Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Congestion Pricing: Tale of Two Cultures

A somewhat acerbic anonymous commentator on an earlier post on congestion pricing Chicago style suggests, among other things, that in some circumstances congestion pricing on highways can cause sprawl. The comment merits a response.

Support for Congestion Pricing

First, the commentator argues that "the support for congestion pricing in NYC is much higher than it was in London or Stockholm before it was introduced in those cities." This assertion is unsupported and appears contrary to the polling data in the Poole article cited in the post. Poole reports that New Yorkers polled 2-1 against Mayor Bloomberg's plan. From all reports I've seen (but don't have time to find to cite just now) concerning the level of support for congestion pricing systems in London and Stockholm, initial public support in those cities was at least as high and likely significantly greater than in New York.

The Two Cultures Of Congestion Pricing

Anonymous commentator also argues that "your talk of pouring congestion pricing revenues into road improvements misses the whole point of the tool." The commentator does not outline the "point" of congestion pricing, but continues, "making driving easier is only going to encourage more driving, which will require higher prices to manage demand."

This argument exposes a key philosophical divide with respect to congestion pricing. For folks like the commentator, "driving" is inherently bad and the point of congestion pricing is to reduce private vehicle use. This certainly is a rational position. Vehicles and highways as currently constructed and operated result in high levels of energy consumption, increase our country's dependence on foreign oil, worsen air pollution, foster obesity, etc. In this view, congestion pricing helps drive people to public transit, bicycles, walking, and other transportation alternatives that have a more benign effect on the environment and that are an antidote to the dread culture of sprawl.

Under this "environmental" approach to congestion pricing, spending congestion toll revenue on highway improvements is counterproductive. As the commentator argues, making driving easier through highway improvements funded by congestion tolls "is only going to encourage more driving." Driving, in other words, is an inherent evil.

In contrast, the "efficiency" approach to congestion pricing views congestion pricing as a tool to help the greatest number of people move the greatest distance in the least amount of time. These proponents focus on how congestion pricing will increase vehicle speeds in the congestion pricing zone. They welcome using congestion tolls to fund highway improvements throughout the region so long as those investments improve transportation system capacity and travel speeds. They worship at the altar of speed and convenience.

The efficiency proponents of congestion pricing are at worst neutral on the question whether driving is a good thing. They recognize that most trips today are made by private vehicles and that the car is a powerful tool of empowerment for many people. They also recognize that a substantial percentage of goods and services are delivered through vehicle travel. These efficiency proponents may celebrate suburban sprawl as the apotheoses of civilization (what are they smoking?) or simply shrug their shoulders, viewing sprawl as an inevitable and not especially delightful by-product of current technology.

Understanding this fundamental philosophical/cultural difference between the two wings of the congestion pricing movement will help us navigate through the debates over congestion pricing in this region. The ironic fact is that in order for congestion pricing to have a prayer in this region the environmental proponents and the efficiency proponents must form a coalition. That will be difficult because they have incompatible agendas.

The environmental proponents of congestion pricing will have to accept the fact that using some of the congestion tolls for highway improvements is politically necessary to get congestion pricing in the first place. They will have to accept that using toll revenue for such improvements will increase driving in the area of those improvements. Yet, a congestion pricing scheme might result in a net decrease in driving and would provide a source of new money for the transit system and other alternatives to the private auto.

Likewise, the efficiency proponents will have to accept that a congestion pricing system will deter driving and may slow average travel speeds as people switch from cars to bicycles, public transit, and walking. Such a reduction in average speed with offend the tender sensibilities of the efficiency proponents, who think that more travel faster is necessarily a good thing for society, even if it just means we can get to Dunkin Donuts a bit faster.

These proponents need to come together in a marriage of political convenience. They will both get something they want, namely congestion pricing, but they both will have to give up much that they prize. That's politics. That's life.

Congestion Pricing And Sprawl

Anonymous commentator also argues that having congestion pricing areas throughout the region is counterproductive. Here's the argument:

You're also not thinking about the land use implications of the different forms of congestion pricing in the region. Price the highways and we'll get more sprawl. Use a downtown cordon and you will probably get more concentrated development around the core. Strategically price on-street and off-street parking throughout the region and you can shape growth as you desire, presumably to reduce sprawl.

This argument does not seem sound. I don't see why a tolled "downtown cordon" is likely to yield "more concentrated development around the core" but tolling elsewhere will yield "more sprawl." Why should we assume that development that is pushed out of the urban core by congestion pricing--if any--will relocate to areas immediately adjacent to the core rather than in relatively low density/low cost suburban sprawl areas? Indeed, isn't the flight of people, jobs and shoppers to the sprawl-blighted suburbs just what the opponents of a Chicago cordon congestion pricing are warning us against?

At the same, why shouldn't we assume that tolling roads in outlying areas will create incentives for people in those supposedly benighted areas to take fewer trips, move closer to their jobs, and the like, all of which will help counteract the centrifugal forces of sprawl? Are the suburban folks immune to price signals, not if the capacity crowds at the outlet malls are any indication. Isn't region-wide tolling, either through expansion of the I-PASS system or through a new generation of GPS technology that charges motorists by miles driven, more likely to counteract sprawl than tolling access to a single, central core area in this six-county region.

Anonymous argues that "making driving easier is only going to encourage more driving, which will require higher prices to manage demand." Is that a problem or an opportunity? What about offering drivers better roads and charging them for the privilege of using them? Using higher congestion tolls from such improved roads will help support the public transit system and other alternatives to the private auto.

We want a system where road improvements yield corresponding improvements in the public transit system. Road tolling throughout the region provides that link.

At the same time, let's focus more energies on technologies that make driving less of an environmental burden and that allow more efficient use of our roadways by safely reducing headways without reducing speeds. Shrinking the environmental gap between transit and driving, which already seems to be occurring, likely can be done more efficiently by focusing on the mode used by 90 percent of the travelers--private vehicles on highways--rather than just trying to entice more of that 90 percent to switch to public transit.

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