Fri, Jul 20, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Rethink efforts to cut congestion

Pan Han-shen 潘翰聲

When the government recently proposed a congestion fee as a way to improve Taipei traffic conditions, many people were opposed to the idea. But when it comes to drafting traffic policy, public approval is not the only consideration. The congestion fee aside, the government must be clear on how it intends to reduce traffic.

The only way for the government to really reduce congestion and improve the air quality in Taipei is to increase the cost of car ownership, thereby making people reconsider the long-term costs of owning a car.

The main framework of Taipei's MRT network is up and running, and the city government is patting itself on the back because ridership is up.

But when MRT ridership figures are compared with those for public buses, it turns out that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent building the MRT system have only succeeded in getting bus riders to use the MRT. There has not been a shift in car drivers opting for the MRT and the number of cars keeps reaching new records.

Raising the cost of driving into the center of Taipei on weekdays by introducing a congestion fee instead of increasing the license plate tax or other costs to drivers raises a questions about fairness.

Singapore was one of the first cities to implement a congestion fee. London is a more recent recruit. New York's mayor has proposed similar legislation. But if we want to introduce such a plan to Taiwan, there are many special factors to be considered.

The rivers and mountains around Taipei form very clear boundaries of the city proper. Previous policies that charged drivers crossing certain bridges -- tantamount to paying to enter the city -- not only failed to reduce the number of vehicles but caused serious traffic jams.

The technical difficulties of charging fees have been greatly reduced thanks to the development of technologies such as microwave and infrared readers and cameras.

But given the unequal development on the two sides of the Danshui River, imposing a congestion fee might add to the feeling that Taipei County residents are being treated unfairly. It might also increase the housing prices in the city.

Expanding the fee area to highly developed areas in Taipei County would only be moving the problematic boundaries a bit further away. The lack of clear exit and entrance points present a technical problem. And with so many cars already within the designated area, a congestion fee would not be very effective.

The purpose of a congestion fee is to smooth traffic flow and reduced air pollution by using a market mechanism -- limiting quantity through price -- to dissuade a portion of drivers.

Yet this approach cannot be fair if it is to be effective, and it cannot be effective if it is fair.

If we consider what is best for the whole city instead of just drivers -- as Paris did with a radical campaign to "send automobiles to hell" -- we see that the only way to convince drivers to abandon their cars for mass transport is to increase costs to drivers, including time.

Compared to New York, where parking a car can cost more than than US$300 a month, parking in Taipei is relatively cheap. This is mostly due to the large amount of street side parking.

If many of these spaces were converted into bike lanes and sidewalks, the actual amount of road space would not be reduced. Drivers would be forced to walk a bit further. Eliminating free spaces would trigger a rise in parking fees and generate revenue.

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