This is a rewrite of an earlier post written in Norwegian.
We're getting more and more toll roads in Norway. In this post I'm not going to discuss if road tolls is a good way or not for financing new road projects, I'm specifically going to discuss the idea of collecting money from car drivers driving within urban zones, and particularly the idea of having higher tolls in the peak hours than outside the peak hours. In many cities and bigger towns in Norway we're now having "toll rings", enforcing payment from those that go in and out of the center.
Many car drivers are protesting loudly against increases in the tolls and introduction of more toll rings or toll checkpoints. Many of the people protesting are also loudly against the idea of having extra charges during peak hours; those people are against the idea of toll roads in general, but they do think it's better to have a constant road toll throughout the day than to have extra charges during the peak hours.
Literally, the Norwegian word for road tolls is "gate money", but the gate is very virtual nowadays - here is one of the checkpoints. It's all fully automatic, most drivers will have an agreement and an RFID chip inside the car, for people without the chip the number plate is scanned and an invoice will be automatically sent to the car owner. Photo found at commons.wikimedia.org, Konstanchin, 2017-05-01, CC BY-SA 4.0
The arguments for road tolls
The road tolls contribute to money that can be used i.e. on constructing or maintaining roads. In the urban areas it's also often spent on the alternatives, like public transport or bike roads. Sometimes this is the only rationale behind the tolls, and quite some people are actually happy with it - many bridge and tunnel projects in Norway would have been nearly impossible to perform if it wasn't for the toll road income. Anyway, that's outside the scope of this post.
There is another argument for the road tolls. Car driving is causing quite some problems for the society - there is the local pollution, the global pollution, the tear and wear of the road, accidents, area usage, noise and many other factors. In this post I'm mainly going to focus on traffic jams.
To offset some of those disadvantages and to discourage driving we're having quite high fuel taxes. However, if those taxes are too high, it will be a quite unfair tax for the people living in rural areas, as they are more dependent on the car and also have to drive longer distances to get anywhere. At the same time, many of the the problems listed above are much worse in urban settings than in rural settings - like, traffic jams are rarely a problem in rural settings but often a problem in urban settings - hence it makes sense to charge car drivers in urban areas more than car drivers in rural areas. Collecting urban road toll money is one way of doing it.
Some of the arguments against tolls
I can see one very valid point against the current system with "toll rings", particularly in Oslo - there is an arbitrary circular border in Oslo, some people are mostly driving on the inside of the border, some people are mostly driving at the outside of the border, but some drivers needs to pass the border frequently. It's of course bloody unfair that the third category has to pay road tolls all the time while the other groups can drive as much as they want. All groups are contributing to the problems associated with car driving. As for Oslo there will soon be two more rings - for the average toll payer travelling internally in Oslo the tolls will be the same, the biggest difference seems to be that more of the car drivers will have to pay road tolls.
Another fully valid argument is that the overhead is too big; I believe a relatively big percentage of the money collected is eaten up by the costs of registering cars and collecting the money. There are private companies doing this work - I'm a bit concerned there may be some degrees of corruption involved.
There are alternatives to the toll checkpoints, one could have a box with a GPS receiver in every car and pay for the distance driven, with different pricing schemes dependent on how popular the road is. I believe they have some system like this in Singapore. Discussion of alternative ways of collecting money is outside the scope of this post.
Quite often the protesters are pointing out that the tolls are causing problems for children and parents. Some things read in Norwegian media:
- "It's impossible for an active family to cover everything without a car"
- "I've heard about children that had to quit their sport activities due to the increase in road tolls"
- "I know some children have had to change kinder garden, school and sports club due to the tolls"
While the latter of course can be very upsetting for those children, I think that's actually one of the purposes with the tolls - give families incentives to send their children to the local kinder gardens, schools and sport clubs. Of course, parents will always want to send their children to the best school etc, but it doesn't scale very well.
Other arguments are that it's unfair and a very big burden for those who are most dependent on the car.
Of course I can't speak for everyone - but I believe at least in Oslo, it should be perfectly possible for any healthy individual or family to cope without having a car. It is easy to grow a dependency on car ownership, but it shouldn't be necessary.
Growing up without a car
Summary: It's fully possible, and I believe it's good for the children.
