The price of congestion shows up on your grocery bill

Jonathan Arnold, Masters Candidate, School of Public Policy, SFU

By: Jonathan Arnold
Masters Candidate, School of Public Policy, SFU

Descending 36,000 feet into the YVR airport on a clear day offers spectacular views of Metro Vancouver’s natural beauty and urban landscape. While most people on my flight were gazing across the snow-capped mountains to the north, I was staring intently at the region’s vast transportation network directly beneath us. We were landing just as the supper rush hour was beginning, and the bird’s-eye view offered a refreshing perspective on the region’s road congestion problem.

Traffic is a costly frustration for motorists and residents in Metro Vancouver and is a problem that’s getting worse. The region is expected to welcome an additional one million people by 2041, and unless the rate of car ownership declines, this could mean an additional 700,000 cars on the road. This is in addition to increases in trucking levels, which will increase in step with population growth and commensurate increases in consumption. Container truck traffic, which represents 4–7 percent of all truck activity, is expected to triple by 2030. Based on 2013 levels, this means an additional 1.8 million container truck trips per year on Metro Vancouver roads.

Longer and more unreliable travel times carry a hefty cost, not just to motorists but to society as a whole. Congestion means less time with family and friends, lost productivity, and greater amounts of air pollution, greenhouse gases (GHGs), and noise. Higher levels of stress, anxiety, and obesity are also tied with vehicle traffic, with long-term implications to our health and mental well-being. From an environmental lens, the transportation sector already accounts for 38 percent of the province’s GHG emissions; road congestion is a catalyst for dirtier air and more climate altering emissions.

Of particular interest is the impact that congestion has on the commercial goods sector and, more specifically to the trucking industry. Trucks keep the shelves stocked and the economy moving—almost all fuel, food, clothing, and business supplies are, at some point, delivered by truck. While congestion is often thought as a problem for passenger vehicles, longer and unpredictable wait times directly affect the price of the goods and services we depend on. Simply put, more congestion means higher prices for family budgets. Trucks also take up more road space and emit higher amounts of GHGs and air contaminants relative to passenger cars, making the increase in trucking activity a concern for all road users.

While not one single business in Metro Vancouver disagrees with the fact that road congestion is an added cost to business, the magnitude of this cost is largely unknown. The last study investigating the costs to the commercial goods sector was conducted in 1996 by the BC Trucking Association—concluding a cost of roughly $750 million. Despite being 18 years old, the study is still used as the primary figure in media and public discussions.

As part of my graduate thesis at SFU’s School of Public Policy, I’m updating these costs to the commercial goods sector to provide a starting point for renewed dialogue. Although a lack of data on trucking activity in the region limits the scientific approach of my estimates, I’ve constructed a model based on congestion delays for port container trucks and extrapolated this model to all commercial goods movement.

In all, congestion costs for port container trucks are between $26–56 million per year, or roughly $13,000–28,000 per container truck. More strikingly, the cost to all commercial goods movement is in the range of $400 million to $1.8 billion (depending on the underlying assumptions). These costs include the lost time from sitting in traffic, and the damage costs attributable to greenhouse gases and air contaminants. The commercial goods sector should take note—roughly 99 percent of the total is the value of lost time, and the labour, fuel, and vehicle maintenance costs paid directly by trucking companies. Some of these costs are absorbed by businesses, but consumers are ultimately the ones footing the bill.

While the solutions to road congestion are complex and multifaceted, lessening demand and making better use of the existing infrastructure are attractive options. The other alternative of building additional roads is destined to fail in the long-run. Bigger and wider roads encourage new drivers, use up valuable land, and exacerbate the environmental harms from motor vehicles. Metro Vancouver simply cannot build its way out of its congestion problem; rather, options which optimize existing road space are far more attractive from a financial, environmental and practical point of view.

Whether you drive a car, ride a bike, walk, or take the bus, road congestion affects everyone in Metro Vancouver. Aside from the obvious reality of having to compete with more vehicles on the roads, more traffic has significant consequences to the commercial goods sector, which reverberates throughout the economy and into our pocket books. Our local, regional, and provincial governments are being pressed to take action, and maintaining a regional outlook is extremely important to developing effective solutions. Whatever path the government chooses to take to address congestion, the impacts to the trucking sector should be a fundamental consideration.

Road congestion adds a premium on all the goods we purchase—in addition to the long list of social, health, and environmental costs—and unless we find a long-term and sustainable solution to longer traffic delays, consumers will ultimately be the ones picking up the tab.

Jonathan is a Masters Candidate in the School of Public Policy at SFU whose work was recently featured in The Province.

Feature photo courtesy of kennymatic/Flickr