Report: No to Infrastructure — Yes to Congestion Pricing

Photo: Atwater Village Newbie via Flickr
Photo: Atwater Village Newbie via Flickr

The U.S. does not need to build more highways — it needs to spend more on aging urban rail systems and use congestion pricing to ease gridlock in urban areas, a new report shows.

In contrast to the “crumbling infrastructure” rhetoric, Matthew Turner at the Brookings Institution [PDF] argues that America’s highways are in better condition than they were decades ago — and  have plenty of excess capacity, albeit not at rush hour.

Graphs: Hamilton Institute/Brookings
Graphs: Hamilton Institute/Brookings

Urban highways are more congested than they were in the past, carrying about double the traffic of 1980 on average —. but widening them isn’t likely to solve it, because vast experience has shown that widening highways encourages more driving, as people shift where they live and work to account for the relative ease of driving. In other words, more roads fuel sprawl and make people more dependent on driving. This phenomenon is called induced demand. Studies have shown, for example, that for each radial highway from a city center decreases the center-city population 10 percent.

“Highways and other transportation infrastructure clearly have the ability to create economic activity in one place at the expense of some other place,” said Turner. “It is less clear that this infrastructure increases overall economic activity.”

So that’s where congestion pricing comes in.

On average U.S. highways carry just a fraction of the 37,000 vehicles per lane per day they could maximally accommodate, Turner says. Rural highways are particularly under-used, carrying about 20 percent of their total capacity, compared with 40 percent on urban highways.

So rather than spending billions to expand highways, Turner argues for policies to “spread travel out over the day.”

“Even slight” diversions of rush hour traffic to other times of day “can have large effects on congestion,” he writes. Congestion pricing on urban highways “should be a policy priority.” Tolls on travel into or through the central business district are currently being discussed in Portland. Virginia and Maryland already use congestion pricing — also known as variable tolling — on highways with great success. (New York City is seeking to use congestion pricing to fund transit improvements, but that system is not designed with highway congestion in mind.)

Real infrastructure improvements need to be made in urban rail, where the average car is 22 years old and has 50 percent more riders per year (about 300,000) than it did in 1992, Turner says

“Urban rail cars are old and heavily used, while the rural interstate is lightly used and is becoming progressively smoother over time,” he writes. “This suggests a decrease in spending on the rural interstate and an increase in spending on urban rail.”

The notion of America’s “crumbling infrastructure” is practically sacrosanct in political discussions. The idea has been advanced primarily by the American Society of Civil Engineers and its famous “report card” rating system. But many people in the civil engineering field are skeptical about claims made in the report. And ACSE has a clear self-interest in more spending on infrastructure.

“Claims about the dilapidation of U.S. transportation infrastructure should be regarded with a critical eye,” says Turner.

  • thomas040

    If we really wanna do something about climate change, we need to get our heads around using biking in cities as one of the main tenets of transportation. (this includes electric bikes, electric scooters and hover boards). Personal e-vehicles is the future. The faster we get rid of 80% of cars in cities, the better.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Given their single-person width, electric bikes are great for traffic congestion mitigation, but they aren’t highway/freeway/motorway capable. Since there’s nothing inherently wrong with road and weather protection, I suggest the following edit; “The faster we get rid of gas fuel and always-included passenger side-seated design of cars in cities, the better”.

  • George Joseph Lane

    +1, current road allocation isn’t even the good type of socialism like education where everyone else benefits from you choosing to use it more. It’s a Soviet breadshop where the more you use it, the worse it is for everyone else.

  • Guy Ross

    I’m willing to assume that you and I would differ on most issues. However, here I am absolutely in alignment. Why is ‘transportation’ in itself a public good worthy of the massive subsidies we throw at it?

    Also, not sure how you figure the air travel exception but let’s save that for another time and enjoy a left / right coalition for time being.

  • Guy Ross

    There is no greater financial pain point for the poor than forced automobile ownership. We have build a nation where this is the reality for 99% of the working poor.

    This is not a technology issue – this is a policy and subsidy issue.

  • Sincerely

    Congestion charges aren’t about benefiting the people who drive to benefit the people who don’t. They’re about charging the people who drive to benefit everyone, including those people who have to drive. Everyone driving pays for congestion with either money or time, and congestion charges let those with more flexibility in either category adapt in ways that improve travel for everyone.

  • Dave Erickson

    When I said air travel was not socialist I was referring to the fact that the private airlines are not socialist, but it is true that most of the airport infrastructure, airport security, etc. is heavily subsidized, so yes I probably shouldn’t have excluded air travel from being socialist.

  • Yes the city hopes to do that someday as a culmination of its anti-car policies, since it would be a major source of revenue. Fortunately, the people of San Francisco have consistently and overwhelmingly opposed it. See the latest poll wherein 65% were opposed:

  • Andrew

    Non-auto type transit serves, what, 2-3-4-5-8% of people?

    In locations where congestion pricing has been proposed, “non-auto type transit” (which most of us call transit) serves far more than that. In my city, for instance, 74% of daily entries into the CBD are by transit; in the AM rush period (7-10 AM), that number increases to 88%.

    Besides, as @disqus_k68jRPrMWd:disqus has pointed out, congestion pricing even benefits drivers.

  • Andrew

    This article is about congestion pricing, which has been proposed in only a few parts of the country. The Manhattan CBD is one of them.

  • Andrew

    in this country

    Does geometry work differently in the U.S. than it does elsewhere?

  • Andrew

    Nearly all transit systems “tax” people’s public movement and have done so for well over a century.

  • Andrew

    First they came for transit riders. I pay a fare to ride the subway to work every day.

  • Andrew

    My city provides exclusive bus lanes along some of the busier routes. Unfortunately, motorists (mostly the police) then park in those bus lanes, rendering them useless.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    This is a design, policy, and subsidy issue. Poor people have relatively inexpensive electricity, cell phones, library and park access, and, improving internet access because of acceptable design, policy, and subsidy. Poor people take out loans for cars and go into debt because of poor design, policy, and subsidy. With good auto and road design, policy, and subsidy, poor people could have cars and not go into severe debt.

  • Guy Ross

    Your obsessive attention to getting people on motorcycles to solve each and every transportation issue facing mankind is like focusing on three legged chairs to solve all housing issues.

    It’s really bizarre.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Fixing congestion with skinny vehicles is like fixing congestion with skinny vehicles.

  • Bern

    We could charge all private auto drivers a toll every time they drive from their private property to enter the public roadway. Would be just like charging every member of the public for walking onto a public bus, streetcar, subway or other form of public transportation. Alternatively, we could do away with point-of-entry fees for all forms of public transport. All it takes is political will.

  • Michael

    Exactly. There’s a lot of ways to approach it & I am not sure that there is a “best” way. My preoccupation with congestion taxes is that in my city (Milwaukee WI), we’re pretty much the only (marginally) congested, urban place in the state. So a congestion tax is a de facto Milwaukee tax. We’ve also been somewhat successful at defeating highway projects for 40 years, while the rest of the state has gone on a highway building binge. So a congestion tax would ultimately be a tax on the city, to fix a congestion problem most residents don’t acknowledge, in order to fund commuter infrastructure across the rest of the State.

    There’s a lot of other funding levers to pull. Gas tax, excise tax, vehicle sales tax, plate fees, mileage tax, parking taxes. Various permits. Vehicle weight fees. Probably many others. They all have different incentives and outcomes. I think metro areas should have the full tool box.

  • jcwconsult

    Motorists should never be asked to pay for the cost of the infrastructure they use.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association


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