Working Roads

I think Metro Vancouver can improve how they are communicating about mobility pricing. I think it’s a great idea, but I also think will be a very hard sell. I think the whole campaign needs a positive frame. And when you get down to it, this isn’t about congestion or taxes. It’s about roads that get us where we’re going: it’s about Working Roads.

Mobility Pricing

We need a replacement for gas tax revenue. We rely on it for transportation and transit spending, but with fuel-efficient and electric vehicles it is eroding every year. We also face traffic that seems to be getting exponentially worse. In the past, the change was slow: traffic growth was soaked up by alternate routes and secondary roads. But there comes a point when the network is simply full. It’s like pouring water into an ice-cube tray: at first, when one cup fills up the water simply flows to another. But when all the cups are full, all the water you pour in overflows. I think we are fast approaching that point. And we simply cannot build enough new lanes to accommodate all the new cars on the roads – and do it year after year. Selling taxes is hard, but demolishing neighbourhoods to build new freeways is harder (and we would still need the taxes to pay for it).

Mobility pricing puts a price on driving, particularly at times and places when traffic is heavy. Some drivers will find alternatives, leaving road space available for those who really need it. If you need to drive to work, traffic is costing you: paying for open roads can actually save you money. This has been tried elsewhere, and it works.

Of course it won’t work unless alternatives exist. If you are driving every day to work, and transit’s not practical, that money comes straight out of your pocket. Mobility pricing cannot just be about pricing roads: it has to be about giving us choices for how to get around.

The idea is basically to charge you more to drive less. It’s a tough sell. By the time I’ve answered, “yes, less – but faster! or at least less slowly!”, I have already lost the argument. And if I focus on congestion, the obvious solution seems to be build more roads. Again, by the time I’ve explained why that’s not practical, I’ve lost the argument. So nothing happens, traffic gets worse, and everyone is angry.

The Official Line

It turns out that the official web site is already doing a pretty good job of explaining the idea:

Congestion on Metro Vancouver’s roads and bridges is a challenge many of us experience daily. Lengthy delays can leave us frustrated, stressed, and wasting time that could be spent doing things we actually like. . . . Decongestion charging is already making travel easier for people in many other major cities around the world . . . we have been paying for road use through the fuel tax and the recently removed bridge tolls. Unfortunately, the way charging has been structured in the region isn’t actually addressing congestion where it’s most needed, wasn’t always fair, and isn’t generating the revenue we need to upgrade and maintain our transportation system. . . . help us build a tailored approach for Metro Vancouver that gets people moving.

They list three key objectives:

  • ​Reduce Traffic Congestion on roads and bridges across the region, so people and goods can keep moving and businesses can thrive and be competitive.
  • Promote Fairness ​to address concerns around the previous approach to tolling some roads and bridges but not others, and to provide affordable transportation choices.​
  • Support transportation ​investment to improve the current transportation system in Metro Vancouver for all users.

This is very good. It relates to the daily experiences of residents; gives the positive reasons we want and need to get around, personal and economic; addresses fairness; emphasizes transportation choice; and talks about spending as investment.

But this is a pretty big chunk of text – and I’ve trimmed most of it. Try explaining it in 30 seconds or less. Or even naming it. The page itself is titled Metro Vancouver Independent Mobility Pricing Commission, but the url dances around the issue. The generic “it’s time” ( suggests some uncertainty or reluctance about branding. For good reason.

In Praise of Mobility

I argue that mobility should be at the centre of communicating the benefits of transit. “Mobility” isn’t the most sexy word, but lacking an alternative I don’t want to see it tainted with the negative connotations of taxes or “pricing.”

New taxes are never popular. The provincial government is only in power because they removed bridge tolls. I can’t imagine that they would risk their political lives on a new road tax. A replacement for the gas tax, on the other hand, holds promise.

Instead of selling a mobility tax, I think we should sell a mobility rebate. That’s what reducing gas tax amounts to: you keep your money, then you decide how to spend it. If you want to spend it on to drive on better-flowing roads, great! If you want to spend it on alternatives, like transit, or save it by walking or biking, that’s great too.

Then there’s mobility investment. Whether the money comes from road pricing or tolls, or from general revenue, providing alternatives (and, yes, improving the roads) must be part of the package.

Terms like these don’t just sell this policy, they also promote mobility itself: which is the ultimate goal that we all care about. Beyond the fantasy world of advertising, for most of us roads and cars are ultimately a means to an end. Congestion is just a downer, a barrier between us and our goals. The official web site talks about keeping goods moving, thriving businesses, and transportation choices. Mobility pricing is just a technical detail in a bigger positive message (and a bigger project) about using our roads for mobility: Working Roads.

Working Roads

These are good solid words with a good solid meaning. “Working” is a key word. It implies people getting to their jobs, the economy, hard work, effectiveness, honesty. “Roads,” meanwhile, embraces many ways to get around: driving, taking the bus, bicycling, even walking (congestion, in contrast, is all about cars). It also has positive connotations, such as the future (“the road ahead”) or success. Working Roads is a positive phrase: but it also quietly implies its opposite: roads that don’t work. Regardless of political or ideological leanings, I think everyone can agree that we need working roads.

Roads mean mobility. They take us to our jobs. They take us home to our families. They carry goods that we need. Right now, our roads aren’t working. When we are stuck in traffic, we are not working, we are not with people we care about, our time is not our own.

To make our roads work again, we are eliminating the gas tax. Instead of taxing gas, we will price the roads. We will give that money back to you as a mobility rebate, and use it to invest in transportation infrastructure. The aim is to give you choices for how to get around. Road pricing has been proven to reduce congestion: so that when you need to drive, the roads will work for you. New infrastructure will give you alternatives. And the mobility rebate will give you money to go places however works best for you.

Working roads is not about driving, it’s not about transit, it’s not about bicycling or walking or ride sharing. It’s about all of these things. It’s about mobility. It’s about giving you choices, and making those choices work.

That’s my first attempt. It may look short, but at 60 seconds to read aloud, it is actually too long. Here’s a 30 second version:

Roads take us to work, and they bring us home. When we are stuck in traffic, our roads aren’t working. To make them work again, we are replacing gas tax with a price on roads. We will return that money to you as a mobility rebate. We are investing in mobility: roads, buses, trains. Road pricing has proven to reduce congestion. The mobility rebate and mobility investment give you choices for how to get around. So that when you need to drive, the roads will work for you.