Congestion charging: too much to ask or inevitable?
Shenzhen, which trails only Beijing within China in terms of the number of vehicles it has on its streets, recently announced plans to launch a congestion charge in 2016.
Shenzhen has 2 million registered vehicles; five years ago it had one million and its maximum capacity is thought to be 2.1 million vehicles. According to Shenzhen’s traffic bureau the city’s vehicle density is the highest in China, with 300 vehicles for every kilometer of road.
This raises an interesting point about the development trajectory of Asian cities in general, as increasing urbanization and rising income levels go hand-in-hand with mushrooming private car ownership: increased traffic congestion is inevitable, affecting people’s health and raising air pollution levels.
So, is congestion charging the answer?
Singapore introduced the world’s first congestion charge back in 1975. The original scheme started as a manual system of colour-coded paper licences that motorists had to buy and display at police checkpoints to enter a restricted zone. In 1995 it went electronic.
Since the congestion charge in London went live in February 2003 bus usage has gone up significantly, while road safety and journey times have improved. There was a decrease of 18 percent in use of private cars to travel to work in its first year of operation and, by 2007, use of private cars had fallen by 28 per cent. By then the number of fatal or serious road accidents in London had fallen 47 percent below the 1994-8 average, well ahead of the government’s target of 40 percent by 2010.
Public opinion, which had initially been against congestion charging, quickly swung round substantially in favor.
London’s experience demonstrates that its congestion charging and other green traffic reduction methods (including the promotion of cycling, its Low Emission Zone and measures to increase walkability) are having an effect. According to the UK’s Department for Transport London’s car ownership rates continue to fall, from 0.78 cars per household in 2008/09 to 0.76 in 2009/10, while in the rest of the country the average is up very slightly to 1.21 cars per household.
Traffic congestion is bad for business; that much is clear. The Partnership for New York City has calculated that congestion in the greater New York City region added approximately USD1.9 billion to the costs of doing business, led to USD4.6 billion in unrealized business revenue, and cost some USD5 billion to USD6.5 billion in lost time and productivity, as well as an estimated USD2 billion in wasted fuel and other vehicle operating costs. In total, the increasing problem of traffic congestion costs the New York City regional economy more than USD13 billion a year, resulting in the loss of as many as 52,000 jobs annually.
Stats like this have become invaluable to city governments attempting to persuade the general public that the usually unpopular congestion charging schemes they want to implement are economically advantageous. When it comes down to it, economic arguments trump environmental arguments for reducing congestion amongst the populous of cities.
Clearly, decreased congestion improves most aspects of urban life. However, concerns have been voiced about how congestion charging will work in Shenzhen: 70 per cent polled in a recent survey said they opposed the measure.
London demonstrates it can be done on a big scale. Commuters pay GBP8 (USD12.5) a day to drive in London’s congestion zone, which is actually fairly small. Drivers can pay by text, online, in shops or by calling the congestion hotline. Cameras check vehicles within the zone and fine those who have not paid (GBP80 / USD125 and up). The scheme has allowed Londoners to plough money back into its public transport system.