Congestion charge for Auckland CBD wouldn't negatively affect low-income communities, report says ahead of emissions plan

A congestion charge for motorists entering Auckland's central business district (CBD) wouldn't have a significant negative impact on low-income communities and may actually leave some better off, a new report says.

The Government will reveal its Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) next Monday, setting out how New Zealand will meet its emissions budgets on its way to net zero by 2050. Public consultation on that plan last year proposed "enabling congestion pricing".

Congestion charging means billing motorists at different times and locations to encourage road users to change their time, method or route of travel. It's seen as a way to reduce transport emissions and traffic. 

According to the Helen Clark Foundation and WSP in New Zealand, the Government's expected to announce it will implement congestion charging as part of the final ERP plan. 

A report from the two groups, released on Tuesday, looks at how congestion charging can be implemented fairly in New Zealand. It's written by Tom James, a WSP fellow who was previously a press secretary and acting advisor to Transport Minister Michael Wood.

"This report reiterates the case that congestion charging is a useful tool to reduce traffic and emissions in cities alongside other urban transport policies," the report says. "This is because we will likely not be able to achieve our climate goals without some form of demand management like congestion charging."

The report says relying on the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and more public transport infrastructure investment alone "will not suffice".

The discussion document for the ERP proposed implementing congestion pricing in Auckland and also working with Wellington councils regarding their requests for it. 

James' report says modelling for both cities "shows significant reductions in traffic, and therefore congestion and emissions if congestion charging is implemented".

If the congestion charging zone was created for Auckland's CBD, "it would likely not have largely negative equity impacts" as "travel data shows that most people who commute to and from the CBD use public and active transport, and most come from more affluent suburbs".

"Some households may even be better off financially, as they will have fewer trips into the CBD, avoiding parking and driving costs," the report says.

"However, analysis indicates that active and public alternatives are not sufficient outside of the CBD currently, which means a charging zone outside of it will likely have negative equity impacts."

Census travel data shows the bulk of the CBD workforce comes from the isthmus and the southern North Shore, with few trips from the south and west, the report says.

A cordon charging method - where vehicles would be charged for crossing a line but not for trips within the cordon - would cost "a maximum of 0.02 percent of low-income households' income".

"It would also have a financial benefit of close to 0.1 percent of low-income households' income in Waitematā as they would be likely to make fewer car trips because of the congestion charge and would avoid petrol and parking costs."

The report has just been released.
The report has just been released. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Due to less modelling and analysis, however, the outcomes for Wellington are less clear.

"The city has the highest rates of walking and cycling and public transport use into the CBD, which indicates there are good alternatives to taking the car," the report says.

"However, the available modelling shows that some lower-income communities could be disproportionately affected as they will continue to make trips to and through the CBD at similar levels."

The report recommends enshrining multiple principles into legislation, including that there should be "sufficient public and active transport alternatives" in an area before a charging zone is introduced and that any revenue goes into improving transport options in the city.

There should also be daily caps on charges and operating hours limited to between just before the morning peak and after the afternoon/early evening traffic. This would avoid "unduly impacting on shift workers".  

"Exemptions should be limited to public transport, emergency vehicles and those who provide mobility for disabled people."

Eight cities around the world are using congestion charging and the report says fees range from about $0.5 to $8, with London being an outlier at $20.

"Broadly, the benefits across all cities have ranged from a 15–30 percent reduction in traffic," the report says. "Congestion charging has been shown to produce greenhouse gas reductions of 15–20 percent."

Congestion charging can be introduced in different ways, such as area-based charging where vehicles crossing a ring or driving within that ring at specific times are charged, or corridor-based charging where vehicles using all roads in a specific corridor are charged. 

"Charging road users at different times and/or locations encourages some drivers to change the time, route, or way in which they travel. It is important to differentiate it from toll roads, which are often set up to help pay back the cost of building the road, rather than to influence travel patterns."

The report acknowledges, in general, that congestion charging may not be "affordable or reasonable" for some people, such as those on low incomes, those doing shift-based work and those with disabilities. 

The charge could help bring down emissions and traffic.
The charge could help bring down emissions and traffic. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Parliament's Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee last year recommended the Government progress legislation enabling congestion pricing.

The latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory released last month by the Ministry for the Environment shows New Zealand's gross or total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 21 percent between 1990 and 2020. Emissions dropped 3 percent between 2019 and 2020, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions such as a decrease in road transport. 

According to StatsNZ, in 2019, 42.9 percent of carbon dioxide emissions were produced by transport, up 84.8 percent from 1990 and 16.6 percent from 2005.

The Government on Monday released its first three emissions budgets which reveal the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be put into the atmosphere over the next 14 years. The first, for between 2022 and 2025, requires emissions to drop 3.1 megatonnes from what's projected for the period.