Posts Tagged ‘Congestion charging’

Roads Minister Duncan Gay has hosed down rumours that the government might eliminate the toll on the Cross City Tunnel following earlier news of it entering voluntary administration for the second time in a decade. Mr Gay told the Sydney Morning Herald (link unavailable) that buying back the road and then not charging a toll was “just an urban myth; that’s not happening”. However, he did not rule out the possibility of buying it back and reducing the toll or paying the new owner a concession to cut the toll.

The motivation for this comes from the 5 to 6 years of construction through the CBD for light rail on George Street and the desire to divert as much traffic away from the city centre in order to minimise disruptions. Such a buyback could also fit in neatly with the introduction of a congestion charge, which could provide offsetting revenue to eliminate the Cross City Tunnel’s toll, thus incentivising surface traffic to re-route underground. However, this is not the current government’s policy, and something it has rejected despite the concept of a congestion charge being raised by both Transport for NSW and Infrastructure NSW.

Video: Gatepass could be removed at Airport stations, Seven News

Meanwhile, the NSW opposition has succeeded in establishing a Legislative Council inquiry into the removal of the airport station access fee. The $2.60 access fee was lifted for Mascot and Green Square stations in 2010, resulting in an estimated 50% increase in patronage. Removing or reducing the much higher $12.30 fee at the airport stations would be expected to also raise patronage. The possibility of this occurring has grown due to the rising proportion of access fee revenue going to the government, which is set to receive close $50m from it next year alone.

A stations access fee of $12.30 is currently payable for anyone travelling to or from the airport stations. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney Trains)

A stations access fee of $12.30 is currently payable for anyone travelling to or from the airport stations. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney Trains)

However, this remains an opposition and cross bench led inquiry, and the reduction or removal of the access fee is not currently supported by the government, who point out that any money raised goes into general revenue and has already been accounted for in the budget. Despite this, construction of the M5 East expansion as part of WestConnex in the latter part of this decade would be assisted by even a temporary cut in the access fee in order to reduce the already high congestion around Sydney Airport when construction of WestConnex makes it even worse.

The financial collapse of the Cross City Tunnel, likely resulting in it entering into receivership for the second time since it was opened in 2005, has started a debate over the role of private public partnerships (PPP) in delivering transport infrastructure. The Greens have used the collapse to call on the state government to scrap its plans for the WestConnex freeway, which will be delivered and operated as a PPP.

Despite going into receivership, the Cross City Tunnel will remain open to the driving public. Click to enlarge. (Source: Ben Harris-Roxas)

Despite probably going into receivership for a second time, the Cross City Tunnel will remain open to the driving public. Click to enlarge. (Source: Ben Harris-Roxas)

This is rather ironic, as the financial collapse of the Cross City Tunnel actually represents a benefit, not a disadvantage of the PPP model. Despite the financial collapse, for the driving public the tunnel will continue to operate as though nothing had changed. Meanwhile, the cost of the financial collapse will be felt by the private owners, just as any financial benefit would be received by the owners had traffic on the tunnel boomed. The government and driving public benefit from improved transport infrastructure regardless of the financial success or failure of the company that owns the tunnel. That the private sector ended up paying for it, and not the taxpayer, puts the taxpayer ahead.

In fact, the government should use this opportunity to consider whether they could buy back the Cross City Tunnel, at a fraction of its construction cost. If it can do so, it should seriously think about doing so. This would make it much easier at some point in the future to introduce a congestion charge on the CBD surface streets by making the tunnel free and giving drivers an alternative route if not travelling into the CBD itself.

Public transport works best in moving large volumes of people to or from a single destination in a short period of time, while private motor vehicles work best in moving people to and from dispersed destinations over a long period of time. Each performs poorly at the other function, which is why public transport has a high mode share for peak hour commutes into dense activity centres and cars have a high mode share for off peak trips that start and end in the outer suburbs.

However, this poses a problem when a major arterial road happens to pass through a major centre, resulting in a high proportion of through traffic. This is the worst of both worlds – lots of cars in a dense centre which have an origin and destination that are not well served by public transport. That is where ring roads come in – they allow these roads to bypass these major centres, while car users still reach their destination. This maintains transport to and within the centre focused on public and active transport (walking and cycling).

The most basic ring road is a bypass. Bondi Junction’s Oxford Street used to be its major thoroughfare, resulting in large amounts of traffic passing through it. The construction of the Sydney Enfield Drive re-routed traffic away from Oxford Street, and even allowed the mall to be pedestrianised and limited to buses in certain parts.

