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Will Congestion Pricing Ever Catch On Here?

Those of us who drive to work in metropolitan areas across the U.S. know from experience that congestion hardly ever improves. Now a couple of researchers from the University of Toronto have reaffirmed what my colleague Anthony Downs has been saying for fifty years: “traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.”

In a forthcoming article in the American Economic Review (Google documents version via The Infrastructurist) Gilles Duranton and Mathew Turner examine new data on city level traffic from 1983 to 2003 and find that building more roads leads to more traffic. Why, you might ask? Duranton and Turner found three sources of traffic growth: people drive more as more roads are provided, commercial use (trucking, buses, etc.) increases in a similar fashion, and people move to cities with better road supplies. Increase supply and demand will rise to meet it. They also found that increased transit provision does not reduce traffic, though they caution that transit is still of vital importance.

Given this rather hopeless picture of ever increasing congestion, the authors have one policy recommendation for policymakers: congestion pricing. If more roads and more transit aren’t the solution to congestion, pricing is one of the few tools left.

But is congestion pricing a non-starter in the United States, as is often claimed? Yes, New York City failed to create a cordon charge à la London, and no we’re not all driving around with GPS units tracking our every move (or are we?) and charging us accordingly. However, cordons and GPS units are not the only ways to implement congestion pricing.

In fact, there are numerous examples just in the Washington region of projects already underway that pay for infrastructure and manage demand through congestion pricing. Virginia is building high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes along the Beltway, while Maryland just opened the Inter-County Connector. Metrorail implemented peak-of-the-peak pricing last year. Capital Bikeshare (think Zipcar for bikes) just started a Reverse Rewards program to help manage the bike supply, and might eventually move to an explicitly priced strategy. Street parking near Nationals Stadium is priced to encourage fans to take transit to the game, while not discouraging customers from patronizing the surrounding businesses using short-term parking. Nationally, consumers face congestion pricing for products as diverse as airline tickets, water bills, and cell-phone data plans. In many ways congestion pricing is here to stay.

However, public support for more comprehensive congestion pricing remains low. If congestion pricing is one of the few effective tools available to policymakers and transportation planners as Duranton and Turner argue, then understanding public resistance and working together to design sustainable solutions is paramount. That is the idea behind a research project we just started (partnering with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments) looking at the public acceptability of congestion pricing, using the D.C. region as a test case.  Look for more about this project later in the year.