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.


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I never uderstand why those with such limited imagination are allowed to impose solutions on others. This article provides expensive, intrusive rules to treat the symptoms of a problem and COST YOU MONEY. Its really your MONEY they are after.

Simply desiginate certain north/south and east/west streets as high priority. Give them priority at intersections so that you can get on one of these streets knowing you will be able to drive unimpeded for say 20 to 30 blocks at a time and the problem is sovled with out the expensive solutions.

Posted by Eddy | Report as abusive

Ending road congestion by end of next year seems like a fine idea, but so is ending poverty and disease; grand, morally correct but inefficient.

The idea of taxing commuters as they go per mile is quite extreme as it adds financial burden just because they take a longer road to town. Imagine say, I have to pick my kids to school everyday. My colleague, who doesn’t have a car, lives two streets away, also have kids that attend the same school and, out of courtesy, I drive them to their destination as well. However, because of the per mile taxing system, I might have to fork out $30 more per month because of the detour I made to pick up my colleague and her kids. I dont see how I am adding to traffic congestion yet I have to pay more for it.

With this “per mile” system, irregular motorists might find it advantageous, but frequent users would suffer under this draconian measure in an effort to stem traffic congestion.

Maybe what the government can do is advertise under-utilized roads; though slightly longer, they have less traffic and might result in a smoother ride into town

Posted by Maurice | Report as abusive

Car pool or ride share. Save money and solve the problem of congestion at the same time.

Sadly, folks would rather talk about solutions that cost $$$$$$$$$ rather than use the solutions already at hand that don’t cost money.


Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Finding alternative methods to beat the traffic is almost necessary in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. Certainly, the ideas suggested by Ms. Furghtgott would work, but a lot of the congestion today really plays on the state and even federal prepartion of the planned highway systems. Perhaps the large influx of people was not contemplated when the highway systems were built; but the public transportation system itself could prove useful in curtailing congestion. I take the subway into work every day from one end of the red line, which I have to drive to. It takes me nearly 1/2 hour just to get to the subway. If the states and even the federal authorities are truly concerned about the congestion (and they should be), they should consider further expansion of the subway system. Understanding the multimillions such a project would cost, benefits would be reaped over the long term, monetarily, environmentally, and even health-wise. In fact, it would be worthwhile for states to launch massive public-transportation campaigns and ensure, as best possible, a zero-error policy on its bus routes and other modes of public transportation. I am not sure that I necessarily agree with a GPS useage tax, introducing fees for driving into large systems where congestion is bad would be one avenue, which has been discussed before, to curtail the use of private and encourage the use of public transportation. Thanks for your article on this troublesome topic!

Posted by Davina Hashmi | Report as abusive

I would seriously focus on promoting telecommuting to employers through strong tax incentives.
In this day and age roughly 50% percent of white collar staff could easily work from home (maybe more, I base that on my own observation at my company not any credible research).
It would reduce not only traffic but also demand for imported oil, thus keeping precious $ in the US.
For example in my company we could easily conduct a pilot program within the next six months and within a year we could have it up and running; however to get approval from the CEO/CFO we need to present them with some credible evidence that this will benefit the company, and what’s speaks better to the mind of CFO than reduced expenses (not only on taxes but also on utilities and office space).

Posted by PwlM | Report as abusive

I disagree with the proposal. I live in Florida and have to commute 80 miles per day, 5 times a week. Not only do I have to pay gas, car maintenance, insurance and suffer traffic but I’d be taxed, too? I don’t want to drive 400+ miles a week but I have no choice.

Wouldn’t it be better to create a massive transportation system? or actually do some car pooling?

Posted by Catherine | Report as abusive


Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

Have it ever occur to anyone that we just need more roads?
And more bridges, and more tunnels.

Posted by Helen | Report as abusive

Ever notice how nice traffic is on government holidays?

Make government workers work 10-6:30 PM to stagger the traffic.

It would have the added benefit of actually being open after business hours.

Posted by Phil | Report as abusive

This is beyond ridiculous, particularly the thought that this is a better long-term solution (or a solution at all), than mass transit. Every other developed nation has a well developed mass transit system, to and from major cities, as well as within major cities. Trains NEED to be better utilized. Better train systems should get most trucks off the highways, lessening congestion, and would be an option for many commuters as well. This would also decrease the amount of fuel needed, and lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

Posted by Stacey | Report as abusive

Pricing mileage is not an efficient way to reduce congestion and pollution. Basically it will just make various entities lots of money since people HAVE to get to work and to the store, etc. What we need is:
More railroads.
More commuter trains.
More buses.
More monorails.
More car pooling.
More bicycle trails.
More De-suburbanization.