Oxford Street (blue) was once the main street through Bondi Junction. But now it is Sydney Enfield Drive. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Open Street Map)

Oxford Street (blue) was once the main street through Bondi Junction. But now it is Sydney Enfield Drive (yellow). Click  to enlarge. (Source: Open Street Map)

A true ring road actually circles around a major centre, such as in Castle Hill. Here the 3 major roads approach Castle Hill and originally converged onto Old Northern Road. A ring road was then set up to circle the Castle Hill Town Centre, with Old Northern Road’s speed limit dropped and more street space designated for pedestrians, on street parking and a bus road. This allowed cafes and restaurants to set up on the street and created a more relaxed environment, compared to the noisy car dominated road that it used to be.

Old Northern Road (blue) used to be the main street through Castle Hill. Now a ring road (yellow) around it has been set up with wide lanes to handle high traffic volumes. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Open Street Map)

Old Northern Road (blue) used to be the main street through Castle Hill. Now a ring road (yellow) around it has been set up with wide lanes to handle high traffic volumes. Click to enlarge. (Source: Open Street Map)

In the case of Parramatta, it’s ring road is now considered too small, and the local council has designated an outer ring road. The inner ring road allowed Church Street (Parramatta’s main North-South high street) to be partly pedestrianised and to become a vibrant cafe, restaurant, and shopping precinct. However, the recent growth in the Parramatta CBD means that this ring road is now too small, and thus resulted in an outer ring road made up of the M4 in the South, the Cumberland Highway in the West, and James Ruse Drive in the North and East. This outer ring road is designed with higher speed limits of around 80km/hour, compared to the 60km/hour in the inner ring road, and thus draws traffic away from even the inner ring road.

The local council is seeking to make improvements to the outer ring road in key pinch points, and its proposal has obtained support from Infrastructure NSW.

Church Street (blue) was originally the main road through Parramatta, until a ring road was set up around it (yellow). More recently, a regional ring road has been set up even further out (orange) allowing most traffic to avoid not just the Parramatta CBD but the entire suburb of Parramatta entirely. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Open Street Map)

Church Street (blue) was originally the main road through Parramatta, until a ring road was set up around it (yellow). More recently, a regional ring road has been set up even further out (orange) allowing most traffic to avoid not just the Parramatta CBD but the entire suburb of Parramatta entirely. Click to enlarge. (Source: Open Street Map)

A ring road does not even have to go around a centre, and in the case of the Sydney CBD the Cross City Tunnel and Eastern Distributor, which go underneath the city, are also a type of ring road. Together with the Western Distributor, Cahill Expressway, Harbour Bridge, and Harbour Tunnel, these effectively form a ring road, allowing car drivers to go to or from North Sydney, Pyrmont, Kings Cross, or Moore Park without entering a surface street in the CBD.

However, what sets this ring road apart from the other example above is that this is the only case where drivers pay a financial cost for using the ring road, but nothing for going through the CBD. In an ideal world, this situation would be reversed, with access to all parts of these ring roads being free (perhaps with the exception of the Harbour crossings, which cannot be avoided by driving through the CBD) while charging drivers who go through the CBD surface a congestion charge. The new charge could even be used to compensate the private operators of the Cross City Tunnel and Eastern Distributor.

Various freeways, either in tunnels underground or viaducts above ground, effectively form a ring road "around" the CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Open Street Map)

Various freeways, either in tunnels underground or viaducts above ground, effectively form a ring road “around” the CBD. Click to enlarge. (Source: Open Street Map)

There is actually one more road even better than a ring road – a public and active transport only road. An example of this is the proposed Wentworth Point Bridge that will link Sydney Olympic Park to Rhodes Business Park, but which will only be accessible to buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. Cars will continue to have to make their way the long way around, which has a similar result to a ring road, as it prevents cars from passing through both Sydney Olympic Park and Rhodes Business Park.

Nicknamed “Howard the Tube man” by London Mayor Boris Johnson, Howard Collins has worked in the London transport system for 35 years. He has been the Chief Operating Officer of the London Underground during the 2012 Olympics and was responsible for its restoration and recovery following the 2005 London bombings. On July 1 of this year he will become CEO of Sydney Trains, the suburban portion of the Cityrail network, whose interurban network is to be spun off into a separate NSW Trains organisation as part of a restructuring of Railcorp.

Sydney Trains CEO designee, Howard Collins. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Trowbridge Estate)

Sydney Trains CEO designate, Howard Collins, while Chief Operating Officer of the London Underground. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Trowbridge Estate)

The announcement was followed by a flurry of articles and interviews with the man, during which he made some interesting comments that provide an insight into the views of who is soon to hold one of the most important roles in Sydney. One of these comments is to remind everyone that improvements may take 5-10 years to push through, and not to expect changes overnight. It is interesting to note that, although an executive, he has also worked at the coalface as both a train driver and in signalling.

