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No Easy Solution for World’s Traffic Woes, Experts Find

Cars and motorbikes are stuck in gridlock in the streets of Jakarta on April 25, 2013. (AFP Photo/Bay Ismoyo)

Leipzig, Germany. Faced with budget constraints due to the global financial and economic slowdown, funding infrastructure is a major issue for governments around the world, requiring decision makers and academics to find innovative funding sources and solutions.

Speaking at a three-day summit held by the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Dave Wetzel, chairman of the Professional Land Reform Group in the United Kingdom, said that the key was to get money from those benefiting most from infrastructure and transportation projects — land owners instead of people using the various modes of transportation.

“Land owners profit from the availability of public transport. Their lands increase in value from it without spending anything like production costs. They are profiting from public transportation projects currently financed by taxes paid by hard working people. This is not outrageous, this is obscene,” he said.

But Gerd-Axel Ahrens, director at the Institute for Transport Planning and Traffic at Germany’s Dresden Engineering University (TU), said that the plan, now being advocated by Wetzel’s PLRG in the United Kingdom, would be counterproductive.

“We need to push for more integrated zones and these areas are in the city centers,” he said, referring to an urban planning concept where people live in the same area as their workplaces, schools, shops and other facilities to reduce commuting.

Ahrens said that imposing heavy taxes on land owners in well-connected areas would deter property developers away from these integrated zones and force them to take their projects to the suburbs.

“This will create more transportation problems as the government would be forced to think how to solve congestion problems in these areas,” he said.

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, agreed that property owners should help finance transportation projects but believed that the solution lies not in imposing heavy taxes but in cooperation.

“In Copenhagen they are developing a new housing area and property developers are financing the extension line of the metro [subway],” he said.

Gurria stressed the importance of more partnerships with the private sector in transportation projects, adding that companies benefited from increased productivity of workers as well as faster transportation of goods. Even insurance companies stand to benefit from better public transport with the reduction of carbon emissions and stress levels of urban dwellers.

“[The] government on its part must play a central role in mobilizing private sector investment for sustainable transport infrastructure,” he said. “Policy makers should promote sound investment principles such as transparency … and open competitive access to sustainable transport infrastructure markets.”

ITF secretary general Jose Viegas meanwhile said that governments also needed to provide legal stability to stimulate investment in the transportation area. “You cannot fully predict the future. It must be outlined [in the agreement] how you will deal [with unforeseen problems], how you adapt so that we can trust each other,” he said.

Viegas added that there were countries that faced low political and public support on public transportation projects, particularly developing ones like Indonesia.

The Jakarta government has been struggling to convince land owners in the Fatmawati area of South Jakarta to provide a fraction of their properties for the construction of an elevated section of the capital’s mass rapid transit project. Meanwhile Jakartans are also resisting policies meant to dissuade them from using private transport like higher parking rates, carpool policies, vehicle restrictions, congestion charges and fuel subsidy elimination.

Jonas Eliasson, a professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, said that governments needed to be tougher in imposing measures to reduce the use of private cars, including unpopular means like congestion charges and fuel taxes. “Our study has shown … up to the point when [the policy] is introduced people tend to have low support [for the measure]. Then they start to reap the benefit of lower commuting times and they adapt and accept the new measures,” he said.

Eliasson said leaders, politicians and the general public might oppose efforts like congestion charges or dedicated bicycle lanes, but that sentiment could change once they were up and running. “Things seem worse before you’ve tried them,” Eliasson said. “The benefits look smaller. The losses look larger.”
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