In my own childhoold we didn't have a car - and that wasn't in Oslo, that was in a small town. My mother took me to the kinder garden every morning, that was 65 altitude meters of climbing, probably a couple of kilometers. From the age of 6 I went alone to the school - that was a bit shorter, 27 altitude meters. I believe I'm above average fit compared to others of my age, and I attribute it quite much to my daily climbing in childhood.
My mother eventually bought a car, but unlike many other parents she generally didn't consider it her duty to be my personal taxi driver. If I was to do any sports, visit friends, participate in the scouting activities, go skiing or similar, I generally had to manage myself. And I did. Already as a school child I went by bus, I went biking, I went walking - in my youth I could go skiing for a whole weekend, and then walk home, from the skiing tracks to the bridge, over the bridge (1 km long, 50 meters high) and up home (90 meters above the sea). It was hard, very hard, but it was probably good for me. Nowadays the kids generally has phones with GPS tracking and interactive maps ... the risk of getting lost should be insignificant.
I got a big shock as an adult - I was probably around 20, and I had crashed the car. Now I was an adult, and supposedly I should be much better than before at managing myself - but I realized that by now it was much harder getting around than when I was younger. I had no clue on how the bus services was working, what bus to take, where to take it from or how to pay for it - I got out of breath just by looking at a bike - and biking in the rainy weather? You gotta be kidding! I realized that, just like some people get addicted to heroin, I was on the fast track of becoming addicted to the car!
Parenting without a car
Summary: Exceptions may apply, but I believe that in general it should be fully possible to combine a day job with parenting in Oslo without having a car.
Once, while I was still living in the town of Tromsø, I had the experience of having to pick up and deliver in two different kinder gardens at two different places - the daughter of a friend was "visiting" me for two weeks while I was at vacation. Actually I was pretty much dependent on the car to be able to cope with that.
Back in Tromsø at that time it was hard to find a place in a kinder garden - one was "lucky" if getting a place far away from home, and in general one should be prepared that siblings would have to go to different kinder gardens. In Oslo today, not so - it's generally easy to find a place in a kindergarden nearby, and it's generally possible to get around by public transport or by car. The kinder gardens also has open half an hour more - that helps a lot.
Here in Oslo, we are relatively unlucky, there are very few kinder gardens exactly in our neighbourhood. We were using a kinder garden right nearby the metro, a bit more than one kilometer and around 40 altitude meters of climbing from home. I think it's a good habit to walk with the kids there every day, I think it's very healthy for them to climb up the hills, and one gets a lot better contact with the children when walking side-by-side than when concentrating on driving while they are strapped up in their seats in the backseat of the car. Yes, it does take some time - I believe in average 15 minutes more each way as compared to if I had been running to the metro without children. Considering the total cost of car ownership and usage, I believe many parents probably could have been working 15 minutes less overtime a day if they would have managed without a car.
The kinder garden opens at 07:30. I have a quite flexible work situation, but some very few times I've actually had to deliver in the kinder garden and be in the office before 08. For me it was quite possible to manage that without a car - I can get in time to work if I either catch the metro 07:39 or start biking from the kinder garden before 07:39. If I would have had the work place at the opposite side of town it would have been difficult without a car. With a car it would be easy, but if and only if there are no traffic jams. With traffic jams, one can easily spend half an hour getting from one side of Oslo to the other. Even without traffic jams, when going in the most central parts of Oslo or when doing local trips, it will typically be faster by bike than by car (due to the possibility to take short cuts, pass car queues on the red light, "sneak" across crossroads on the red light, etc).
I must admit I often have short days in the office - I often get in late and I often have to return for the kinder garden pickup relatively early - but I'm quite sure it would be physically possible for me to both do delivery and pickup and still be in the office from 08 to 16 if I really needed to.
We ran into some problems with the kinder garden eventually - our youngest daughter simply didn't fit in there. The solution was to find another kinder garden. It seems like the current kinder garden is quite close to being perfect for her, she has really blossomed up there - but the big disadvantage with this kinder garden is that it's quite a distance both from home and from my work, and it's difficult to get there by public transport. Well, it could be worse, at least it's not at the opposite side of the city. We have three options when delivering, we can take public transport, we can go by bike (or we may even combine it, as we have foldable bikes), or we can drive. In the very best case (if biking to the bus and we have no waiting time for the bus) we probably spend some 5-10 minutes extra each way compared to driving - in the worst case (walking to the bus stop, having to wait for the bus), we spend more than 30 minutes extra. Quite often we're leaving late from home, meaning that we have to drive there - then we're quite happy that there are no queues on the road. I actually prefer taking the bus, and we also save money by that.
