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The case for congestion charging

Opinion Piece

I have very strong opinions on transportation and believe there is a strong case for congestion charging. Road congestion is an indiscriminate global “pandemic”. Here in Aotearoa, over just the past decade we have one million extra cars on our roads, putting severe strain on road infrastructure over time.

Road space allocation works on a first in, first served basis. Congestion occurs where road space demand is excessive and the volume of traffic is nearing or has exceeded the maximum vehicle capacity of a road. The rule is the greater the number of cars near or exceeding peak road use capacity, the slower the flow of traffic.

Motorists in Wellington and Auckland waste over 100 hours stuck in traffic each year. Aucklanders waste an average 40 minutes extra on their daily commute. This is inefficient and costs the New Zealand economy approximately $1.25 billion per year. It means less quality family time, increased business costs, and exacerbated carbon emissions at no extra benefit to society.

Congestion charging at peak times for major centres such as Wellington and Auckland will enable more efficient use of existing infrastructure by redistribution of traffic on to alternative routes, or incentivise alternative means such as walking, cycling, ride sharing or public transportation, and free up funds for the regions. Reduced congestion means less wasted emissions through idling, improved air quality, increased efficiency, safer roads, and more effective use of road capacity by increased traffic flow; fewer drivers and less concentrated and evenly disbursed traffic lowers the probability and risk of road deaths.

The general National Party argument is to build more roads, however building better or more roads only increases the average traffic throughput. In my opinion this is not the best long-term method to target congestion, and with fuel tax remaining constant, only acts as cheap sound bites to capture votes.

Petrol excise acts as a proxy for road user charges and the logic behind it is that the longer the distance travelled, the higher the excise paid in fuel tax. Due to differences in fuel economy, poorer people with older, cheaper and less fuel-efficient vehicles lose a larger proportion of their disposable income on petrol tax, and are more likely to be subsidising more affluent and wealthy vehicle owners.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important, but taxing users off the road is irresponsible and grossly unfair on the most disadvantaged in society, especially in rural areas such as the East Coast where there are no real alternatives.

I recall a 2014 conversation I had with former Prime Minister John Key who commented “Gisborne is a nice place, but it's too far away from anything”. This draws attention to the generations of failure of New Zealand governments to undertake transformational change and invest into effective public transportation or regional interconnectedness.

Petrol tax should be eliminated and replaced with a comprehensive road user charge on par with diesel vehicles, with the revenue ringfenced for road infrastructure. In this way, those who use the roads more will be targeted and pay for their actual usage, and those who travel less benefit most. At the same time as it provides an incentive to use the roads less, it provides a means of reinvestment into alternatives and strengthens infrastructure. This would be a fairer system.

It could be argued that low-income users might be priced off of the road. However, there is a higher likelihood that a) their demand for charged routes at peak times will decrease, and they may in fact benefit the most. These equity issues can be reduced by replacing fuel taxes with distance-based road user charges, or by means testing and exemption.

Tanith Te Waitohioterangi

  1. Maree Conaglen says:

    Thanks Tanith for this thought provoking opinion piece on congestion. I must say that after returning back to Tūranga after being away since the early 2000s, one of the first things I noticed was the increase in volume of cars on the roads here. It might not be as congested as the bigger centres, but we still do need to work out ways to get rid of our reliance on fossil fuel driven vehicles.
    Not long after I moved away to Rotorua the City Ride buses were introduced in that town. They were smaller, more frequent ( every half hour) buses that I really liked to use. They could be flagged down and would stop wherever you wanted them to stop to get off. I think a bus system like the Cityride buses would work well in this town. I also noticed a bus shelter had gone up on Gladstone Road not far from the Countdown the other day. So that’s very pleasing to see.
    I’m also looking forward to the cycleway/ walkway along the Taraheru river to link up to the cycleway/walkway that goes right out to Wainui. I think this town has the potential to be an exemplar town for ending the over reliance on cars.

    1. Gordon Webb says:

      Agree with you on the Taraheru cycleway – but you’ll get a reality check by reading Council reports and its 10 year plan. It does not appear to be on the horizon.