A Christmas wish: End traffic congestion in 2009

December 24, 2008

diana-furchtgott-roth_great_debate– Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. The opinions expressed are her own. —

Christmas Day in most cities will be serene, free of weekday traffic jams as workers enjoy a Thursday that is free of normal routines.  Many commuters wish that the free-flowing driving could last all year long. Traffic congestion wastes drivers’ time and gasoline, pollutes, reduces employment, and pushes businesses and shoppers away from cities.

There is hope. New global positioning system technology and congestion pricing can reduce traffic jams.  In mid-January, 10,000 transportation professionals, including people from the incoming Obama administration, will convene in Washington D.C. at meetings of the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to discuss solutions.

Road use varies with time of day. Time-of-day pricing can encourage drivers to shift non-essential trips to less busy hours, and eliminate some trips altogether.

London’s system of road pricing, with cars charged $16 to enter the center, is held up as a model for other cities. But its main flaw is that drivers pay flat fees, and are not charged by miles driven or by routes taken.

A better scheme would be to have drivers pay per mile, with higher charges on more heavily-used streets and in periods of heaviest congestion.

With prices of transponders and GPS falling, sophisticated and efficient systems are now possible. In some places they are optional, with drivers volunteering to participate in exchange for a reduction in license plate fees or even a credit against fuel taxes.

Here’s how this could work. GPS devices could be given to drivers who choose to participate—one per car—and drivers pay as easily as they are now paying for cell phones or E-ZPass tolls.  Participating motorists could be exempt from license-renewal fees, but would pay road charges instead, charges that could vary by type of road used and time of day.  Driving in rush hour along a busy road would cost more than driving on a little-used road late at night.

In Oregon, GPS-based distance measurements are designed to replace fuel taxes it now levies to pay for the use of its roads (for the full report, click here). Oregon would not immediately require all vehicles to have GPS. At least to start with, motorists would have a choice of paying either fuel taxes or mileage charges.

Efficiency in road pricing would relieve congestion. But it raises the politically thorny question of what to do with the revenue.  In my view, cities must resist London’s unpopular inclination to use revenues to finance increased general spending, a measure defeated in New York and in Manchester, England.

To be acceptable to voters, a new road charging scheme should:

•    Use advanced GPS-based systems, of the kind being pioneered in Oregon;

•    Apply congestion pricing as part of a more general reform of financing road use, such as phasing out fuel taxes;

•    Use monetary incentives, such as abolishing annual licensing fees or introducing new charging schemes on a voluntary basis; and

•    Ensure that new revenues improve financing and use of roads, rather than for public transportation.

Employers could help, too. Some firms could enable employees to avoid high-priced peak driving rates by allowing flexible schedules or even telecommuting.

Critics claim congestion pricing is unfair to lower-income drivers. But if the system were voluntary, only those who wanted to participate would do so, and could receive rebates of fuel taxes.

Alternatively, low-income motorists could be given credits on their bills—cash incentives—to take part, ensuring that they have the opportunity to save money by avoiding peak-hour driving.

To reduce pollution and protect themselves from choking on traffic, cities must find a way to reduce congestion and enable people to travel more quickly and easily.

This Christmas Day, as we enjoy uncongested roads, we should think of a way to keep them like that all year round.

You can contact Diana Furchtgott-Roth at dfr@hudson.org. For previous columns, click here.

89 comments

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I doubt that traffic signals are really that large a problem. In New York City the lights are timed with the aim of preventing gridlock. I think the assertion that lights are placed so people are forced to see the shops by the way is spurious. So much shopping is done along commercial strips and malls that I seriously doubt that the placement of traffic lights has any impact on the driver’s destination. One is only expected to read signs on a commercial strip. It’s a very thin argument. If you know how hard it is to influence the fitting out of a street let alone a major highway – and the agencies involved – at the local, state and federal levels, I don’t think you would be so ready to believe that signage is heavily influenced by local merchants. But some signage was placed in a local bypass to indicate where the commercial center is in my neighborhood.

The design of a local bypass limited access highway in the town I live in, allowed for a great deal of public input and the result, like most political decisions, made no one particularly happy. Everyone had something to complain about. You could almost say the traffic planners should be complimented for a job well done. It reduced the congestion of the small town center. But in the few years since it was completed – the traffic levels have already grown downtown almost to the level they were before the bypass was built. Development raced on ahead and it was probably due to the decreased time it now takes for drivers to reach employment elsewhere. The town is more accessible in a shorter time.

