Should car passengers get paid to ride to work?

Give me a transport crisis and I’ll give you a thousand ways to solve it, said no mayor ever. But the ideas are out there. Carpool campaigner Paul Minett explains why he thinks we should pay people to ride.

This is about an innovative idea for reducing the traffic. The idea, simply put, is to pay people to travel as passengers, instead of driving. I call it “reverse tolls”.

For about $100 million per year, reverse tolls could decongest Auckland’s traffic.

And once Auckland’s roads have been decongested, and the price paid to passengers is constantly updated to reflect changing demand, we could live with the current infrastructure and avoid billions of dollars of annual expansion costs.

Council and central government could stop funding new projects and forget about the not-insignificant cost of maintaining lists of future projects. Balancing budgets would become much easier.

Reverse tolls are a politician-friendly version of road pricing. They solve traffic congestion in a positive way. But they require a different world view than the one that says we must build infrastructure, or that we must charge people to use the infrastructure that their taxes paid for. The idea relies on the possibility that enough people could and would change the way they travel, if the price was right.

The table below comes from a recent presentation to the planning committee of Auckland Council. It compares three possible scenarios for the future: the status quo; a future where all cars are charged to use certain roads; and a future with reverse-tolls road pricing, where people are paid to travel as passengers. Ten different perspectives are considered. Red is negative, green is positive, and orange is somewhere in between. Overall, reverse tolls is the most positive scenario.

Of course, payment of reverse tolls would require reliable data about when and where people travel as passengers. This could be achieved with a smart phone app to “tag-on” and “tag-off” trips as carpool passengers (eventually including busing, cycling and walking), thereby recording the time, direction, and location of travel. A prototype app exists.

Payments would be made based on these records. The amount of the payment could be different for different routes and different times, depending on the amount of congestion that needed to be removed. The payments would be to the passengers. Drivers and passengers would decide how to share the payment.

This idea could be pilot-tested at low cost, and quickly. Here are three highly congested locations that might be good candidates: Whangaparaoa Road; Lake Road (Takapuna); and the corridor from south Auckland to the airport. Please email me if you have better suggestions.

It would not be new to pay people to switch transport modes. But this solution, paying passengers enough to fix traffic congestion, has not yet been tried anywhere in the world. It is a realistic option, and we could be first. By this time next year, Auckland’s iconic traffic congestion could be a thing of the past. There’s more here.

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