Why Does Congestion Pricing Matter?

You may have paid a road toll when traveling outside of Oregon, but what is congestion pricing? Most people have never heard of it, or maybe have a vague idea of what it is. At OEC, we believe that congestion pricing–different from tolling–is the best tool to help our transportation system become more efficient, healthy and sustainable.

As the Portland Metro region moves to pricing, we must focus on the kind of pricing that gives Oregon the best value and outcomes that benefit communities.

A simple concept
When something is free (like using the road), people do more of it without regard to the overall effect. When the road reaches a certain point of crowding, everything slows down and we’re all stuck in traffic together. 

Even just a small increase in the number of vehicles can have the cascading impact of slowing everyone down. By the same token, changing the time of day when a small number of vehicles hit the roads can open things up for everyone

In other parts of our lives, we’re used to paying more for things when there’s a lot of demand, like buying plane tickets for holidays. With traffic congestion, we’re used to paying only with our time – and everybody else’s time. 

How it works
Congestion pricing is charging people to drive at crowded times, like rush hour. At less-crowded times, the charge is less or even free. This makes drivers pay for the effect they have on everybody else on the road, and it encourages people that have flexibility to change the timing of their trips or to combine or skip trips. 

Many people driving at rush hour actually could make those trips at a different time, and congestion pricing gives them a great reason to do that. In cities where congestion pricing has been used, it has an immediate and lasting impact on traffic congestion. In Stockholm, for example, traffic dropped 20% and congestion dropped 30-50%. In the same study, travel time predictability – the likelihood that your trip would take the same amount of time, every time – increased substantially. 

Wider roads don’t reduce traffic
Congestion pricing is the most effective, long-term way to address congestion. No other approach, including widening roads, actually reduces congestion.

The more space that’s created and the easier it is to drive, the more people set up their lives around more driving. This leads to more congestion as well as other negative externalities of driving, like air pollution, climate pollution, traffic violence, and ever-increasing sacrifice of space and money lost to the treadmill of road expansion. 

Congestion pricing does two magic tricks. It connects us to the people around us by making us pay for the costs we impose on other people when we use some of the space we all share. It also turns our time – the time we sit in traffic – into money. That money can then be used to make it easier for everybody to get around safely and conveniently by walking, biking, and transit. 

When we invest congestion pricing revenue in helping people and goods move around the region without driving, we can create a virtuous cycle by building a transportation system that is cleaner, safer, cheaper, more efficient, and fairer. 

How we price the roads matters.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is currently developing a pricing program for the Portland metro region to manage congestion and generate revenue for road projects like the I-5 Bridge Replacement. How that pricing model is structured will have major impacts on our region for generations to come.

OEC and many others are advocating for this program to focus on congestion pricing, as opposed to purely revenue-based models like tolling. We can use the space on our streets more efficiently by pricing the use of the road in a way that encourages people to reduce or shift their trips to a less-popular time or to a different mode (for example, taking transit or biking). In order to do that, the program has to be designed to send effective price signals, like charging more at peak times and much less or nothing at off-peak times, while also ensuring equitable outcomes by incorporating approaches like rebates for low-income people who have to drive at peak times. 

This is a completely different design than a program designed to maximize revenue. In fact, a toll program designed to generate revenue to pay off a bond actually depends on vehicle trips to generate revenue. If we price to generate revenue, the only thing we’ll get for our money is wider roads – and more vehicles to keep us company in the traffic jams. 

If we price for congestion management, we’ll get more and better travel options.When we drive, we’ll have quicker trips and more open roads. We’ll also have lower prices, including free trips if we can drive when few other people are driving. Oh, and we’ll have cleaner air and a more stable future climate. 

Which option seems like a better deal to you?

Ready to dive deeper into the world of congestion pricing and transportation infrastructure? Read our Congestion Pricing FAQ page and watch this great explainer video from Vox:


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