Congestion charging makes even more sense in a world with COVID

by Marion Terrill

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 2020

At some point, building more roads fails to solve congestion. It’s irresponsible and unsustainable to keep building roads without also introducing congestion-charging to spread traffic through the day.

A congestion charge for Sydney made sense even before COVID-19. And the case is all the stronger now that people’s understandable fear of contagion, coupled with passenger limits on public transport, means more driving.

The NSW review of federal financial relations this week recommended a trial of a congestion charge “cordon” around Sydney’s CBD. Their idea is to charge a fee high enough to encourage people who can switch to public transport or change their time of travel to do so, but not so high that it would stop people who need to drive into the CBD in peak hour for a job interview or an important appointment. Grattan Institute analysis shows that a charge that’s roughly the same as the public transport fare most commuters pay would be enough to encourage this kind of behaviour change.

A CBD cordon charge wouldn’t just improve traffic flow in the CBD: its effects would ripple out into middle and even outer suburbs like Frenchs Forest, Burwood, Macquarie Park and Brighton-Le-Sands. And the charge would mostly be paid by the well-off: people who drive to work in the CBD earn an average of $1,000 more per week than their counterparts across Sydney as a whole.

Even with the best efforts of the NSW government to add peak-hour services and sanitise carriages, public transport simply cannot do the job it used to do with the number of passengers limited to 68 per train carriage and 23 per bus. Working from home is part of the solution, but most workers don’t have the option. It’s unavoidable that many people are going to switch to driving.

Critics may say that it’s unfair to introduce congestion charging right at the time that people have more need than ever to drive. But a congestion charge is not a punishment. It’s a device to encourage every driver, on every trip, to consider not only how much congestion they will suffer, but also their own contribution to slowing everyone else down.

For some trips, there is another option: travel later, take the train, jump on a bike or catch up by phone. Now, more than ever, Sydneysiders would benefit from a congestion charge on roads that are starting to become busy once again. Let’s hope the state government has the political courage and policy vision to seize a better way to manage a vibrant city.