Tuesday, November 19, 2013

According to the October 7th Committee of the Whole meeting, a raft of reports, and just plain common sense, tolls on the Port Mann Bridge have led to a significant increase in traffic on the Pattullo.
Much hand wringing ensued about what to do about it.  While there were a few suggestions that could be implemented by the city (banning trucks on Royal Avenue), most involved getting other people to do stuff (generally toll the Pattullo).

I’m in favour of doing things yourself rather than trying to pass the buck whenever possible.  Electronic tolling gives us the ability to take control of this issue at a municipal level.  Legal authority may or may not, I haven’t delved into that pit yet, but technically there is nothing stopping us from tolling commuters or truckers through New West .

Tolls can be done a few different ways.  The traditional Canadian way is to toll a specific asset.  You pay a toll to cross the Port Mann or Golden Ears bridge, to ride a ferry, and formerly to drive the Coquihalla.  The equivalent to doing that here would be to toll that Pattullo Bridge, which is what some people are calling for.

Another way is a congestion charge, basically charging vehicles to enter a specific zone in the city.  London is probably most famous for this, but Milan also does it, Singapore tested it, and a number of smaller European cities have implemented it. 

Both of these options have problems for us.  Before we get to those problems though, we need to define what is our goal.  If we don’t define that well, we may end up implementing solutions that only partially or weakly get us what we want, and may have side effects that are more problematic that the problem was before. 

Based on council discussions, news articles, and general bitching and whining, there is one thing everyone says they want.   

Reduce traffic volumes.  Remember the glorious days when the Pattullo was shut down for three weeks after the fire?  We want our car-free utopia back. 

That’s the quick and easy answer.  But the real answer is more subtle.  What traffic do we want to reduce?  Through traffic commuting to Burnaby or Vancouver?  Heck yes, slam that gate shut.  Truck traffic on the way to various ports?  Don’t need it.  Truck traffic to heavy industry or warehouses in New West?  Ummm….that might have some consequences.  Commuters going to or from New West?  Well, we’d like to get them on transit but….  People coming in to utilize New West businesses or services?  Crap - we’re only five questions in and this is already getting hard. 

What we probably want to do is some combination of choking off through-town commuters, minimizing through truck traffic, directing in-town truck traffic in a way that minimizes its impact on everyone else, and allowing people and business to get in and out of New West easily.

The problem with tolls is they are a sledgehammer.  Yes, you can tweak things based on time of day, vehicle size, vehicle pollution, HOVs, but generally speaking tolling comes down to cross this line and you have to pay. That has the general result of making fewer vehicles cross the line.  Instead the go around it (as the Port Mann bridge toll has shown us) or up to the edge of it. 

Sometimes that’s good.  In the case of congestion charges, your end goal is fewer vehicles on the road.  The toll-hammer works well for that – make it more expensive and fewer cars will come. 
In our case, we want to do something more subtle.  We want to direct some traffic away, while at the same time keeping it as easy or easier for other types of traffic to get in and out of town.  The miracle of electronic tolling offers us a potential solution. 

The main problem people seem to have is with the traffic that uses New West as a highway – vehicles that drive through our city, congest and wear out our roads, and pollute our air while not paying to support our infrastructure.  We don’t want to discourage those people coming to or from town, but if we can nudge them onto transit it would be a bonus. 

A bridge toll or congestion charge would hit everyone.  Sure, we’d discourage commuters, but we’d also hit on people living here and coming here for business.  So let’s try and tweak the system a little bit.

Let’s set up a toll system like you would for a congestion charge.  Track every time a vehicle enters and exits the city zone.  Only rather than charging every vehicle that enters the city, just charge the ones that come and go.  Pick a time, say an hour.  Any vehicle that enters town and leaves within one hour is an evil commuter whom we hate and gets charged with the toll.  Any vehicle that stays at least an hour is a friendly patron and supporter off all things New Westminster, so they don’t get charged. 

While it’s not perfect, and would likely miss some of the through traffic and hit some of the come to town traffic we want, in general it should toll those vehicles using New West as a thoroughfare while not hitting those coming to town.  It would be far more selective than a simple bridge toll or congestion charge and thus should manage traffic closer to how we want it instead of just slamming everyone.

It will discourage people coming to New West on short trips for business
Yes this will discourage short trips for business.  To an extent, it will support other goals by pushing some of those people onto transit rather than taking their car.  You could also mitigate this to an extent by making a “from whence ye came” exemption – if a vehicle exits the city by the same road it entered on it does not get tolled. 

Congestion from intentional delays
Make the time too short, and people will game the system by entering town, parking on the side of the road somewhere (maybe even *gasp* idling) until their time is up, then leaving.  This would also aggravate the parking situation.  Solution?  Extend the time you need to stay before the toll is removed.  However, there’s only so far you can go with this before it becomes a defacto congestion charge.  I’m willing to trust engineers and their traffic models to pick an ideal time. 

I’m just a simple engineer, so I’m sure this is an idea that has been thought of in traffic circles before.  My Google searching wasn’t able to come up with anything, but I may not know the right words to search for.  I would love to see if any studies, modelling or tests have been done for a system along these lines.  Even more so, I would love to see the city take control of traffic on its roads.  I believe the technology is there to do it. 

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