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Column: Why isn’t mobility pricing in Metro Vancouver’s Transport 2050 plan?

Controversial motorist-charging policy is still being explored in Vancouver
The Mobility Pricing Independent Commission concluded in a 2018 report that charging motorists to use public roads remains “one of the most promising tools to reduce traffic congestion and improve travel time reliability for people and goods travelling in and through our region.”
It’s kind of an odd omission considering all this talk these days about eliminating carbon pollution from the region and encouraging people to make more trips by foot, on a bike or on transit.

But mobility pricing — or transport pricing, or congestion pricing or whatever you call charging motorists for using public roads — is not included in the region’s long-term transportation strategy to make Metro Vancouver a more climate-friendly place.

The Transport 2050 draft plan, which city council got briefed on this week, doesn’t ignore the policy altogether but concludes not all citizens and politicians are on-side with this yet.

Not really a surprise, considering unanimity seems impossible.

TransLink is leading the development of the plan and expects to share the final version of it with the region’s mayors in early 2022 for adoption. Advocates for a road-charging policy shouldn’t hold their collective breaths for it to get written into the plan before then.

“A transformative policy of this magnitude does not come without its challenges,” reads an explanation in the draft plan.

“While there are real concerns about growing congestion in the region, there are also real concerns about the impacts that a road usage charge might have on households and businesses, especially movers of goods and other businesses that rely on large amounts of road travel.”

Ultimately, further dialogue and “greater levels of public and political support are needed before a region-wide approach to road usage charging could be more seriously contemplated for the Metro Vancouver region.”

No Kumbaya moment

The Vancouver crowd tuned to the debate over mobility pricing will recall that public and political support for a system proposed for the city’s core didn’t exactly culminate in a Kumbaya moment when council discussed it in November 2020.

At the request of Coun. Rebecca Bligh, a majority of council directed staff to first assess the feasibility of such a system in the city and outline its cost and benefits. The city hired a team of consultants in September, and a series of public feedback exercises are planned for next year.

In the meantime, what do you think — is it an effective tool?

The Mobility Pricing Independent Commission thought so in its 2018 report, saying it remains “one of the most promising tools to reduce traffic congestion and improve travel time reliability for people and goods travelling in and through our region.”

Tying it to climate change though, when India, China and the United States have some pollution-reducing work to do, has been a non-starter for many, who see it as another tax grab.

Conversely, supporters say fighting climate change starts at home and road tolls are overdue, noting 39 per cent of the city's carbon pollution is generated from the burning of gas and diesel in vehicles.

Either way, here are some points made by authors of the 2050 plan:

  • The global and local challenge of climate change, of which transportation is a prime contributor, calls for us to act urgently, at every level of government.
  • Regional greenhouse gas emissions have basically remained stuck at the same level for a decade.
  • Every year that we fail to dramatically reduce emissions requires heavier lifting in future years, at higher costs, to reach the region’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
  • With transport being the largest single source of carbon pollution in the region, we need to act urgently with bold moves if we are to meet our climate action targets and avoid the worst impacts of a destabilized climate.
  • Even if we are successful in reaching our emissions-reduction targets in this region, global greenhouse gas emissions to date will still lead to future climate impacts.
  • The region is set to welcome about one million new residents by 2050, and this growth will add pressure to a transportation system that’s already strained.

Here’s one more point that seems appropriate during a week that disaster struck in the Fraser Valley and other parts of the province:

“We must prepare for a future of more weather-related extreme events and climate disruptions.”

Maybe I’ll write about puppy dogs and rainbows next week.

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