As Vancouver ponders downtown toll for drivers, experts warn it could harm low-income commuters

·3 min read

A City of Vancouver proposal to toll drivers entering the downtown core as part of efforts to combat climate change has some experts urging caution about the potential harm it could cause disadvantaged groups.

Low-income families and people of colour are more likely to live further away from the downtown area and would more likely be adversely affected by the toll, says Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.

"There are very fair concerns ... about really the unequal economic impact that such a tax would have upon these types of communities," Yan said.

Sustainability advocates say such a toll — also known as mobility pricing or transport pricing — would bring myriad benefits to the region, like less congestion and greenhouse gases and fewer accidents.

Submitted by Andy Yan
Submitted by Andy Yan

The basic premise is that the city would charge vehicles entering or leaving the "Metro Core" area — usually defined as the area north of 16th Avenue, east of Burrard Street and west of Clark Drive. Funds from the program would go toward improving transit, cycling and walking across the city.

A city staff report presented at council this week doesn't include details like how much the toll would cost. At this stage it's a working plan to develop a more definitive vision of how mobility pricing might function, with a goal to implement it by 2025.

Downtown Vancouver Association
Downtown Vancouver Association

Workers pushed out by housing crisis

Experts like Yan have expressed concern about those who could neither afford the toll nor readily switch to modes of transportation other than driving because of the type of work they do, their hours of work or their proximity to efficient transit in low-income neighbourhoods.

The housing crisis has pushed many people who work in Vancouver further away from the city, Yan says. Meanwhile, a Metro Vancouver study, now in its second phase, has shown that the region has struggled to keep housing affordable for low-income families near transit hubs.

Some of the workers of particular concern that other critics have noted include contractors, low-wage construction workers and those in the service industry.

Drivers heavily prioritized, advocates say

But mobility pricing advocates like Anthony Pearl, professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University, say transport pricing levels the playing field for all modes of transit.

"The villain of the sustainable transportation play is the single occupant driver who just likes to do their own thing, take up a lot of space and generate a lot of emissions by driving their own car from wherever into the city centre," Pearl said.

Pearl and other advocates say the current transportation system heavily subsidizes and prioritizes drivers above all other modes of transportation, even though many people can't afford to drive or aren't able to because they're too young, too old or have a disability.

Putting the money from tolls into other modes of transportation provides more efficient transportation options for those who can't drive, Pearl says, adding that low-income families are more likely to take transit already.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Even in the short term, he adds, the drop in traffic in the downtown core would result in more efficient movement of buses without an immediate need for additional infrastructure.

'Winners and losers'

But Yan isn't the only policy expert to warn about the detrimental effect mobility pricing could have on disadvantaged groups.

A 2018 report from the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives warned that mobility pricing would likely fail if it's perceived as unfair.

Marc Lee, the economist who wrote the think tank's report, says mobility pricing won't benefit everyone.

"A policy like this, there'll be tradeoffs and there will be winners and losers," Lee said.

Robb Douglas/CBC
Robb Douglas/CBC

Exemptions for certain groups of people would be necessary, Lee says, to ensure fairness.

Some tactics in his report include offering a credit for low-income workers who have no option but driving, expanding public transit first, and applying the toll to ride-hailing and car-sharing services.

The staff report presented at council also suggests a price cap and exemptions for businesses or workers like contractors.