[Viewpoint]Impose a congestion fee, now

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[Viewpoint]Impose a congestion fee, now

We suffered again this summer, from heat waves and the occasional torrential rains. The unusual weather has critically damaged the environment and has had a bad effect on the people’s health and on industrial production.
Air pollution is the major culprit. The increased amount of carbon dioxide in the air causes the greenhouse effect. In the case of Seoul, about 76 percent of the pollutants in the air come from discharged gas from vehicles on the road. In other big cities, including Busan, discharged gas also makes up about 75 to 80 percent of the contaminants.
According to a survey conducted by the Citizens’ Council for a Clean Seoul, 73 percent of the people said the excessive use of private vehicles was the main cause of air pollution and traffic congestion.
Therefore, to control private vehicle use, a traffic congestion fee should be imposed in central Seoul.
I would like to call the system a “traffic congestion and environment fee,” because we have to consider the environmental problems caused by gas discharged from vehicles and the effects of micro-dust on our health along with the traffic problem.
According to research, the air pollution caused by emitted gas has increased the risk of premature births to 27 percent.
It is also reported that 40 percent of Korean children suffer from atopy, 32 percent from allergic rhinitis and 24 percent from asthma.
The number of people who die at an early age due to air pollution in the Seoul metropolitan area has climbed up to 11,000 a year and the social damage from air pollution amounts 10 trillion won ($11.7 billion) annually.
A report on the Korean economy prepared by McKinsey Consulting, “Reinventing Korea: Productivity-led Growth for Korea,” also called air pollution and traffic congestion in Korea the most critical obstacle to Seoul’s quest to become a financial hub of Northeast Asia.
That’s another reason that we must, as soon as possible, levy a traffic congestion and environment fee. They have already proven to be successful in Britain, the United States, Sweden and Singapore.
Then what are the proper remedies to decrease air pollution?
They would include the compulsory use of natural gas as fuel for buses, stricter regulations on gas discharges for medium to large diesel vehicles, expansion of a campaign asking citizens to stop driving one day a week, improving the public transportation system and replacing Seoul’s garbage trucks with ones that run on natural gas.
Other governments are benchmarking the experiences of Seoul. With the existing policy alternatives, however, they can resolve only about 20 to 30 percent of the problems they face.
We need new approach that stays away from stereotypical policy initiatives.
Imposing a traffic congestion and environment fee in central Seoul would do that. Such a system has received a favorable response from international experts as well as our own citizens.
London’s environmental and traffic problems were similar to Seoul until it adopted a traffic fee system. After London decided to impose a fee of 5 pounds ($10.09) on vehicles coming into the city center, the amount of pollutants from discharged gas fell 30 percent, traffic congestion declined 30 percent and there were up to 70 percent fewer traffic accidents.
Private vehicles have to pay the fee when they pass through the center of the city, but citizens who ride on public transportation or in taxis are exempt.
The benefits from the reduced traffic -- including less environmental damage, extended lifespans and reduced social costs from traffic congestion -- can be enjoyed equally by all citizens.
At present, the city of Seoul is burdened with a 200 billion-won ($213 million) deficit annually from the operation of the public bus system, which is partly financed by the city.
After the implementation of the traffic and environmental fee system, an analysis shows the share of public bus transportation system will increase by 5 percent. It will not only relieve the burden on the city’s budget, but also turn the loss into a profit.
There would be no need, then, to talk about saving taxpayers’ money or increasing the bus fare. This new system will take at least one-and-a-half years to go into full swing, even if it is introduced immediately.
We cannot delay any longer.

*The writer, a professor of environmental system engineering at Seoul National University, heads the Public Transportation Forum. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Seung-pil
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