On customer focus:

One of the major areas in which Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has focused on is making the customer the centre of the transport network, and this is something which Mr Collins agrees with completely. He gives the example of a time when “barons of engineering” would see passengers as a problem and think “wouldn’t it be alright if passengers didn’t muck up our wonderful service” (Sunday Profile, ABC Radio National, 24 March 2013). It is almost reminiscent of Yes Minister when Sir Humphrey complains about how patients just get in the way of effectively running a hospital.

Free wifi, something which has been rolled out in London, was also touted for Sydney as a way to improve the end user experience.

On electronic ticketing:

Bringing in someone with experience with London’s Oyster card, which uses the same system as Sydney’s Opal card, is a smart idea. It brings to the system someone with over a decade of experience in running a transport system that uses technology that is set to be rolled out in the Sydney rail network later this year.

Electronic ticketing will also allow for refunds to be given to commuters when delays occur, something which Mr Collins would like to introduce to Sydney: “when people have had a delayed journey, we can automatically refund their journey on the Tube. And I think that will be something for Sydney to look forward to” (Seven News, 18 March 2013). This is not possible with the current magnetic stripe tickets in Sydney, and resulted in calls from the state Opposition for a fare free day in order to compensate commuters for all the recent disruptions on the rail network.

On Sydney’s rolling stock:

Driverless trains, which were introduced to London while Mr Collins worked for the Tube, are also something that he would like to see in Sydney. He points out that it is important to get staff onboard with such changes, citing the change in London to one man operations (Sydney trains still retain 2 staff on each train). While this is not current government policy, it is speculated that the North West Rail Link, soon to begin construction next year, might be a driverless system, allowing for much higher frequencies due to the much lower marginal costs.

He declares that he was impressed by Sydney’s double deck trains, the new Waratah trains in particular, pointing out that London’s narrow tunnels restrict its trains to single deck. He does not comment on the decision to build the NWRL tunnels narrower and steeper than Cityrail’s current double deck trains can travel through. He does say, however, that there should be a place for single deck train in the Sydney network, pointing out that what matters isn’t the number of seats per train (which is as irrelevant on its own as the number of trains per hour), but the number of seats per hour (which is the product of trains per hour multiplied by seats per train). I would go further and say that what matters more is the number of passengers per hour (including both seated and standing), so long as the standing duration is not excessive.

On private sector involvement:

Mr Collins is open to private sector involvement in the rail network, having been a public servant in public organisations that are both entirely public as well as ones that bring in the private sector. Maintenance is an example of an area which he believes could be performed privately. He does insist that it requires the right guidance, and that “private sector support is a partnership” (Sydney Live with Ben Fordham, 2GB Radio, 22 February 2013).

On Gladys Berejiklian:

The views of both Mr Collins and Ms Berejiklian appear to be quite similar. It is likely that this was one main reason why he was selected, rather than it being caused by him repeating the government’s line. According to Mr Collins, the Transport Minister has effectively given him a mandate to improve the customer experience, and will not be micromanaging him or the rail network.

On safety:

Recent concerns that have been raised about improvements to ventilation systems in some underground CBD stations to deal with emergency fires have been talked down by Mr Collins. Speaking about the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London Underground, he stated that “there’s some things you can do…[other things] aren’t going to be effective” (Sunday Profile, ABC Radio National, 24 March 2013), suggesting that these improvements aren’t as necessary as reports make them out to be.

On congestion charging:

While the congestion charge introduced in London does go to fund public transport, Mr Collins points out that it doesn’t actually bring in very much money. He also dismisses any introduction of a congestion charge for Sydney in the near future, arguing for an increase in rail infrastructure first in order to give people an alternative to driving and allowing them to switch over.

One of the difficulties of working out the cost of transport is determining which costs to include. Users of public transport pay a fare for each trip that they use, but this only covers part of the total operating costs and the remainder is paid for by way of government “subsidy costs”. Meanwhile, car users pay a small “variable user cost” to drive (mainly petrol), but also have significant fixed costs (depreciation, finance, registration, insurance, etc) known as “other private costs”, and then there are negative “externalities” (congestion, pollution, etc).

Economic theory dictates that when making decisions about which mode of transport to use, it is the marginal cost that matters (assuming non-price variables, e.g. trip duration, are held constant). Fixed costs, which must be paid regardless of whether you make a trip on that mode, or external costs, which are paid for by others, do not factor in. So which mode of transport has the lowest variable cost, and which mode has the lowest overall cost?

