Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part two: Charge non-users

Despite the fact that their transit infrastructure is head and shoulders above that in Ottawa, there are those in New York City who refuse to give up their ride. An article in the New York Times a couple days ago looked at that fact, why it is so, and ways to get people out of their cars and onto buses or subways.

“New York is a transit-rich and transit-oriented place,” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant who is now a deputy commissioner for planning and sustainability at the city’s Department of Transportation.

Notwithstanding the fact that 1.74 million cars are registered in the city, most New Yorkers travel by public transportation. But for that committed knot of drivers, even enhanced services may not lure them onto fancy new buses, given that, according to Mr. Schaller, 80 percent of the people who drive into Manhattan during the workday already have access to mass transit that would take no more than 15 minutes longer.

“Most people who are driving will continue to drive,” he said, adding that the reasons are generally convenience and speed, or having waited for a bus in the rain one too many times.

Indeed, a poll conducted last year for the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group that has helped devise and promote the fee proposal, known as congestion pricing, found that most of those who drive do so by choice, not by necessity. As a result, congestion-pricing proponents concluded that the only way to reduce an estimated 810,000 daily vehicle trips into and below Midtown was to charge a fee.

The proposal, whose future is still in question as it approaches the end of a politically tortuous path through the City Council and the State Legislature, would charge most drivers $8 to enter a zone below 60th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Whether drivers would face a charge to move across town on 60th Street has not yet been determined.

Wow. Now that's a radical proposal. Imagine a charge for commuters driving into, for instance, the area from Bay Street to King Edward Avenue, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, with the funds generated going to transit plans? In Ottawa today, it's not an option because the service simply isn't there; if a plan goes through to connect the whole city with light-rail hubs, would charging those who refuse to ride transit for polluting the city's core be a feasible solution--or part of a solution--to the problems of financing the project?

And would it even be ethical? Citizens of the area already pay for the roads, so is little to justify forcing people to pay to use them, too; or is it? Similar to cell phones or televisions, you've got to buy the unit and then pay for the service, too. Charging those who continue to drive despite advantageous alternatives also takes indeterminable costs, such as those to the environment, and factors them into the financing equation, similar to using some of the taxes on gasoline to fund public transit projects.

It's a difficult idea to think about, but usually the best ideas are difficult to understand at first. Another thing to think about, anyway.


Anonymous said...

If Ottawa's system was as good as New York's, I think we could justify such a fee. But as it is, a LOT of people have no choice but to drive. It says in that article that drivers in New York would have to wait at most 15 minutes longer if they took mass transit. In Ottawa, some trips would take an hour longer by bus.
The more I read, the angrier I am at city planners. What exactly have they been doing for the past thirty years?

Anonymous said...

I don’t think the idea is either radical or difficult to understand. It will be years however before the service in Ottawa could justify such a charge. The difference in travel time between transit and car for me is currently 1 hour, one-way. That’s 2 hours wasted every day if I had to take the bus, and I live in old Ottawa, not even in the suburbs. Given the massive subsidy I’m paying as part of my house taxes I would be vehemently opposed to additional charges until the transit system could offer up a viable alternative.