Congestion Relief Through Value Pricing
In the opening scene of La La Land, the characters turn their aggravation at being stuck in traffic into a charming dance routine, but let’s face it, traffic congestion is more than a nuisance: it undermines our quality of life, reduces our time with family, is a drain on the economy, and has serious environmental repercussions. Idling cars pump out extra air pollution because the catalytic converters that capture pollutants before they hit the tailpipe don’t function as well in stop-and-go traffic. Cars delayed by congestion also burn more gasoline than cars traveling at steady speeds, with every additional gallon burned generating nearly 20 pounds of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
We need to reduce congestion, but what actually works? The traditional solution to congestion has been to build more and wider roads, but it’s a very expensive proposition for a fix that doesn’t last. New road capacity fills up quickly. As soon as word spreads that a particular highway is no longer congested, drivers who were avoiding rush hour shift back to the peak period. Drivers who had been taking alternative routes shift back to the recently widened highway. And some commuters taking public transit shift back to driving. Within a short time, the road becomes just as congested as it was before. In one egregious example, after Texas spent nearly $2.8 billion expanding the Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, congestion is actually worse. In short, traffic is like a gas: it’ll expand to fill any space it’s given.
Adding more road capacity not only doesn’t work, it also creates additional problems. The more we widen roads, the harder it is for people to walk and bicycle safely. The more asphalt we lay, the more polluted stormwater runs off into our waters. New highways can destroy neighborhoods, and they encourage people to live further away from their daily destinations, which contributes to sprawl.
Enter “congestion pricing” (aka value pricing): a system of tolls that vary according to the amount of traffic on the road (in this day and age, collected electronically). Most people’s immediate reaction is: “No way. I refuse to pay for something that I’ve always gotten for free.” But the cost of driving is not always the same. When we drive during rush hour, we impose time delays on all of the drivers behind us, and it is we who are demanding more road space, not our neighbors who drive at a different time or choose public transit.
The private sector understands how to utilize the principles of supply and demand. Rather than building new movie theaters to fit in a few more people at the evening showings, theaters charge more for an evening show and less for a matinee. A number of moviegoers are drawn by the cheaper matinee price, reducing crowding in the evening. Charging different prices results in more efficient use of theater space.
Of course, a trip to work or school is far more important than catching a film, but a surprising number of trips during rush hour are discretionary or can be done via foot, bike or transit. But until there’s a price signal, too many of us will continue to drive at peak hour and continue to be stuck in traffic.
In designing a congestion pricing system, we must keep in mind that travelers with lower incomes may be hard hit by tolls. A fair congestion pricing system will provide affordable alternatives to driving at rush hour and other ways to mitigate the cost for low-income drivers who have no other choice but to drive during peak periods. But let’s be clear: a century of supporting automobile infrastructure above all else made the least affordable transportation option—a car—a necessity for most households. At this point, when it’s hard to find affordable housing anywhere but the outskirts of the city, we need to change the status quo. This means providing affordable transportation options across the metropolitan region rather than building new roads, and managing the road space we have much more efficiently.
House Bill 2017, passed by the 2017 Oregon Legislature, requires that value pricing be implemented in the Portland metro area on I-205 and I-5. Oregon Environmental Council is participating in ODOT’s Value Pricing Advisory Committee. Learn more about congestion pricing and Oregon Environmental Council’s goals.*