, which led to the exorbitant housing prices in downtowns. Today, as a result, the wealthier can live closer to work and commute less.

That means it is a mix of the middle and lower incomes that are spending the most time in the car, breathing exhaust instead of working or enjoying time with their loved ones. Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City summarises perfectly how long commutes do tremendous social harm: a commute of more than 45 minutes, for example, increases the probability of a failed marriage by 40 per cent. Other research shows that long-term exposure to fine-dust pollutants increases the risks of dementia and coronary disease by up to 10 per cent.

Even when we exclude the social harm road congestion does, the mere economic loss to society is staggering and estimated to be more than 1 per cent of GDP by the EU commission and the World Health Organization. This translates to a €165 billion annual loss for the EU28: a figure that for now just keeps on growing. 

The cure is not a bitter pill but a well-proven, readily available and low-key remedy in the form of a GPS locator and an app that could easily be implemented in any modern smartphone. A number of recent studies demonstrate that even in cities with the worst congestion, peak tolls of between 10 to 20 eurocents per kilometre would let you arrive at your destination on time and – best of all – allow more people to travel by car than currently. The revenue can then be spent on providing better and cheaper public transit as well as updating bicycle infrastructure and pavements for families.

Across the political spectrum, sensible road pricing is the elephant in the room. Tellingly, the words “incentive”, “pricing” and “tolls” were completely absent during the recent European conference on autonomous vehicles in Brussels.

Don’t abandon hope yet: it is rumoured that road pricing is once again part of the Dutch coalition discussions in Amsterdam. What’s more, heavily affected metropolitan regions such as Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo have demonstrated in the past that they can implement sensible road policies.

Today, road pricing should be on all policy makers’ minds. In the autonomous not-so-far future, it’ll be the job of industry and the public to force the politicians’ hand

Martin Adler is a transport and urban economist, VU University Amsterdam researcher, and fellow at Policy Network.

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