Traffic Congestion – Sydney’s Paradigm Paralysis
On returning from a recent overseas trip, I came across an article in the (Sydney) magazine titled “I have a dream,” which explored four experts’ points of view regarding the state of our city: where did we go wrong and where do we go from here?
This was quite timely as I was in the process of writing up notes and observations collected during a visit to Milan.
If you haven’t heard or read about the recent increases to the NSW parking levy, you either must live on some other planet or don’t own a car (in either case, you can stop reading now). So far, all we have been able to determine is that the levy is merely a tax grab on the part of a state government that is on the brink of disaster – a relatively easy way to collect a few more million, the destination of which nobody can tell.
Several articles appeared Aug. 24 in the Sydney Morning Herald heralding such headlines as “Access for all to public transport” and “Transport plan to put metropolis back on the rails.” Even more relevant was the article “Schemes to raise the $40b needed for improvements.” In this latter article, two points are raised relating to the plan put forward by Garry Glazebrook of the University of Technology in Sydney, which includes an extensive system of new, mostly underground, Metro trains:
1. Congestion pricing in Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan discourages residents from bringing cars into the city centres, and the money raised helps fund public transport.
2. Parking levies, such as the $44 million the NSW Government collected in 2002 from parking in the CBD, Parramatta, Chatswood, Bondi Junction and St Leonards. That levy was raised in the mini-budget and could be further enhanced by extending it to other suburban centres as public transport in those areas improves.
I therefore thought it timely to review the systems adopted in two European cities and the benefits that have resulted from their introduction.
The London Experience
London’s responses to traffic congestion have been many and varied, including electronic parking fees, encouraging cyclists and special mini-buses. But the most innovative and important was the congestion charge, introduced in 2003, which operates as follows:
The charge applies to certain vehicles entering the Central London Congestion Charge Zone within the hours of 07:00 and 18:00 Monday to Friday. The charge does not apply in the evenings, on weekends, public holidays and designated non-charging days. Signs placed at or near all zone entry points indicate the hours of operation and when the actual zone is being entered/exited. There are a couple of free through-routes to allow vehicles to cross the city without incurring the charge.
Every charge zone entrance and exit along the boundary road is monitored by a network of camera sites (which also monitors journeys made within the charge zone). The cameras provide high-quality digital images of the vehicle to automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) software.
When the cameras read a vehicle registration, it is checked against the payment database. If this shows that the vehicle has either paid or is not liable to pay the charge, the image is deleted from the database. A further check is made at midnight on the following charging day to highlight any vehicle registrations that should have been paid for but have not been paid. The registered owners of these vehicles are issued with a Penalty Charge Notice.
How much is the charge?
If paid on the day of travel, the charge is £8 (approx. $12); whereas if paid on the first charging day after travel, it increases to £10 (approx. $15). The penalty charge if payment does not take place within this two-day period is £120 (approx. $180)!
What are the benefits?
According to the system’s official website (www.cclondon.com), more than five years after the congestion charge was launched, traffic levels are still down, but congestion has risen back to pre-charging levels. This is caused by decreasing levels of road space due to a widespread program of water and gas main replacement works and traffic management measures to assist pedestrians and other road users.
The authorities believe that congestion would be significantly worse without the sustained traffic reductions brought about by the charge. By law, all net revenue raised by the charge has to be invested in improving transport in London. Since the congestion charge scheme started:
Traffic entering the original charging zone remains 21% lower than pre-charge levels (70,000 fewer cars a day).
Traffic entering the Western Extension has fallen by 14% (30,000 fewer cars a day).
There has been a 6% increase in bus passengers during charging hours.
There has been a 12% increase in cycle journeys into the Western Extension.
£137 million ($200) was raised in fiscal 2007/08 to invest back into improving transport in London.
Congestion Charging - Italian Style
The metropolitan area of Milan, Italy’s second-largest city, is estimated by the OECD to have a population of 7.4 million. This makes it reasonably comparable to Sydney, which has a metropolitan area population of approximately 4.34 million (2008 estimate).
Milan’s Ecopass congestion charge system was introduced in January 2007 as an experimental project, with the objectives of improving sustainable mobility and improving the environment and the health of the city’s residents.
As part of the plan, some infrastructure projects are in implementation phase, including improvements to public transport; extension of controlled on-street parking rules; extension of priority lanes for public transport and construction of new cycle lanes.
The Ecopass Area
The Ecopass charging area is delimited by 43 electronic access locations where cameras have been installed to identify the passage of vehicles into the area. The vehicle details are transmitted to a computer that is able to recognise the car’s pollution level, the applicable tariff, and the availability of credit in the customer’s account.
Vehicles must have a valid Ecopass if they intend to travel within the area on weekdays between 07:30 and 19:30. No charges apply on weekends and public holidays.
How Ecopass charges are calculated
Different from the London tariffs, in Milan the congestion charge increases as the pollution class of vehicles increases. The current tariffs, which are charged per day (with no limit of entries) are as follows: Euro Class 3: €2 (approx. $3 Euro Class 4: €5 (approx. $7); and Euro Class 5: €10 (approx. $13).
The account has to be validated on the day of entry or the following day, and this can be done via the purchase of a prepaid card, the Internet, a toll-free number or at certain banks and via direct debit.
If a vehicle is identified by the cameras situated at the entry points as not having a valid activated account (within the 24 hours after the date of entry) or has registered with a lower class than the actual pollution class attributed to the vehicle or exceeds 7 metres in length, there will be a fine issued that varies between €70 and €285 (approx. $100 and $350).
According to the Milan Council’s website (www.comune.milano.it), these are the recorded benefits after the first 12 months of the Ecopass system:
Reductions in traffic – 5 million fewer polluting vehicles recorded in the centre of Milan in 2008.
Increases in supply of public transport – additional 10,000 public transport places in peak hour and additional 1,300 bus and tram routes.
Increase in use of public transport – additional 35 million public transport trips in 2008.
Reduction in accidents – 14.4% less accidents in the centre of Milan.
Reduction in pollution – equivalent to reduction by 62 days in which the minimum levels were exceeded.
Revenues raised by the introduction of the Ecopass in the first six months of 2009 amounted to €5.9 million (approx. $7). The full amount was reinvested in the sustainable transport initiatives, particularly improvements to public transport.
Whilst Glazebrook’s idea of a new rail system is undoubtedly a must for any major city, it is an expensive and long-term solution. A congestion charge system based on the London and Milan experiences would be relatively cheap and simple to introduce, and the revenues generated would help fund the rail solution.
Cristina Lynn is Managing Partner of Parking Consultants International.