Mass transit is the only efficient way to take traffic off the roads and make life easier for commuters. It might even stop the current trend of building ever more “forever” toll roads that punish the middle and lower classes.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

It is easy to see how many might be confused by Diana’s proposal and think it would simply mean more money out of pocket. But, the whole point of it is to provide incentive to reduce an individual’s, or families, out of pocket commuting expenses. The whole idea is to disrupt the path of least resistance that creates congestion and other problems. And it is about getting people to change driving habits. A longer route would not necessarily incur higher fees if it is route designated to reduce congestion. Information sharing would be key to such a plan be successful, of course.

On a much larger scale it is about putting pressure on governments and families to adjust their land use patterns and promote more diverse and efficient transportation systems. What a suburban family cannot imagine being possible today – life without the minivan – can become a reality in the future.

Posted by Jody | Report as abusive

You can throw all the technology at this problem you want, it won’t solve it. No one talks about it, but the real problem is people. The world has too many, and it’s only going to get worse.

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

Another waste of internet space.

“Christmas Day in most cities will be serene”-Do you ever go outside? Neocons just tell us how the world is, without participating.
Then, the article goes on to SELL GPS UNITS!

Posted by joethedumber | Report as abusive

Welcome to the middle class, rural Midwest…specifically Iowa. Land of the sparse and sparsely paid. Where holding a job requires driving…anywhere. The land of little towns of 1000-3000 people with no industry. The land where you may have to drive 40-50-60-70 miles one way to get to work. Where industry that does exist continues to fold, and fall apart, causing residents to search even further for work. The land where house sales are nonexistant.

In the past 10 years, I have worked for 5 different companies, of which 4 no longer exist…bankrupt, folded, foiled, kaput, phooey. Of those jobs, only one was within 20 miles of home. The furthest was 90 miles ONE WAY.

Sell my home and move closer to work, you say? First of all, SELL MY HOUSE? That is laughable and idiotic. Second, why would I leave my hometown for yet another “po-dunk got nothin’ sub 3000 people town” just to move closer to an employer that will probably close within a few years anyway?

So, I choose to drive. In a sense, it is my choice. Looking at it from another angle, I have no alternative.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

“What a suburban family cannot imagine being possible today – life without the minivan – can become a reality in the future.”

Yes, and we can all live like rats, next to, on top of and under each other in little appartments with little posessions and little desire to live.

What is the real problem? Overpopulation…..

Interesting, as the “andi-spam word” was VAN. Ironic.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

“On a much larger scale it is about putting pressure on governments and families to adjust their land use patterns and promote more diverse and efficient transportation systems. ”

Taxing ME will pressure the Government ? Interesting theory……

My theory is this: The company I worked for 10 years ago that employed 100 people in a town of 1800 no longer exists, just like sooooo many other small businesses in rural areas. If these small businesses hadn’t been eaten and digested by bigger business and greedy company owners, I would still be able to walk to work. This little town of 1800 could be self sufficient. Wouldn’t that be so “Mayberry”…..

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

One of Diana’s better efforts, which is more than can be said for some of the responses. Congestion fees are a no-brain winner in the city. (Traffic signal coordination and designated priority streets could help, but this would help more. Incidentally, my city was laid out by a spider. On LSD.) You’ve got to make it hurt to add to congestion, when there are alternatives, and there often are. This doesn’t justify any kind of government feeding frenzy, and we should consider whether some roads just have to be there, even if the cost per use is quite high and is largely born by the government. If the people speak loudly enough, there will be the reductions Diana mentions in traditional ways of extracting revenue from motorists.

I’m regretfully forced to agree that it doesn’t seem logically fair to charge for congestion in order to build mass transit. The mass transit riders will pay little if anything for congestion, and that’s the fairness in it. Mass transit should be built with general funds (which may come from congestion fees, but for purposes of fairness that’s only a coincidence).

People are right about one thing, though: give the government money and you can bet it will go into the general fund, no matter what; we learned that when we raised cigarette taxes to fund tobacco resistance education, which never happened. And speaking of education, most of us would just ask the neighbors with the kids to share gas, toll and congestion charges if it was bothering us.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

Diana states “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 to discuss solutions.”

Then without a pause for thought goes on to say, “Road use varies with time of day.”

There is an ingrained assumption that people must move on the existing system of roadways using automobiles. The real solution lies in providing public transportation that mimics the privacy provided by the private automobile and actually improves upon its mobility

A great example of this type of system can be found at http://www.unimodal.com

Spend 30 minutes perusing this site. They have answered all of the questions and handily debunk all of the accepted “solutions” like automobiles, light-rail, and bicycles.

There is an entrenched transportation cartel that impedes real solutions. The Automobile Industry, Highway Contractors, and Oil Companies all stand to lose if a system like Unimodal is widely deployed.

Will the people at the Transportation “Research” Board even consider anything other than the automobile in their meetings?

Posted by Keith Frick | Report as abusive

We are so far behind the Europian and Japan rail system,,,Build a high speed rail system up and down the eastern seaboard it will create jobs and take away the stress of hyway driving and we can relax and enjoy the beauty of our landscape…City or county.. There would also be improvements at each stop area new buildings for food rest and parking…

Posted by Dominic Shippole | Report as abusive