Costs of different modes of transport, broken down by private (variable and fixed) and public (government subsidy and externalities). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Garry Glazebrook, Designing a Thirty Year Public Transport Plan For Sydney, page 10.)

Costs of different modes of transport, broken down by private (variable and fixed) and public (government subsidy and externalities). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Garry Glazebrook, 2009, Designing a Thirty Year Public Transport Plan For Sydney, page 10)

Dr Garry Glazebrook of the University of Technology Sydney quantified these amounts on a passenger kilometre basis and found that while total costs vary between 47c/km to 86c/km, variable costs are just a fraction of this, ranging from 11c/km to 19c/km. Cars have by far the highest total cost at 86c/km, with 38c of that being externalities (20c alone are due to congestion). Car users pay a total cost 48c/km to drive their cars, compared to 11c/km for trains or 19c/km for buses, but only 14c/km of that is variable cost (the remaining 34c/km are fixed costs that are paid upfront). As there isn’t a big difference in variable cost between modes, car owners tend to opt for the fastest option, which generally for them means driving.

Additionally, most car owners have a car “just in case”, though many in the inner city are opting to use car share services in lieu of owning a car, something which encourages public transport use by transferring the fixed cost of running a car into variable costs, but also still providing car access “just in case”.

Given that, on a per km basis, the subsidy to trains and buses is on par with the external costs from cars, it appears fair that a subsidy is provided in order to bring all modes of transport back to a level playing field. However, car use still remains the cheaper option for many people because of the way its costs are structured primarily as fixed, with only a fraction of the total cost being variable. This encourages driving and discourages other modes of transport.

None of these consider capital costs (i.e. the cost of building a new railway line or freeway and purchasing new trains or buses). In the case of cars, it also appears to exclude the cost of maintaining roads. However, this tends to be quite low compared to how heavily cars are used. That is why, despite cars accounting for 90% of all trips, the NSW government spends $900m a year on road maintenance (Source: Daily Telegraph), but $1,400m in operating subsidies to Cityrail alone (Source: Cityrail 2010/11Annual Report, page 53). This does exclude maintenance performed by local councils, but also leaves out the cost of running buses, ferries, and trams, so remains a good rough guide.

A recent suggestion to solve this imbalance has been to link registration costs to kms travelled. This system would use GPS technology to track how far car users drive during peak hour, and registration fees would be linked to that distance. Off peak trips would be free. This way, those that most used the roads would also be the ones who paid the most who used them, and those who don’t use them much would not be subsidising them. Additionally, by shifting costs from fixed to variable, it would use price signals to incentivise public transport while disincentivising car use, without actually increasing the cost burden on the average road user.

Many people counter this by pointing out that they would not or could not shift their travel times, and so would be forced to pay for something that they previously got for free. This is incorrect for 2 reasons. First, this replaces registration fees, and is just a different way of paying for something. Second, it doesn’t have to get everyone to change their travel habits, only a small minority, in order to see improvements. As an example, school holidays see only a 5% reduction in cars on the road, yet often result in a 10%-20% increase in average speeds. Congestion charging could see similar results, and then those who are unable to shift their travel times would enjoy a faster journey. In short, everyone wins.

Despite the conflicting views between the Transport for NSW Transport Master Plan and Infrastructure NSW First Things First report, the two reports actually agree on quite a few things. Both endorse the construction of one large rail project: the Northwest Rail Link, and both endorse the construction of one large road project: the WestConnex. Both endorse distance tolling and time of day tolling (i.e. congestion charging).

A summary of the projects recommended, along with the timetable for their construction, is included below. It is split up by transport corridors identified as having high and medium constraints by Transport for NSW, and also colour coded by which department supports each project.

Click on image for higher resolution. (Sources: Transport Master Plan, Transport for NSW, and First Things First, Infrastructure NSW.)

Probably the best bit of news is that both agree on what needs to be done in the next 5 years. Even in the medium term, there are only minor differences between the 2 plans, essentially a choice between light rail on George Street or a bus tunnel connecting Town Hall to Wynyard. It’s only in the long term, the 10-20 year window, where serious differences begin to appear.

It will be up to the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and the Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, to make the final decision on which bits of each report to go along with. In an interview with ABC’s 7.30 NSW program, Mr O’Farrell has recently repeated his promise that congestion charging will not be introduced, despite both plans recommending it, and that a Second Harbour Crossing will occur, despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW.

