Highway congestion, America’s Soviet bread line problem, needs a price

Soviet bread poster, Chevrolet advertisementIn the Soviet nations, muralists, painters, and graphic artists offered images of bountiful harvests and industrial production brought by the work of robust men and women who (if not actually smiling) exuded confidence and purpose. In the United States, Madison Avenue advertising executives created automobile commercials with scenes of happy people driving unimpeded by traffic, happily enjoying the freedom of a car.

These creative fantasies floated among depressing realities. Soviet central planning created shortages of basic goods; the bumper crops of wheat in the posters never made it to the citizenry, with rationed bread distributed at the end of long lines. Meanwhile, the driving public in the United States faced stop-and-go traffic as car ownership increased, and cities tore out the hearts of whole neighborhoods to build highways that never delivered on the promise of trouble-free travel seen in the magazine pages.

line traffic collageIn a recent Mobility Lab-produced video (below), Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for Los Angeles County Metro, declares, “We have things set up like Soviet bread lines: everyone’s crowding into the highway because it’s free.” Schank’s metaphor elegantly reveals the shared source of the problem that Soviet citizens faced in the 20th century and from which American drivers continue to suffer today: neither group paid (or pays) enough money for what they want; neither group faced (or faces) market-based prices to mitigate demand, and both paid (or pay) in the valuable commodity of time.

Most American roads are free to the user and so we pour onto them. As much as we love toll-less arterials, we hate traffic delays, even though the former leads to the later.Schank proposes congestion pricing as a way to fix the demand problems on today’s roads. Personally factoring the costs of driving is where congestion pricing could be truly valuable. If more people saw a market-based cost for driving a car, lots of people might think twice about taking certain routes, leaving at certain times of the day, and perhaps even the value of having that vehicle in the first place.

Of course, people do not like to pay for something that they have gotten for free beforehand.

Congestion pricing can be fair and popular

Schank cites the example of Stockholm, Sweden, which, starting in January 2006, began charging people who drive into central parts of the city. “Tremendous resistance to pricing the roadways” greeted the proposal, so the city began the program as a pilot – a pilot that resulted in residents “begging to keep the program. Public opinion completely shifted,” which is not surprising since the program reduced traffic volumes by 20 percent. As Schank summarizes, “Once you experience a city that has pricing, you realize how much better mobility can be.”

Congestion pricing is part of the landscape in other cities, such as Singapore, which began its program in 1975. Its current electronic road-pricing system varies prices charged to drivers on numerous factors. A summary of Singapore’s experience produced by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration cites a 24 percent reduction in vehicle volumes after its introduction in 1998, a change that led to a roughly 30 percent increase in travel speeds within the charged area.

An Electronic Road Pricing gantry in Singapore.

An Electronic Road Pricing gantry in Singapore.

Are we getting closer to any pricing plans in the U.S.?

The closest congestion pricing has ever come to reality in the United States was a proposal from the administration of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to charge a price to all vehicles entering the densest parts of Manhattan during weekdays. New York state government leaders killed that idea in 2008, though a similar proposal received support from the New York City Council in its 2016 “New York State Legislative Agenda,” a document that spells out their policy wish list.

Today, the only American policy most like congestion pricing is a pilot program in Oregon, through which volunteer participants pay for each mile that they drive instead of the usual gasoline tax. Notably, this program does not charge differential rates depending on existing traffic, a key feature of congestion pricing in Stockholm and Singapore. A 2007 Portland-based study suggests a vehicle-miles traveled tax would be most effective at reducing peak-time driving if paired with this kind of flexible rate.

Why aren’t such programs more common in the United States? In commenting on the Oregon program, Tyler Duvall of McKinsey & Company, said, “It’s clearly not a technology problem. [The obstacles are] institutional, they’re governance, they’re management obstacles. A lot of smart people have come up with a lot of really good ideas, we’ve just got to get them into the system.”

Congestion pricing would work for all income levels

Opponents of road pricing often claim that pricing would unfairly burden low-income individuals and households. On its face, this argument is logical, as high-income individuals continue to move into central cities and poverty expands to the suburbs. But look a little closer and the argument breaks down:

First, the lowest-income individuals and families – those living at or below the federal poverty level – are less likely to own vehicles or drive.

Second, in addition to being strapped for money, low-income working individuals are often strapped for time. Individuals earning low wages have places to be, just like their wealthier neighbors, and arriving on time might be even more important for them than their high-earning fellow drivers. (A graphic designer, for example, might be easily forgiven for getting to the office late every so often or may not even have a set arrival time. Meanwhile, a hotel housekeeper or restaurant worker who clocks in 15 minutes late might be fired on the spot.) Congestion pricing allows these individuals to pay a little more for their driving and buy some needed predictability in their schedules.

Third, we can only judge the overall equity or fairness of a road-pricing program based on its specifics, not as a concept in general. As declared by a European report cited by the FHWA:

“The principal solutions to equity problems lie in the design of the scheme itself, including location, time of day and level of charge; the use of exemptions and rebates; the application of complementary policies, particularly to provide alternatives; and the use of surplus revenues to provide direct or indirect support.”

Congestion pricing programs can intelligently plan for these pricing effects. Cities that already have successful pricing programs have demonstrated that a variety of tools exist to accommodate equity issues – the simplest of which is to use surplus revenue to support improved transit service.

Currently, though, drivers are all equally victim to (and perpetrators of) the induced effects of free road space: the bread-line competition for an underpriced resource.

It’s clear now that the decades-old auto propaganda of free-flowing roads have only yielded miles of congestion and a number of other harmful impacts. But our roads don’t have to be like this, and by opting to put a fair price on congestion, they can be fixed.

Paul Mackie of Mobility Lab contributed to the reporting in this article.

Photos, from top: Congestion on Columbia Pike in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).  A Soviet farming propaganda poster (SovietArt.me). A magazine ad for the Chevrolet Motoramic (Vintage DisneyLand Tickets). Congestion pricing system in Singapore (Karen Chen, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Video produced by Astro Cinema with Paul Mackie.