Is the government’s proposed congestion charge actually helpful?

So, the federal government has recently brought focus to congestion charge after announcing its decision to acquire several tolled highways and turning them into such.

Written by Ken Chin

So, the federal government has recently brought focus to congestion charge after announcing its decision to acquire several tolled highways and turning them into such.

The Prime Minister’s Office has announced that the government has entered into talks with Gamuda Bhd to acquire four highways – SPRINT, LDP, KESAS and SMART. Upon acquisition, the government intends to switch the current flat-fare toll system to a “congestion charge”, with varying rates according to the time of the day. Off-peak travel between 11pm to 5pm is free while normal hours are charged at 30% lower than peak hour rates. This measure intends to disincentivise travelling during peak hours while encouraging motorists with more time on their hands to travel outside that period.

The idea of a congestion charge to relieve congestion is not something new. This charge works by charging a premium to access congestion-prone areas, like a city centre, during peak periods. Congestion charges have shown to be effective in places like Singapore, where the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system is reported to have reduced traffic in the restricted zone by 25,000 vehicles or 13% during peak period and increased traffic speeds by 20%. There was also an increase in carpooling and public transport usage.

Another city that has a successful congestion charge scheme is London. London’s congestion charge resulted in lower traffic volumes that allowed for interventions that improved the urban environment, increased road safety and prioritised public transport, walking and cycling. In this regard, affording the space for active mobility and prioritised bus lanes in the city further reinforces the role congestion charge plays in keeping the city and its transport systems sustainable.

However, these successes are also due to a wide variety of other holistic measures meant to make public and active transport more enticing in the city state.  Singapore and London’s success has shown that a successful city-wide congestion charging scheme requires careful planning, public engagement, strict enforcement and viable alternative means of transport. It takes massive effort from various stakeholders like local councils, transport authorities and traffic police to work closely to operate, monitor and enforce this system.

The decision to start congestion charge on separate highways may locally ease congestion off to non-peak hours. However, without a comprehensive traffic mitigation plan, the perennial traffic problem will remain unresolved. None of the highways except for the SMART tunnel penetrate into central Kuala Lumpur where congestion is at its most severe. Even then, the SMART tunnel is only a parallel relief route to a more congested but free trunk road that lead to the city. This puts into question whether such move may amount to any effectual traffic reduction in areas that need the most concern.

The SPRINT, LDP and KESAS highways are vital inter-suburban arteries that link many areas that have sparse public transport coverage. Without any competitive alternative ways to travel, implementing congestion charge at these highways may yield only limited benefits. For time-flexible motorists, since congestion itself is already the biggest incentive to travel non-peak, what more can a 30% discount achieve?

The announcement also highlighted that any surplus from the revenue collected from the new scheme will be channelled to fund the improvement of quality in our public transport. This is good news, but with no further details released, we don’t know yet if and when this scheme will generate a surplus after the revenues are used for highway operation and maintenance and to repay borrowings for the acquisition.

Public transport is still the single most effective measure to relieve our traffic woes. The embarrassing state of our bus network and first-last mile connectivity speak volumes of how our local, state and federal governments are still not taking public transport seriously, as a critical service for our cities to function. Only when these are satisfactorily addressed through collective efforts by local councils and transport agencies, can we start looking at introducing inner city congestion charge as means to encourage car users to switch to public transport. As members of the community, we also have the responsibility to demand for better quality public transport and a better environment for active means of travel like walking and cycling.

We are all familiar with our government’s ad-hoc approach to resolving issues and this looks like another one with a convenient political mileage. Like many urban measures, implementing a congestion charge is not as simple as applying periodic rates at existing toll booths but a wider measure which forms part of a reasonably timelined and comprehensive transport master plan designed to move people, not just cars. Shouldn’t we worry that this move will allow the government to prematurely dust off their hands on the sticky subject of congestion charge?

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