CORRECTION: In the post Transport Master Plan (part 2): What’s missing? published on Friday 7 September, it was claimed that planning for reservations for future transport projects in the Transport Master Plan had only been done for road projects, and not for public transport projects. This was incorrect, and information on public transport corridor reservations was included further into the report. The error was due to the large size of the report (370 pages) and limited time available to read through it in detail and has now been corrected.


Before looking into what the Transport Master Plan has to say on roads, it’s worth giving some perspective on private cars vs public transport.

Roads, and the private motor vehicles that run on them, provide two major benefits over public transport. First, they are significantly more flexible in terms of timing and journey start and end points. Second, the majority of the cost is borne by the user (some costs, such as noise and air pollution, or the free use of roads, are communal costs, but these are actually quite small), whereas public transport is heavily subsidised (in Sydney the user pays 20% to 50% of the total operational costs, and none of the capital costs, of public transport).

The biggest benefit of public transport over private road transport is in capacity. Assuming cars travel spaced 2 seconds apart, you can fit 1,800 vehicles per hour per lane. Ignoring effects of delays from red lights and cars with multiple passengers, that’s 1,800 passengers per hour. A Waratah train has a seated capacity of 896 passengers, and the current maximum capacity on the Cityrail network is 20 trains per hour (which the Harbour Bridge and Eastern Suburbs Lines both get very close to during peak hour), giving you just under 18,000 passengers per hour. In other words, rail has a capacity 10 times the size of cars. To put this into context, the Sydney Harbour Bridge has 10 lanes: 2 for rail, 7 for cars and one bus lane. If you were to convert all of these 10 lanes to private vehicle traffic, then it would have the same capacity as a single track for rail.

This is not to say that there is no place for new roads in Sydney, in fact when a new road is financed and built privately, then funded via tolls in a user pays manner over an agreed period of years then the government should be building as many new roads as it can. But if the government has to fund the new road, then the question needs to be asked “will this cost one tenth of the cost of a rail line”? There was a great post about this at A State Of Mind, which talks more about this sort of concept.

The Transport Master Plan

Road projects announced in the Master Plan include the current M2 and M5 widenings, an M4 East, an M5 East duplication, an Inner West Bypass (linking the M4 East with the M5 East), an F3-M2 link, an extension of the F6 through to the CBD, a link between Port Botany and the Airport, widening of the M7 North of the M4, widening of the M4 East of Parramatta, the Castlereagh Freeway (between the M7 and Richmond) and an outer orbital going North-South along outer Western Sydney. By anyone’s reckoning, that is a big wishlist!

Road projects recommended by the Master Plan. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Transport Master Plan, page 140.)

What we don’t know yet is the priority and the specific order in which they will be built. The M2 and M5 widenings, currently being finished up or having just started, are obviously the first cabs off the rank. And based on the 6 corridors which are expected to face the most congestion, the other projects with high priority appear to be the M4 East, the M5 East duplication, the Inner West Bypass, and the M4 widening. This should all be clarified by Infrastructure NSW when their 20 year report is released to the public next month.

However, merely building more roads is not the solution. New roads cause induced demand – more people get into their cars until eventually roads are saturated and congestion returns. Doing this will not eliminate congestion, it will only move the congestion closer to the ultimate destination (i.e. the Sydney CBD), and cost tens of billions of dollars in the process. To quote the Herald, “$10 billion is an awful lot to pay for a bigger traffic jam”.

To avoid this problem, cities like London, Copenhagen and Singapore have introduced congestion charging in their CBDs to discourage people from driving all the way into the city. And while the current government has refused to introduce congestion charging (having promised last election not to do so), they are considering 3 potential reforms that could have a similar effect:

  1. Distance based tolling – This is currently in place on the M7, where you pay based on the distance travelled, and is capped at $7 per trip.
  2. Time based tolling – This is currently in place on the Harbour Bridge/Tunnel, where you pay a lower toll during off peak hours in order to encourage a more even spread of car travel throughout the day.
  3. An increased parking levy – This is an existing charge on each parking space in the CBD, charged to the owner of the property that owns the space, and may be increased.

In all three cases, commuters would be discouraged from driving into and parking in the CBD during peak hour. Those who do would pay extra but receive a better travel experience with less traffic and more abundant parking, while the funds raised would go towards funding transport infrastructure. The report recommends using tolls to both fund new infrastructure and manage congestion, while reforming the tolling system to give Sydney a city-wide consistency (page 329).

If the government actually does implement these policies in order to fund the new roads that are financed, built and operated by the private sector, then they might actually achieve the goal of alleviating congestion without significant cost to the taxpayer. And if that is the case, then these are definitely roads that the state should build.