Paying the price: congestion charging

For years, tolls to reduce demand for our increasingly jammed roads have been mooted, but so far have come to naught.

But congestion charging talks are back on the table for two of the country’s economic hubs – Auckland, where over a quarter of New Zealand’s population lives, and Tauranga, home to New Zealand’s biggest port.  

Last year Auckland Council voted to develop a ‘time of use charging’ system, where motorists would be charged during peak hours on routes into the central city. ​If agreement can be reached with central government, the toll could be in place as early as 2025 or 2026.

Snarled-up roads are frustrating and time-consuming. They also lead to lost income, heightened stress and increased pollution. Auckland’s congestion alone is estimated to cost the economy over $1 billion a year. 

Congestion charging has been successfully introduced in Singapore, Stockholm and London. These systems rely on a toll to remove some vehicles from the roads – motorists who can change when, where or how they travel have a financial incentive to do so, to avoid the charge. Congestion is reduced for those who continue to drive, making their trips quicker and travel times more reliable. Congestion charging has cut traffic volumes by between 30% and 50% in Singapore and Stockholm.  

Congestion North Shore INP

 Could congestion charging be the answer to Auckland's traffic problems?

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission Te Waihanga’s General Manager of strategy, Geoff Cooper, says travel times have increased over the last 30 years, but trying to build a way out of congestion without other traffic management mechanisms is a losing battle. “The fundamental law of roading congestion is increased capacity results in more people wanting to use it.”  

The time-honoured method of dealing with congestion is to build more roads, but traditional funding sources – Fuel Excise Duty and Road User Charges – have proved insufficient to keep existing roads in good condition, let alone build more. 

Tauranga City Council commissioner Stephen Selwood says the case for congestion charging in New Zealand is strong – to both reduce traffic and to create a revenue stream for transport funding. 

“We can improve the system at the same time. People pay for a faster trip and also get a better transport system,” he says.  But it’s important that the benefits in time and convenience exceed the price.

Congestion charging has also raised questions over equity, with sceptics concerned that tolls disproportionately affect people on lower incomes. 

E tū union organiser Mat Danaher says congestion charging would force people to choose between money and time and it would be bad for workers, many of whom can’t work from home.  

“If [congestion charging] takes the same form as in London, people would be paying $20 to $100 a week to go to work… others could be forced off the motorways and onto crowded local roads to avoid paying.”   

To stop fees becoming too burdensome, most overseas models include a daily cap on charges. Mat says people like home support workers call in on several clients a day and it would be unfair for them to be charged while in and out of the toll zone.

Congestion charging could see the union bargaining with employers to cover the cost, which would eventually be reflected in the price of things like healthcare, food and manufactured goods.

Congestion Auckland INP

 Would you be prepared to pay a charge to drive at peak times of day?

Auckland’s Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Ward councillor Josephine Bartley voted in favour of the latest resolution because it included provision to look at equity issues. She previously opposed congestion charging because she felt it would unfairly penalise working people. 

“My hope is that they look at exceptions [for some] – and it’s not just Community Services Card holders… there are a lot of people like cleaners, who need to drive to work. Even people on middle incomes are struggling.” 

Stephen Selwood says number plate recognition technology could be used to provide dispensation – this could be based on age, income-level or occupation.

When it comes down to it, Geoff Cooper says decision makers shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. “Everywhere congestion charging plans have been implemented… none have been rigid. The system is always evolving.” 

The AA Says: 

AA's Policy Director, Martin Glynn, says congestion is forecast to get worse in our biggest and fastest-growing cities, and it’s not a problem that can be solved with more roads.  

“While road improvements must continue as an important part of keeping our cities moving, major expansion of urban road networks is not considered a viable response,” Martin says. “And while improvements to public transport will give more people alternative ways to get around, the vast majority of people will continue to rely on their cars for the foreseeable future.” 

He says that while congestion charging has proven to reduce congestion overseas, those cities tend to be much denser with public transport networks that offer a genuine alternative to car trips. 

“Several key questions need to be answered of any proposal: which parts of a city will be subject to a congestion charge, how much will it be, and at what times of the day will it apply? What will that mean for traffic in the rest of the city? What can those paying the charge expect in return in terms of travel time savings and more reliable trips? What alternatives will be available to those who don’t wish to, or can’t pay the charge, and will there be any exemptions or discounts? What will the money raised be spent on?” 

If New Zealand wants to implement congestion charging in any of our cities, decision makers need to develop a fair and affordable scheme and provide clear answers to all these questions. 

Martin points out road users are already paying a big price for congestion with their time, and this will only increase if things don't change.


Story by Matt Tso for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Matt Tso is a Communications Advisor on the AA's Motoring Policy team in Wellington.


Illustration above by Anna Crichton.


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