Quite many argue that it's paramount that the parents can drive to the kinder garden and to work, and since many cannot afford to pay for the tolls there should be no road tolls, and particularly no extra charges during the peak hours. We're very happy that it's fast and efficient to I believe that we can get quickly to the kinder garden when we're in a hurry thanks to the high road tolls - without them, we'd been stuck in traffic jams (either when driving or going by bus) and the fastest way to get to the kinder garden would be by bike.
The capacity problem
There are many traffic simulators out there, this is the first one I found through Google - http://www.traffic-simulation.de
Car roads have a capacity limit - the average speed will drop as there are more cars on the road. As the cars will have a smaller window to the car in front, the total through-flow on the high way will increase a bit as the speed is reduced. As long as the cars flow by in more than 60 km/h, there is always space for at least one more car. As soon as the speed crawls down to below 50 km/h, the throughput will decrease - that causes a negative feedback loop, quite quickly we'll have a breakdown where it's going from a "good flow" to "a pretty bad traffic jam". One can play a bit with the traffic simulator found above. I find it quite amazing how difficult it's to unclog a traffic jam in that simulator.
Reality is far more complex - Oslo is more than highways, there are on-ramps and off-ramps, traffic lights, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, etc. There are also some positive feedback effects, like car drivers learning about traffic jams at Google and avoiding them, or deciding to drive a completely different way, delaying their trip or even parking their car if they can see that the jams are too bad. In general I'm amused that the traffic jams weren't much worse than what they are in Oslo.
How to solve those problems?
The capacity can probably be increased significantly through new technology. Like, Google is quick on identifying problems in the traffic flow and can tell car drivers what alternative routes they ought to choose, creating a more optimal usage of the road capacity. Autonomous vehicles should be able to drive bumper-to-bumper in relatively high speeds without sacrifying much security. Autonomous vehicles communicating with each other should be able to achieve much better throughput through crossings and should be able to avoid hotspots. Maybe it will even be possible to reserve "slots" in the traffic in advance rather than driving into the traffic jams and hoping for the best. I believe there is great potential here - but we need solutions that work today.
Quite some car drivers will think this is an easy question: "build more roads!". That solution probably works in small towns, but hardly so in urban areas. Where to find the money for expanding the roads over and over again? Where to find the areas for new roads? What about residents being unhappy with geting a new highway right outside their bedroom window? How will this impact the property prices? The biggest argument against building more roads is: it doesn't work! Expand one of the highways, and new and worse traffic jams will occur other places due to the induced demand. There exists a classic research paper from the US, The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities pointing out that the effect of induced demand is very real.
There are problably much potential for optimilizations of traffic lights, crossroads, driving patterns, etc that can be tuned for better performance - but there are limits for how much can be gained on this.
I believe it's all quite simple - the easiest, simplest and most efficient way of reducing the traffic jam problem is to reduce the amount of car traffic on the roads.
"Date driving" is one suggestion - some days one can drive, others not, depending on the last digit of the license plate. I'm wondering what problems this will solve for those who claim they're totally dependent on the car for their daily logistics to work out. Will they stay at home with the children on the days they can't drive, work part time and have the kid in the kindergarden only on the days they can drive? I guess some households will get two cars to compensate. Perhaps there will be a growing rent-market where people will rent the neighbour cars despite they have their own fully functional but not-legal-to-drive car. It sounds silly to me.
Another possibility for reducing the car traffic without using tolls may be to make it forbidden to drive without having a special permit in the most urban areas (like, within ring 2 in Oslo) - a permit one can obtain if having a very good reason for driving there. It could solve the problem without people whining that they need to drive there but cannot afford it. Instead we'll get people whining that they need to drive there but can't get the permit. Instead of making good revenue from the car drivers, there will be lots of costs administering the drive permits. Such a system is also quite prone to corruption.
