Road tolls are a barrier to complete streets

15 March 2013 Ideas
Photo by [Brett VA](

This complete street accommodates cars, bikes, buses, and pedestrians.

Photo by Brett VA.

I took my bike out of hibernation yesterday and rode from my home in Kitchener to the University of Waterloo. The commute was refreshing, after a season of being beholden to the bus schedule. Along the way, I stopped off at the bank and ran a couple errands in uptown Waterloo. This is the kind of flexibility I was missing over the winter. Biking season is here, and I couldn’t be happier.

But, the roads. Oh, the roads! I’ve never fully appreciated what a freeze-thaw cycle can do to asphalt, but boy was it obvious yesterday morning. The familiar potholes had grown deeper and wider, and unexpected new cracks had formed during the winter. The stretch of Waterloo Street from Roger to Moore, which used to be a tad bumpy, was nearly unrideable yesterday. I may have to plan out an alternate commuting route.

The immediate reaction is obvious: the city needs to fix these roads. But it’s more than that. As a cyclist, I want the city to fix the roads. Even as a bus rider, I appreciate a well-maintained road. There’s nothing worse than trying to remain standing on a lurching, jolting bus ride.

We tend to automatically think of roads as “infrastructure for cars”, which factors into debates about investing in transit. This dualism is not helpful and it’s absolutely not accurate. Bike lanes and bus bays are absolutely part of the road, and planners need to think about the road network as intermodal infrastructure if we want to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

This is why I’m not sold on the idea of congestion charges or road tolls in urban areas. These measures reinforce the perception of automobiles as the primary users of the road. Because motorists pay a user fee, they feel entitled to a road system that puts their needs ahead of other modes. These schemes have a singular focus: improving automobile congestion (i.e. timing traffic lights, increasing the rate of through-traffic, removing on-street parking). Such plans fail to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and mass transit.

A counter-argument might be that road tolls and congestion fees make motorists pay the “true cost” of the road and might encourage them to drive less. My counter-counter-argument would be: why should automobiles pay for the use of the road and not cyclists? Pedestrians? Transit riders? We all use the infrastructure. Let’s look at it as a common good and plan for multiple modes. Designing and maintaining comfortable roads for all modes will get drivers out of their cars more effectively than user fees ever will.

FYI, there is a good discussion about this post happening on reddit, as well as in the comments below.

Sam Nabi


Derek Hofmann 16 March 2013, 02:11

“My counter-counter-argument would be: why should automobiles pay for the use of the road and not cyclists?”<br>When cyclists start causing congestion, they can pay congestion fees, too.

Sam Nabi 16 March 2013, 04:03

But don’t you think a carrot is better than a stick for encouraging a shift away from cars?

Derek Hofmann 16 March 2013, 04:38

A congestion fee is like an auction of available road space for all the motorists who want to use it. I can’t think of a more efficient way to prevent a shortage than with an auction.

baklazhan 16 March 2013, 07:15

The problem is, we’ve spent the better part of a century offering carrots for driving more. We’ve expanded the amount of public and private land dedicated to autos to an astonishing degree. Now, people argue, we shouldn’t even consider reversing any of that, but instead we should find even more space and resources to devote to other modes.

The result is a system which is both astonishingly expensive and laughably ineffective.

Not a Moron 16 March 2013, 12:37

This is totally wrong. Actual, non straw-man congestion charge plans are all about funnelling money to transit. That’s what you have to do, because road charges shift trips from private cars to other modes. The whole point is to reduce the dominance of the private car, which makes roads cheaper to maintain. On the health side, reducing congestion reduces pollution and the number of death-inducing machines on the road, which is good for other road users.

Sam Nabi 16 March 2013, 19:07

Yes, we’ve over-invested in auto infrastructure for the past 60 years. But I think we should fund alternative transportation not by disproportionately charging users of a single mode, but by making those who will benefit - everybody - pay an equal portion. We shouldn’t ask cars to dig their own grave.

Whereas:<br>1) It is desirable to have a mix of transportation modes<br>2) All residents benefit from investment in transportation mix<br>3) All residents pay property taxes (either directly or indirectly through rent)

Therefore:<br>1) Automobile drivers should not be solely responsible for funding improvements in other modes<br>2) Funding for transportation should come from a collective source of funds, like property taxes<br>3) Transportation investment should seek mutual benefits for multiple modes. (e.g. street parking rather than surface lots enhances pedestrian safety; a robust transit network that attracts people away from cars, instead of forcing them to begrudgingly drive less with congestion charges)

baklazhan 17 March 2013, 07:24

Regarding your therefores:

1) Sure, but right now everyone is responsible for funding automotive facilities. If supermarkets are required to provide parking, you’ll be paying for that parking every time you shop there, whether you drive or no.

2) Funding for transportation already comes from collective sources of funds. In the Bay Area, at least, funding comes from extra sales taxes, property taxes, etc.

3) All I can say is that “mutual benefits for multiple modes” seems to result in some spectacularly dumb projects, like incredibly expensive, redundant and underused light rail systems, that connect parking lot to parking lot, so that people are better off driving anyway. Because if you built something instead of parking, that people might actually use the train to get to and from, you’re “forcing” them away from cars and that’s a no-no.

Michael Druker 19 March 2013, 03:25

With the limited resources in a government budget, you can’t get everything you want. Not everything can be a win-win investment, and sometimes (often) have to prioritize. What do you prioritize? Do you keep trying to “win” for cars when 1) cars are not actually a stakeholder (people are), 2) cars are very expensive to make happy (which only works for a short time), and 3) “wins” for cars are ultimately counterproductive to the purpose?

The reality of property tax as a revenue source is that hiking it enough to generate a game-changing amount of infrastructure money is very politically difficult. Keep in mind that cities are also dealing with the infrastructure deficit, from not planning for the current end-of-life replacement of the growth-driven post-war infrastructure boom.

I might add that property taxes (unlike Canadian income taxes) are very regressive. They’re one of the few revenue tools Canadian municipalities have, but there’s a reason people call for federal funds for infrastructure and transit — the federal government can levy income taxes. The “senior on fixed income” objection to property tax increases is a real one.

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