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« Web Surfing | Main | Women and Men, Chapter 7,623,088 »

April 21, 2003

Policy Break--Traffic Congestion Charges

Michael:

I donít know about you, but Iíve been following the news of Londonís initiative to reduce traffic in the most congested part of the city eagerly. Why? Because living in Los Angeles, which is gradually grinding to a halt, traffic-wise, Iíve long been fascinated by any attempt to introduce rational resource allocation to the automotive transportation sector.

London Traffic in the Pre-Congestion Charge Era

In February, Transport for London started charging cars five pounds (roughly $8) to enter a 21-square-kilometer zone in the central city from 7:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. At least in the short term, the result seems to have been a 20% reduction in the number of cars entering the zone and roughly the same reduction in street traffic. The scheme is enforced by the presence of hundreds of cameras that automatically capture license plates and compare them to a database of payment records. According to a Reuters story (which you can read here):

These days, cabbies marvel at record journey times across town, while some pedestrians claim even the air they breathe seems less polluted.

Politically, of course, the move was simplified by the fact that Londonís central city contains its financial district, thus creating the impression that people being hit up for the daily charge could afford to pay it.

London Traffic in the Post Traffic Congestion Charge Era

Regrettably, this is in contrast to the situation found in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. There, many of the most high-mileage users of the freeway system are the less affluent, who have moved to more distant suburbs in order to find affordable housing. This same pattern seems to have prevented the use of similar traffic congestion charges in other major cities as well.

One Solution to Current L.A. Traffic Congestion--Are There Better Ones?

However, it seems to me that this problem could be resolved by stealing an idea from pollution management schemes. During high congestion times, cars would be charged for using the superhighways; this would be paid for with allowances. Everyone would be grandfathered with allowances for the number of mile-days equal to what they drove last year. People could buy and sell such mile-day allowances via a central exchange. However, in every transaction, some fraction of the units would expire (say 10%). That way, people for whom allowances are worth more (say, trucking companies) would buy additional allowances, but the total number of mile-days in the system would, over time, decrease.

In the pollution control field, this approach has been quite effective in both reducing the total amount of pollutants going into the atmosphere and in getting individual polluters to reduce their emissions. Hopefully in the world of traffic control, this plan would encourage fewer cars on the road by getting people to think about how to reduce their need for driving on superhighways (like shopping and working locally) and by shifting traffic demand from rush hour to less congested times of day. (Iíve seen studies that put the number of cars on the superhighways in Los Angeles at rush hour that are not commuting but simply running errands at 40% of the total.) Moreover the less affluent could either maintain their status quo by holding onto their allowances or by devising ways to drive less and then by selling their allowances at a (possibly fairly steep) profit.

Anyway, itís just a thought, but without some way of putting a price on the use of ďfreeĒ superhighways, itís an inevitability that they will be overused.

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at April 21, 2003




Comments

Bikeholes (sanctimonious bike riders, non-polluting better-humans-than-thou of which we already have too many in Boulder, CO) are no solution because, their personality flaws aside, most distances that need to be travelled and the very real problem of transporting children are not solved by bicycles.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 21, 2003 4:13 PM



I could see the sheer amount of righteousness that you have to shoulder out of the way every day getting anyone down in Boulder. Living in a Republic of Virtue is always tedious at best.

I didn't intend to really suggest the use of bicycles with the picture in this posting; I just thought the pic was kind of funny. I'll try to be more careful next time.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 22, 2003 4:29 AM



Forgive me Friedrich, I had a problem with the tone on that post. Consider it tongue-in-cheek, or one-eyebrow-hoisted-star-trek-style, and then it won't seem so catty. (Though a portion of the bike riders in Boulder are insufferable.)

To seriously answer you, I think putting a toll on the highways would just be yet one more thing that the poor couldn't afford, and they would be hit the hardest since those kind of jobs often require the most torturous commutes. Also, you would just push people off the pay roads and onto the "free" side-streets, making them even less safe (read: killing more children), and causing the cost of upkeep on those roads to skyrocket - not to mention the added expense that home owners would incur from damage to their houses and foundations from traffic rumbling by all day.

I think the only viable solution is greater public transportation infrastructure, which is expensive and you've got to get buy-in from the taxpayer base to do it. Current profit models and expectations of corporations guarantee the private sector won't touch it.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 22, 2003 2:21 PM



My experience in the provinces of England is that there is nothing dearer to the heart of the old-Labour Socialists who are forced to live in the New Labour world than the chance to "control" and "manage" traffic, redesign and engineer highways and use every kind of charge and punishment to achieve the new car-free Jerusalem. These ghastly elected throw-backs in modern garb are largely the willing puppets of the local government planners of the transport departments of the local councils. With grim resolution worthy of Cromwell they seek to "pedestrianise" and make over to cycles every town centre in the country, irrespective of the wishes of local residents, traders and historical experts. By and large they succeed. So it is no spurprise that Red Ken (Mayor Livingstone) should be such an egregious advocate of congestion charging, which adds taxation to central planning. The deep injustice is indeed the attack on the poorest who cannot afford the charge (Livingstone delights in telling them to use the [subsidised] buses - with typcial Socialist disdain for the sheer impossibility of doing so for most of the kinds of jouneys people make in cars); the social cost comes in the chaos that reigns around the periphery of the central changing area. The plan to deal with this? Extend the charging area ever outwards.

