Mobility pricing for livable cities: A tough sell?

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A familiar sight of roads leading to Kuala Lumpur.A familiar sight of roads leading to Kuala Lumpur.A familiar sight of roads leading to Kuala Lumpur.

Imagine living in the city where the air is clean, the noise levels are low, and the traffic environment is safe. Look at Malaysian cities today and see the contrast – cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, etc. occupy every square inch of the road, endlessly spewing pollutants and generating noise, while endangering pedestrians. Worse, this ‘progress’ comes at the expense of much needed green space.

Malaysian cities may be growing too rapidly that we are victimising ourselves with our choice of mobility, which is supposed to take us from point A to B in a sustainable manner – safe, carbon-free, and economical. Unfortunately, that is the not case. We developed our cities by giving priority to motor vehicles rather than ourselves. In creating more spaces for cars, we have sacrificed spaces that should, by right, be preserved for trees. We are even risking our safety by making it convenient for motor vehicles to travel at high speed in numerous highways.

Ironically, our society keeps on associating cars with convenience, comfort, and luxury, so much so that most of us don’t even mind paying for fuel inefficiency, or taking a longer traveling time due to congestion. We don’t mind getting stuck in the traffic madness as long as we can satisfy our ego of enjoying the comfort of our own cars. We don’t feel bad at all contributing greenhouses gases for climate change, perhaps because we don’t think it is an individual problem.

How far could this collective selfish act go on? Haven’t we reached a point that we should force polluters to pay for creating the mess? The social economic cost of congestion is too huge to ignore, let alone to pass the bucks to the non-polluting taxpayers for the clean-up bill. A 2012 study by the European Union (EU) indicated that the annual cost of congestion in EU countries totaled 110 billion euros (RM452 billion) and a study by Texas A & M University in 2011 concluded that the congestion cost in the United States was equivalent to 95.6 billion euros (RM393 billion), in terms of loss of output.

Let’s take a look how other cities deal with the congestions. Singapore, for example, introduced its mobility pricing mechanism as early as 1998 through the implementation of Electronic Road Pricing (ERP). The ERP charges drivers who use the roads in the central business district during peak hours. Similarly, drivers entering central London are made to pay for congestion charges from 7am to 6pm on weekdays. In the next few years, additional charges will be imposed on non-green engines too.

In several other European cities, such as Stockholm, Gothenburg and Zurich, car drivers would think twice about entering the city. Apart from high congestion charges, the drivers also have to deal with inconveniences such as low speed limit, and limited and expensive parking facilities. Over in Oregon, United States, authorities are testing the Vehicle Mile Travel (VMT) Project, whereby the vehicle owners will be charged based on the number of miles travelled as to deal with carbon issues.

Although Malaysians are likely to view this as a punitive approach, the mobility pricing is meant to transform the quality of life in the cities. This idea could be marketed by stressing on the benefits and incentives, rather than punishment. As for the incentives, the drivers would be entitled for discounts for driving eco-friendly cars, practising car-pooling, traveling during non-peak hours, or even for taking less congested routes. Limited and high parking charges, low speed limit, and pedestrian-friendly (rather than car friendly) road designs are among other mechanisms that could be used to discourage drivers from entering the city centers.

However, the idea of mobility pricing was not always welcomed in the cities where it was introduced. A good social marketing strategy which sells the benefits is the only formula to get the buy-in from society. But there is one major prerequisite for mobility pricing that must not be ignored – the public transportation system must be adequate, reliable, cheap, and efficient.

Commuters will only accept the idea and change their attitude towards mass transportation if their expectations are met. For the already too congested Malaysian cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, George Town, and Johor Bahru, the challenge is very basic, which is to get to policymakers to first agree to the idea. And once they do, rest assured that the huge investment in mass transportation will definitely pay off.

Yusof Ghani is a researcher with the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS). Views expressed are his own.

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