Improving Lives Can Be Popular
Felix Salmon worries that although congestion pricing may be smart policy, proponents should recognize its limitations.
There’s another way to look at this phenomenon, though. When congestion pricing is first introduced, people recoil against it — they expend quite a lot of effort to avoid the charge, and traffic goes down. Over time, however, it becomes just another part of the cost of driving, along with gas and insurance and parking tickets. As that happens, traffic goes back up again. Congestion-charge revenues go up too, of course, and those can be reinvested into public transport.
But traffic is like water — it wants to find its own level, which tends, in cities, to be maximum capacity. If you want to implement a system which keeps traffic below maximum capacity, then you need to apply significant pressure on drivers to keep them away from the roads. And that means not just implementing a congestion charge, but also regularly increasing the amount of the charge over time.
Variable pricing, which adjusts price to maintain the flow of traffic, will probably never win a popularity contest.
As a result, drivers are pretty much never happy with congestion pricing. Either it’s painfully expensive and going up in price — expensive enough to keep them from driving — or else it doesn’t have much effect.
Well, that’s according to Salmon. Fortunately, there is reason to suspect he’s wrong. Of course, congestion pricing is unattractive in theory, but the reason we should have any public policy is because it improves people’s lives compared to the alternatives. Back in March of last year, David Brooks and others highlighted research that shows that the “daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.” Therefore, it seems intuitive that improving commuting will produce happier commuters.
That intuition is validated in a survey of drivers of California’s 91 Express Lanes.
Eric Morris of U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies confronted Salmon’s fear nearly 3 years ago – reported on this blog:
The early projects show that motorists initially have doubts, but they become enthusiastic converts when they see and use the facilities. According to the last survey, over 70 percent of SR 91 express-lane users — and even over half of the nonusers — approve of the use of variable tolls.
Not all hope should be lost for rational public policy. Next time you’re stuck in traffic, remember that.