One of the best things about working at an insurance company in the city was how close it was to Southern Cross Station - about 60 seconds. As my train trip was only 2 stops away, it meant I could get to work in less than 1/2 hour - door to door. I thought that was pretty good - there's nothing like an extra 30 minutes sleep on a cold, dark winter morning. My colleague whom I sat next to would regularly turn up late, cursing and blaming the traffic and the up to 90 minute car trip into the city. "Where do you live?" I asked her once, feeling sorry that she had to commute from some far flung outer suburb.
"Oh, in Caulfield"
"What? But its only 10km away! Why don't you just catch the train"?
"Nah, work pays my my parking. So why bother"?
Its an excuse I hear often. Melbourne introduced a parking levy back in 2006, but it has done little to curb congestion. This year, that levy was increased by 130%. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it's unlikely to make a huge difference. Why? As in my example above, most people don't pay for their parking spot - its paid for by their employer. So in spite of the high cost of petrol, registration, insurance and vehicle maintenance, it is far outweighed by the price of a yearly car space (roughly worth $7-8K a year) plus the now $1300 levy. It's clear we need to take a different tact if we are to pry people out of their cars.
In a recent UrbanMelbourne article titled 'Will the party of urbanism please stand up', it was suggested that we we could help pay for urban infrastructure by introducing a levy or raise the GST. A great idea, and one that warrants further exploration. However there is some things we can do in addition. To quote Tony Abbott*, "Why not introduce a simple tax?" - i.e. a congestion charge for driving into the CBD.
*Tony Abbott was of course infamously referring to the carbon tax here, a position we would later totally back flip on. The author of this article promises to 'never ever' quote Tony Abbott again...
Now the idea of a congestion charge is not a new one. London has had one since 2003, with claims of a 30% reduction in vehicles entering the charge zone, and a 20% drop in CO2 emissions. Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle has floated the idea in the past, but didn't quite have the balls to introduce it when talk turned to re-election time. At the federal level, Infrastructure Australia floated the idea again just a few days ago (read more here). So maybe its time that the state government ran with it instead - but with a slight twist.
Much of the criticism directed toward a congestion tax is derived from the fact that traders think their businesses will suffer. Its no revelation that commuters make up the majority of the traffic in the CBD, with peak hour levels especially horrendous. Shoppers generally don't drive in during peak hour and stay all day - so why don't we just exempt them from the charge? Business owners would of course, be exempt as well.
Enforcement of the charge in London is done by a series of cameras using ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition), much like Citylink, allowing a differential payment scale. In Melbourne, if this can be extended to record the time the vehicle enters/exits the charge zone, then we have an easy way of differentiating the commuters from the shoppers. A 4 hour window can be designated, giving shoppers plenty of time to do their shopping and exit the zone, and therefore, no charge. Commuters who stay parked inside the zone all day, will be charged. Simple.
Several other people/groups would also need to be exempt. Such as (but not limited to):
Residents are the most contentious group here. Living in the city is meant to negate the need for having a car, and so technically, charging them at the normal rate could act as a further disincentive to having a vehicle. However as they are unlikely to significantly contribute to the problem (after all, they can walk to work!), giving them an exemption is probably academic.
One other point of contention are the off peak exemptions. In London, the charge is only applicable 7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, with public holidays and weekends not applicable. The 7am - 6pm rule makes sense - if people still insist on driving, they are at least encouraged to do so outside of peak congestion times. I'm not sure about making weekends free though - Melbourne can still get very busy on weekends - especially if there is a sporting/major event on. I would suggest a 50% discount, as there are usually extra trains to cover these events.
And that brings us to the boundaries of the charge zone itself (see above), which inevitably, will be the subject of much debate. Note my suggestion has 2 noticeable additions - Docklands and the Jolimont sporting precinct. This is quite deliberate - both these areas are served quite well my multiple modes of public transport, leaving no real reason why people need to drive to the footy, or other events. One further area which could be added is Southbank, discouraging people from driving in and parking at Crown Casino.
That leaves one final detail - the price. London charges £10($16.70) if you pay by midnight on the day you travel, £12($20.09) if you pay by the next day, or £9($15.07) if you are registered for Autopay. Fines for non payment range from £60($100.44) to £187($313.03), depending on how late you pay. These may seem high, but it is meant to act as a deterrent. There are a few other incentives the government could create - offering employers discounted yearly MYKI passes for their employees, and removing any associated FBT for doing so; these are seemingly plausible. Add the price of existing Citylink tolls, and you have some serious reasons to get on the train.
Judging by the results in London, a congestion charge could result in some major reductions in traffic numbers and pollution. It would require some upgrades to the PT system, but it would also raise some serious revenue, helping fund these upgrades as well as other urban infrastructure as mentioned earlier. And as an added bonus, it would reduce the number of parking lots needed in the CBD, thus freeing up sites for further residential and commercial development. With more people living within the CBD's boundaries, it would result in even fewer people having to drive to work. The benefits seem immense, but of course with any new tax/levy/charge, the political risks are high too - hence the standoff we now have between council, state and federal governments.
Robert Doyle, Dennis Napthine, Kevin Rudd - who will blink first?