Banishing the poor from highways is a little cavalier to say the least. But practically speaking – the high cost of a vehicle seems to push that way anyway. I am a low-income person but I live in a rural area. I have no choice but to use a car. But I don’t commute. I work out of my home and only need to take occasional trips to clients. There are no other services available except for a small taxi company (one or two drivers) and that is far more expensive than the costs associated with a private vehicle. I also take offense at the idea that poor people are bad drivers. That is also a spurious assertion. It’s almost nauseating that there are people out there who really believe that because they are better paid they are better over all. That is probably the flimsiest idea I have ever heard.

Political leadership on this issue will probably only take the form of tax incentives for alternate and “green” transportation. The state government in this state – New Hampshire – is running on short money now. The whole country is going to have a hard time paying for any dramatic change in transportation infrastructure. The older cities of the US that have subways and extensive bus systems have them because the design of the city made it economical for private entities (for busses) and local authorities (trains and subways) to operate them at all. The suburbs are too dispersed and at too low population density to serve economically with public transportation.

Most suburban areas of this country were built after the Second World War. The car was king. The subway and commuter rail lines generally date from the late 19th century up to the WWII era. It was a very different land use pattern after the war than it was before the war.

Perhaps most people don’t know it but the NYC subway system was built by private enterprise. Many decades later it was taken over and extended by the City. What makes it difficult to do anything as dramatic as digging a trench down major avenues and boulevards today is the ability to get approval to do that from the local residents. Tens of thousands of property owners willhave abutter’s rights. The New York City system was started in Manhattan and in large part preceded the development of the island. The subway opened up the furthest reaches of the burrows to new development. That was also true of the streetcar system. Read Sam Bass Warner for more on this.

If the country is ever going to do a serous job trying to create low carbon and sustainable developmentand transportation itis going to have to deal with sprawl.When in the long history of this or any other developed country has “sustainability” ever been an issue – we don’t even know what that really weans yet? They will have to try to set limits on sprawl. There are a lot of reasons to fight sprawl beside the issue of traffic control and efficiency. But without the ability of the city centers to influence and design the suburban areas there won’t be much meaningful change.

Unfortunately the cities do not and probably will never have the ability to command zoning changes in their suburban areas. It would require the creation of greater metropolitan scale planning agencies that could dictate substantial development changes in the suburbs and the suburbs will fight that every step of the way. Our constitution puts a lot of emphasis on individual liberties and property rights. No single political entity governs any greater metropolitan area in this country. It might be impossible to ever create that entity. Each town would have to agree to become part of such a creature. And that move would have enormous impact on every aspect of a suburban town’s ability to control it’s own destiny.

Posted by paul rosa | Report as abusive

Could we try when possible to make posts shorter? Also, failure to address a post doesn’t imply acceptance. Some time ago a wealthy, skilled, college-educated person was telling me how he cuts off ambulances when driving. There’s one culture, mentioned earlier, that I do particularly dislike, even though I often think it’s because they’re so much like me!

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

I totally agree with the comment posted above. The reasoning in this article involved how to make rational use of the automobile as a source of transportation. There is no rational use for the automobile. We do not need more roads or cars and the auto industry has to shrink by at least 75%. As Paul Krugman has suggested, eventually the auto companies will disappear. They will not do this soon enough in my view. Can we not relatively easily retrain auto workers to build light rail vehicles, trains and other things necessary for effective and efficient mass transit. Why not limit cars to public ownership which people can use on a shared basis. Efficient mass transit would mean less frustration for commutes, less accidents, injuries and deaths and certainly much less stress and anxiety. It would probably be much cheaper in the aggregate than using automobiles for transportation. Beware the hype of the automobile industry and its affiliates, the oil companies, parts companies, etc. No more roads please.

Gerald Chasin, Ph.D

Posted by Gerald Chasin | Report as abusive

In Japan, young people are not buying cars. It is possible to have massive social changes in a short time. Right now, our major problem is air,water,and land pollution. Thank GOD,as far as air pollution is concerned, we can clean that up with our lungs.We could use human waste (poop), as fuel, and clean up water and land pollution simultaneously.Wait a minute! That’s stupid! Much better to do what big business dictates. Non polluting mass transit is definitely needed. We are not so damn special that we always have to be alone.

Posted by albert miller | Report as abusive

You can run cars on water. Don’t believe me? Research it for yourself.

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

Run cars on water, eh, Jack? We have researched it, more than you ever dreamed was possible.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

The best way to reduce traffice congestion would be to put the government in charge of making the cars, and the private sector in charge of building the roads. We’ll soon have plenty of excellent roads, and cars that no one wants to buy.

Diana

Posted by Diana Furchtgott-Roth | Report as abusive

Agreed or not (government cars & private roads), thanks for a splendid laugh, Diana!

Maybe we should have volunteers do both, considering how the fear of Linux got Microsoft to rethink the quality issue. (Now that it has, I’m afraid I use Windows.)

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

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