Some says it's important to use carrots rather than sticks - "fix" the public transport so it becomes attractive enough that people will use it, even without having to collect tolls. For one thing - it probably doesn't work. The research paper I've shown to previously, The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities, says that improvements in public transport alone rarely causes people to stop driving, though there may be a difference between US and Norway here. There are other problems with the suggestion, like for one thing the buses are quite often stuck in the same traffic jams as the cars - the traffic jam problem could be avoided if everyone went by the bus, but nobody has any incentives of taking the bus when it's anyway stuck in the traffic jams - tragedy of the commons at its worst. Also, a well-working public transport (featuring lots of departures and lots of lines) needs lots of users - it's very expensive to drive around with empty buses and trains, the money has to be found somewhere ... for instance, by collecting road tolls.
The traffic jam problems are worst around 07:30-08:30 and 15:30-17:00, in those times of the day there is very much more traffic than, for instance at 19:00 in the evening on a regular week-day. Roads that are properly dimensioned for the traffic demand in 21 out of 24 hours of the day can still cause pretty bad traffic jams in the peak hours. If the traffic could be spread a bit more throughout the day, there would be better capacity utilization and better flow.
Another possible point of view is to deny that traffic jams is a problem in Oslo. What do I know - I rarely drive a car. It seems to me the traffic is mostly flowing nowadays, but I remember it could be pretty bad before they incrased the tolls, I remember there were some choke-points where there almost always would be queues. I remember once, on a Friday afternoon ... I was on my way to St.Petersburg, and I spent more than an hour just getting out of Oslo, that was pretty horrible.
Another possible point of view ... maybe some people simply enjoy traffic jams.
Elasticity in road demand
I'm postulating that the traffic jams is a big problem in many cities in the peak hours and would have been a big problem in Oslo too if it wasn't for the tolls. I'm also postulating that there are also a lot of other problems with car driving in the cities (even including electrical car driving). If one disagrees with those two postulates, then I can very well understand that one also disagrees in the tolls. If one agrees with them, then I fail to understand what's wrong with having road tolls and extra fees in the the peak hours.
One of the arguments that I've seen is that most people driving in the peak hours (and particularly parents) absolutely need to drive a car exactly at those times of the day - like if the demand for road capacity is completely inelastic, meaning that extra fees in the peak hours won't help at all. If that would be true then yeah - the tolls wouldn't help against traffic jams, and the extra charges in the peak hours would also be quite pointless. I believe the opposite is true; the demand for road capacity is quite elastic, including the demand for road capacity in those pesky peak hours. Most people have possibilities and alternatives. I also believe the introduction of peak hour charges gives sort of a political signal - employers and kinder gardens may adjust to become more flexible, making it possible for more people to do their daily commuting outside the worst peak hours.
As for Oslo today, there usually exists alternatives to driving, and this gives elasticity. A personal anecdote from some years ago, before they increased the tolls - I was going to the technical museum with my son, and my instinct was to check how to get there through public transport. My wife was protesting, she had counted on it, it would be much cheaper to go by car than by public transport she said! So if there was a political wish to curb car traffic and get people to use public transport, then either the road tolls were too low, or the public transport fares were too high.
One thing is the immediate elasticity - but there is also quite some momentum that can be turned. People have cars, and because they have cars they are likely to use them. With higher road tolls and improved public transport people will be less likely to buy cars, more likely to sell their car or reduce the number of cars in the household, but this takes time. As I've experienced myself, car driving is an addicting habit, I believe quite many car drivers won't stop using the car overnight even with increased road tolls - but over time they may slowly introduce new habits, like working from home, biking or taking the public transport. The city itself may also change character and make it easier to live without a car - like, the expansion of the shopping centers located at metro stations and closure of shopping centres catering for the car drivers, density of population and offices increasing around the metro stations, etc.
As for references, the paper referenced earlier, The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities also points out that the road demand is indeed quite elastic. I did find some "day one"-reports in Norwegian media from different Norwegian towns and cities reporting on less traffic on the day the tolls were increased, or that many drivers would be driving earlier on the day the peak hour premium charge was introduced. I also found that the politicians in the city of Trondheim discontinued the road tolls at some point - but it didn't take long time until it was reintroduced, the traffic jam problems simply got too bad to ignore. I also found a summary of a report from Bergen, investigating statistics for two years after the peak hour premium charge was introduced (vegnett.no - effekten av to år med rushtidsavgift i Bergen) - the conclusion was quite clear: the peak hour premium really helps to reduce congestion problems!
