Photo: What's the deal with mobility pricing?

(Credit: Alex Costin via Flickr)

By Steve Kux, Renewable Energy and Climate Solutions Policy Analyst

On June 6, the Metro Vancouver Mayors' Council announced it will form an independent mobility pricing commission, prompting many people to ask, "What pricing?"

The short answer: mobility pricing is the approach a region takes to collect fees from residents, businesses and visitors for use of its transportation infrastructure. These fees can be collected through a variety of means — ranging from transit fares to parking fees to bridge tolls to road pricing — and the money collected is typically used to maintain and improve access to transportation.

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A fair and reasonable approach to mobility pricing is important for any region, but it is particularly important in areas with rapidly growing populations and notable problems with traffic congestion, like Metro Vancouver. This is precisely what the new commission has been formed to advise on — a fair and reasonable approach. Through consultations with the public and comprehensive research, the commission is expected to provide local policy-makers with recommendations that will ease the movement of people and goods throughout the region and ensure that all groups pay their fair share.

So, what might they recommend?

To do its job well, the commission will need to review how much people in Metro Vancouver pay for everything transportation-related — from access to transit to hourly parking rates in downtown Vancouver. But the two most interesting things to consider are bridge tolls and road pricing.

Bridge tolls

Metro Vancouver employs a standard approach to bridge tolls: people who use the infrastructure pay a fee to recoup the cost of building the infrastructure in the first place. This method makes intuitive sense, but many would argue that it targets people who may have no choice but to use tolled routes — forcing them alone to pay for upgrades that benefit the whole transportation network. After all, building a new bridge can certainly help ease congestion on other roads, to the benefit of users who never even use the new route.

During the recent B.C. election, bridge tolls were a hot topic. The B.C. Liberal Party pledged to cap the amount users could be charged in a given year while the B.C. NDP pledged to eliminate bridge tolls. Both of these commitments would affect provincial and regional revenue streams, forcing policy-makers to find ways to bridge the funding gap (if you'll pardon a terrible pun).

We can safely assume that the framework for tolling bridges will be a major focus of the mobility pricing commission's research.

Road pricing


(Credit: Alain Rouiller via Flickr)

A new idea in Metro Vancouver is the concept of road pricing, which charges drivers a fee for accessing the road network. A number of approaches to road pricing could be used to raise the money to maintain the transportation network, but most can be placed into one of three buckets: corridor schemes, area schemes and full-network pricing.

Corridor schemes charge users a fee for accessing a particular piece of infrastructure. This should sound familiar, because bridge tolls are an example of a corridor scheme. Another corridor scheme already in use in Canada — on a significantly larger scale — is the toll system on Toronto's Highway 407.

Area schemes establish boundaries around particularly well-used blocks of roads and charge drivers who travel through the defined areas. A famous example is London, England's congestion charge, which tolls drivers entering the city's downtown core between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Stockholm, Singapore and Milan use various forms of congestion pricing to manage traffic and raise funds on their roads.

Finally, full-network pricing sets aside the idea of picking and choosing areas to charge fees for and simply charges users for access to the entire transportation system. This is typically accomplished by measuring the distance travelled and assigning a per-kilometre fee. The U.S. state of Oregon has experimented with this approach as a replacement for its gas tax.

What Metro Vancouver's mobility pricing commission might recommend is anyone's guess. Its work will focus on gathering data and opinions from across the region, as well as from around the world, and applying different ideas to the Metro Vancouver context. After that, it is up to policy-makers to take the information provided and make the best possible choices for keeping the region moving in the decades to come.

June 7, 2017

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