Posted by: charlie b. on April 22, 2003 5:12 PM



You're halfway there on the complexity of integrating such a system into American roadways: the sheer physical length of the average American commute. The other half of the problem is that most commutes never even reach downtown -- we drive mostly from suburb-to-suburb, now. Without a distinct nexus, mechanisms for controlling transportation can't help but be inefficient.

It's easy enough, too, to lament a lack of public transportation, as Yahmdallah does, but establishing effective transit routes within the land-use framework we've created (and that we uphold at every turn) is near impossible. Even a somewhat successful interurban system, like BART in the SF Bay Area, can't help but follow the freeways and the development they've allowed to occur. More embarassing is the fact that suburban stations require massive parking lots or expensive parking structures (the cost of building a garage runs upwards of $10,000 per space, and patrons balk mightly at the idea of having to pay for parking) in order to attract suburban riders. Given that these riders already have a means of transportation, they are choosing the train only as means of avoiding congestion. Which means that if the freeways worked, the trains would be useless.

And as much as charlie b. laments the socialist overtones of automobile-control transportation policies, government agencies (notably the FHA) did much to encourage the land-use patterns we come to take for granted, that mire us in traffic and put transit unsuitably far from out homes. Planning policies also encourage the perpetuation of this pattern far more than they try to fight it. Just try building an apartment building without parking. Even in downtown Berkeley, a single block from a BART station, the zoning board wouldn't have it. Throughout Los Angeles the unmitigated standard is 2 parking spaces per unit. As to mixing uses within buildings (say, retail below apartments), it's becoming a bit easier in lots of places, but is still very much zoning taboo.

Cars are more or less requisite in the world of "Edge Cities" (as Joel Garreau defined), and would likely be nearly efficient if:

1. There was a reduction in single-driver trips. Carpool lanes are very unpopular, though, and many people find the experience of carpooling unpleasant. In places where "casual carpooling" has arisen, most research indicates that such a practice merely takes passengers away from public transit. But, well, who cares? In third-world countries there's an exciting world of private transit at work, with individually owned jitneys running regular routes and making regular stops (more or less, there's thrilling possibilities for flexibility, here).

2. The costs of driving were fully paid for, which means toll highways, expensive parking, etc. A whole mess of very, very unpopular measures that are difficult to implement.

The most politically popular transportation measures are typically highway-widenings, whose new lanes are quickly overwhelmed by the additional drivers they attract.

Sigh. It's a dreary little stasis.

Incidentally, the technology that would allow "cars to drive themselves" is more or less in place and more or less very inexpensive. Such technology would allow for up to six-fold increase in current highway capacity, robot cars in close ranks. But where do they go? Into what parking? The real roadblock, as it were, isn't that practical problem but rather an issue of liability. Who is responsible for actions of a self-guided automobile? Who pays the insurance? No car manufacturer really wants to touch that one.

Posted by: Buttercup on April 23, 2003 5:09 AM



There are indeed major differences between the USA and the UK. I certainly don't question the way in which post-War suburban planners and their political bosses in the US created spatial patterns that implemented all sorts of social agendas - the most famous case being Robert Moses of New York. I guess part of the point of my post (apart from the pleasure of denouncing British local government officers which I do whenever the opportunity arises) was to suggest that the supposed benefits of European systems (which often make them attractive in the USA) are frequently overstated and the dismal consequences concealed. The old game of statistical distortion is particularly prevalent. It is inadvisable to believe any claim made for a particular system or planning strategy in Britain without the deepest investigation and examination of the vested interests (whether ideoligical, bureaucratic, financial or whatever) involved. I have done so on several occasions and the level of sheer mendacity was extraordinary. [And our new planning laws PROHIBIT extra parking spaces in new developments, supposedly to discourage peoiple from owning cars -- in fact, of course, residents just park all over the pavements (sidewalks) -- how do these planners come up with such clever ideas?]

Posted by: charlie b. on April 23, 2003 12:04 PM



Thanks for jumping in there, Buttercup. I thought I was going to have to wade in here and say something meaningful, which usually requires a daunting amount of work. Now I can just mention that I think my system would constitute a sort of gradualist first step towards pricing inefficient road use out of the game. Would it solve all the problems? No. But it would be a start.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 23, 2003 12:05 PM






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