The congestion pricing debate, cont.

By Felix Salmon
June 4, 2010
congestion pricing debate, here's a few highlights.

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I know a lot of people — myself included — don’t have the time or inclination to watch videos online. So for those of you who didn’t watch the full congestion pricing debate, here’s a few highlights.

The first video, at about 1:40, starts with Charles Komanoff using Times Square as an example of how a city’s residents and visitors can benefit as a group, even if some drivers are inconvenienced. New York recently pedestrianized Broadway, and the result, says Komanoff, is that “it does reduce the amount of space that cars and taxis have to operate, but considering that there are so many more people walking than there are in motor vehicles, this rebalancing has been a very positive thing for the city”.

Corey Bearak says that New York businesses need all the customers they can get right now — but Reihan Salam responds by looking at precedents elsewhere in the world, which have generally been very good for centrally-located businesses.

One of the key themes running through the conversation is that the politics of congestion charging is always local and usually anecdotal. Bearak’s opposition is grounded in the reality of where subways do and don’t reach, or whether federal funds can be found to subsidize New York City transit; it’s really hard, Komanoff’s spreadsheet notwithstanding, to return to solid empirical data.

Still, some of the anecdotes are useful. Skymeter’s Kamal Hassan, at about 8:10, notes that if you have a congestion-charge boundary, as London does, then you get boundary effects: things like cars idling on the perimeter of the boundary until the off-peak period begins, or taking circuitous routes around the boundary because they’re free. He’s right, even though he’s talking his book: a per-mile charge, which could change gradually rather than drastically according to geography, would solve all those problems. (In the second video, at about 10:30, Komanoff talks about how it might be possible to charge very low rates in Queens, and very high rates in Times Square.)

Kamal adds, at about 9:20, that “you can change traffic patterns and traffic flows just through parking charging and parking policies, and if you set up smart parking policies within a city, you can have a very large effect on what happens”. This is an important point, because it shows just how many moving parts there are in terms of congestion pricing, and how many different ways there are of getting to where we want to be.

At the beginning of the second video, Kamal goes into more detail: for instance, the cost of a taxi medallion — currently a very large fixed cost — could be turned into a per-mile charge, which would decrease the amount of empty taxicabs cruising for fares, and increase the number of stationary cabs at taxi ranks.

At around 7:00 in the second video, Bearak says that the capacity of New York’s transit system is insufficient to cope with the increase in demand that would come from a congestion charge. To which Kamal agrees that “it’s very important, if you’re going to do congestion charging of any sort, that you make sure people have alternatives” — while at the same time noting that subway ridership fell, in London, when the congestion charge was introduced, and so higher capacity on the underground wasn’t necessary. And it’s much easier to add capacity with new buses than it is to build new subway lines.

At about 12:20 in the second video, there’s an interesting terminological interlude: Bearak says that a congestion charge is “taxing folks”, Komanoff says that it’s “taxing traffic”, and Hassan says it’s “paying for convenience”. This is the point that Ryan Avent makes today:

Commuters who didn’t value their time as much as they valued a marginal dollar (and these will tend to be lower income individuals) will feel some loss from this shift. But it’s unlikely that there will be BIG losers; even the poorest automobile commuters out there (and you can’t be that poor and still be an automobile commuter) place a positive value on their time.

Meanwhile, there will be enormous utility gains elsewhere. Some subset of commuters would have preferred to use transit to driving, but found the bus system too slow and unreliable to be a reasonable option. Bus riders, current and potential, also benefit substantially from congestion pricing. Poor riders who never had the financial option to drive will experience huge gains from faster and more reliable bus transit. And just as the positive value of time ensures that there will be no big losers among drivers, it also means there will be some very big winners. This includes the rich, obviously, but also those with pressing needs. Any given day, there are many, many drivers who need to get somewhere in a hurry: for economic, or medical, or other reasons. These drivers would likely be willing to pay tens or hundreds or thousands of dollars to avoid congestion, but before congestion pricing they wouldn’t have that option. The consumer surplus generated for these drivers from an effective congestion price is simply massive.

Then at about 13:00, Reihan Salam has a great rant. “The idea that you should pay $2 or $9 to drive in to New York when other folks have to pay some amount to take a subway into New York and have a much smaller impact, in terms of traffic congestion, seems pretty fair”.

And at 16:40, Komanoff makes one of those points which is only obvious once it’s made: that the places with the worst congestion are invariably the same as the places with the best transit access. Moving people from cars to transit is not, in principle, all that hard.

And at about 17:00, Hassan raises the prospect of charging people little or nothing for driving in their own neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs — again, something that’s very easy with Skymeter technology. At about 19:30, Komanoff pans out a bit, talking about a tax on miles traveled as an extension of the congestion charge for the rest of the country:

“Even though it’s true that congestion pricing needs to have subways and very dense cities and preferably large cities, the idea of per-mile road pricing, in urban areas and in metropolitan areas, is extremely viable. The average person who has a car is making 1,500 trips a year. It’s not as though every one of those 1,500 trips has equal value to that person. So as we impose the per-mile charges, everyone will prioritize his or her own trips.”

Matt DeBord watched the whole thing, and he’s worried about the implications for “individual liberty” of a Skymeter solution. I’ve addressed this before: in theory, if you make your Skymeter payments in advance, you never need to have your movements monitored or recorded anywhere: the payments just get deducted from your account. Certainly the Singaporean government, if it implements this kind of a solution, is going to be prone to keeping all that extra data. But I’m convinced that DeBord’s “serious privacy issues” can be addressed as and when they arise: they’re not a reason to object ex ante to charging for certain types of driving.

DeBord also raises the issue of electric cars:

Many electric car startups, and even well-established automakers getting into EVs, are aiming to market their limited-range vehicles to city dwellers. You can image what the congestion-charge crowd thinks when it thinks about that.

Actually, as someone who’s spent quite a lot of time around the congestion-charge crowd of late, I can’t imagine what they think on this issue. But I know what I think, and I’m pretty sure that Komanoff thinks similarly: traffic congestion is traffic congestion, no matter what the car engines look like.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Frank McArdle (Megan’s dad) has left two interesting comments on this subject, here and here. A snippet:

Congestion is actually a good thing. It tells us that many people see great value in being someplace at the same time.We really don’t want it to go away, since it also reflects the higher values in the economy of places where there is congestion. We know that when there is no congestion at the beaches it is probably not a good beach day for most. That lesson applies very broadly.

What we really want is there to be congestion, but not enough to upset our private benefit. But we all know that the roads we take will have congestion at some points and some days. We factor it into our lives. The proof is in the changes in average commuting times over the last four decades,which have changed significantly only in those places where everyone wants to be because they can make more money than elsewhere.

I think this elides the distinction between congestion and density: the holy grail is to get the latter without the former. New York already has high density; its next job is to lower the amount of congestion that density is prone to create. One way of doing that is through public transit. But another way is through a congestion charge. It’s silly not to use all the tools at one’s disposal in the service of making a city as livable as possible.

Here’s the videos:


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