I also present a small anecdotical evidence: according to my personal experiences there always used to be traffic jams outside my office in the peak hours, and sometimes also around lunch time, today (after they have increased the road tolls and added the peak hour premium) there is generally quite some flow in the traffic.
Here are some photos - this crossroad is quite often chaotic, when I took the photo the traffic was flowing well over it:
Here there would usually be long lines of cars waiting for the green light during the peak hours. When I took the photo, some 1-3 cars passed each time the signal was green:
Then again, came to think, those photos were taken during our potato harvest school vacation, so they are hardly representative.
Since 1935, Norway has mostly been governed by the labour party, socialist ideas are relatively strong in Norway. One of the arguments against road tolls is that it's unfair that only rich people should be able to drive cars. A constant driving fee can be a very big burden for the poorest car drivers, while it's negigible for the richer car drivers. The political party SV ("Sosialistisk Venstreparti" or "Socialistic Left Party") is divided over this, they have always had a quite "green" profile and quite many of the voters probably don't drive much anyway. At the other hand, some of those who do drive consider it to be against socialist ideology. I think this is argument has some clout when it comes to using tolls for financing new road projects (particularly for financing upgrades of road projects, where people previously could drive without paying tolls), but I believe it's fairly nonsense when it comes to urban tolls, primarly designed for reducing the amount of traffic. Or perhaps ... maybe the socialists thinks it's a good idea that everyone should be stuck in the same traffic jam. All good socialists should rush to their cars and make sure the roads are jammed up, making life equally miserable for car drivers with above average income as for the poorest car drivers.
In the Oslo case (and probably even more in the average city internationally), I believe those having the least available money don't have a car anyway. Or, if they have a car, they are in a bad financial situation because they have chosen to prioritize car ownership. I think that driving in the urban centers may be considered a luxury; generally it should not be needed (because the public transport is good enough) and it does not scale, there is not enough capacity for everyone who wants to drive. From my Norwegian upbringing, it's straight in my book of "fairness" that those who can afford the luxury of driving in the urban centers pay high tolls for doing so, and that some of the said money goes for making it easier to survive without a car (in Oslo the money collected is used both on public transport, new roads for bikers and pedestrian, and improved car roads). Then again, there are of course car drivers that protests that it's unfair that their hard-earned money is collected and used for things they don't see any need for (public transport and bike roads). Well, I think it's pretty fair, because said car drivers do benefit from this infrastructure - more alternatives to car driving (combined with higher tolls) causes less traffic on the roads, making it possible to get fast and easy around with a car. The alternative would most likely be a severe traffic jam.
Playing with the socialist idea that those who are able to pay more should pay more (I should inject that it's not only a socialist idea - commercial entities often stribe to offer the same service for different prices to different customers or markets, it's called price discrimination) ... one possibility could be to differentiate the toll dependent on the value of the car - though I don't believe the politicians of Oslo would be much comfortable with introducing such a rule. Another idea could be to allow people to pay a premium toll to achieve premium advantages - for instance, some streets (which can easily be avoided by driving minor detours) could be available only for those paying premium toll, street parking could be included for those choosing to pay the premium, etc - though, I doubt such an idea would be much popular among the socialists.
Back to the argument that some people really need to drive, and hence there should be no tolls on the road. An obvious alternative could be direct monetary support to compensate for the cost of driving through the tolls. It could be given to all parents automatically, or those who feel they need it could apply for it. There are obviously problems with both those approaches, but they do keep people incentivized to avoid driving.
My photos are available in full quality at IPFS QmPWj73hCV3s4w8heHr7rELwJqYmAhF8rrnxLGjpAUiH8Y. License CC BY-SA 4.0 on article and photos.
Don't be afraid to criticize my posts. I will give a 100% upvote to any (unique) reply pointing out typos, grammar mistakes or mistakes in the facts presented. This applies to any post or comment from me, no matter how old. I also usually give upvotes to opposing points of view, particularly when a good and logically valid argument is given.