On the road to smoother journeys and greater sustainability

By ST Engineering

Road tolling and congestion pricing, soon to be introduced in New York, could be key to future sustainable cities. We find out why from mobility experts at ST Engineering, Leslie Tan, Vice President, Strategic Planning, Urban Solutions, and General Manager, TransCore Asia; and Dr Chin Kian Keong, Mobility Specialist and Senior Consultant, Urban Solutions.

Congestion pricing toll collection schemes, such as the one slated for New York City this year, can be part of the solution for smoother journeys, and more liveable and sustainable cities. Image: Canva

In 2022, commuters spent 214 hours driving in rush-hour traffic in Jakarta, 192 hours in such traffic in Bangkok, and 159 hours in Kuala Lumpur. 

According to the TomTom Traffic Index report, cities in Asia and around the world are facing serious issues of traffic congestion, carbon emissions and pollution, and lost productivity, as the global urban population is expected to grow to 6 billion people by 2045

After Singapore implemented the world’s first electronic multi-lane, free-flow congestion pricing toll collection system in 1998 to pre-empt gridlock, cities such as London, Stockholm and Milan have also adopted their own road tolls and congestion pricing schemes, also called road usage charges or congestion fees. 

Now, New York City is set to implement its own congestion pricing project in 2024, with ASEAN cities like Manila – the ninth most congested city in the world in 2022 – Bangkok, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur reportedly considering congestion pricing within the coming decade.  

Congestion pricing part of a larger solution 

According to the World Bank, the world’s urban population will increase by 1.5 times by 2045. In Asia, 55 per cent of the region’s population will live in cities by 2030, with an estimated 40 million people being added each year

Such significant urban growth puts cities under enormous pressure to deliver affordable housing, employment, and viable infrastructure systems.  

“Continuing to build infrastructure to deal with the increasing demand for roads and public transportation is simply not sustainable in the long term,” says Dr Chin Kian Keong, Mobility Specialist and Senior Consultant, Urban Solutions, at global technology, defence, and engineering group ST Engineering. 

"Cities will still have to wrestle with space limits, budget considerations, and effective managing of peak travel periods and congestion.” 

He adds that “Singapore, like many other urban cities, sees the vast majority of people travel at the start and end of the day. As a result, the road networks are often not fully utilised outside of these two peak periods.” 

The key is to even out traffic flow across the entire day, he says, adding that high-capacity rapid mass transit projects may be prohibitive due to their substantial costs, land-use structure and lengthy implementation timelines. 

Congestion pricing systems, such as the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) in Singapore, could be one way to effectively moderate rush hours. 

“With congestion pricing, you can incentivise people to drive during non-peak hours or use less-congested routes, use public transportation, or even not drive at all,” Dr Chin says.  

However, he cautions that congestion pricing “cannot work on its own” and has to be part of a holistic solution, such as being augmented with an effective public transportation network and complementary transport policies. 

Different solutions for different objectives 

Mobility experts at ST Engineering, Dr Chin Kian Keong (left), Mobility Specialist and Senior Consultant, Urban Solutions; and Leslie Tan, Vice President, Strategic Planning, Urban Solutions, and General Manager, TransCore Asia, agree that congestion pricing schemes need to go hand in hand with effective public transportation networks and complementary transport policies. Image: ST Engineering

In 1998, ST Engineering implemented the first phase of the Expressway Monitoring and Advisory System, an intelligent transportation system technology designed to complement the ERP by monitoring traffic conditions and providing data from the roads. 

Such monitoring and traffic data are vitally important, says ST Engineering’s Leslie Tan, Vice President, Strategic Planning, Urban Solutions, as road incidents, such as vehicle breakdowns or accidents, can cause a ripple effect throughout the road network. 

As ST Engineering applies its technology and innovation across the aerospace, smart city, digital solutions, defence and public security segments, it is currently developing, through its subsidiary TransCore, the Central Business District (CBD) Tolling Program in New York. 

TransCore, a market leader in the United States for transportation solutions, has already started deploying tolling infrastructure within the Lower Manhattan congestion pricing zone.  

While technology enables dynamic road tolling, where tolls could vary for vehicles already on the road, the type of road pricing solution is contingent on each city’s specific objectives.  

Tan, who is also General Manager of TransCore Asia, says, “In Singapore’s case, one of the main objectives of implementing the ERP system was to reduce congestion through reducing reliance on personal vehicles and encouraging greater use of public transportation.”   

Congestion pricing not only provides funding for the maintenance and modernisation of transportation infrastructure but can also contribute to sustainability initiatives.  

A 2023 Asian Development Bank report highlighted that ASEAN economies need at least US$2.8 trillion in total infrastructure investment by 2030, or US$184 billion annually. Tolls can help authorities meet the escalating demands for robust and sustainable infrastructure.  

The CBD Tolling Program – a first in the US – aims to reduce congestion in Manhattan’s CBD and is expected to also raise revenue to fund US$15 billion for critical transit projects, such as upgrading its signalling system and expanding access to the transit system. 

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the project would lead to “cleaner air, less traffic, safer streets, and better transit throughout the region” and help “dramatically improve quality of life for New Yorkers”.  

Three key thrusts in considering congestion pricing programmes 

Firstly, the road tolling system must detect a myriad of vehicle classes and adeptly assign the corresponding tolls. In the US, there are estimated to be more than 280 million vehicles operating on over 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometres) of roads. 

“As a trusted technology partner to some of the largest tolling agencies in the US, our solutions have enabled the accurate collection and reliable processing of tolls for over eight decades,” says Tan.  

TransCore has deployed electronic tolling solutions for projects of varying complexity, enabling trusted processing of over 10 billion toll transactions annually. By incorporating AI and neural networks capable of deep learning, for innovations such as automated number plate recognition technology, vehicle detection and classification accuracy are enhanced. 

Secondly, the tolling system has to be very reliable, with round-the-clock operations 365 days a year. “It has to be extremely robust and dependable with minimal breakdowns to reduce the need for roadway closures for maintenance,” says Tan. 

Thirdly, for cities considering congestion pricing, pre-requisites include legal frameworks for enforcement, supported by a reliable payment collection system. For instance, in Singapore there is a legal framework that allows the authorities to impose and collect ERP fees.  

So, whether in New York City, or in ASEAN cities that are currently experiencing traffic congestion and infrastructure funding shortfalls, congestion pricing with these thrusts in mind could very well be one of multiple solutions worth implementing.