Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Tolling Editorial Misses Key Points

Tolling is unpopular. That's no great insight. But this means that there's lots of deflection and misunderstanding around it.

Today's editorial ends on a hopeful note that expresses some of that deflection:
Let's start working on reducing today's congestion by doing things like incentivizing carpools and expanding mass transportation. Don't wait for tolling.
This kind of rhetoric expresses the assumption that there currently is a level playing field and that it would be easy to make changes to encourage transit.

But we don't at all have a level playing field.

The very great problem is that we have intensely subsidized driving alone and until we end those subsidies and price road use correctly, the incentives will remain stacked against "carpools and expanding mass transportation."

What creates the space to expand transit is accurately priced road use! That's the single most important ingredient in creating a level playing field.

We've tried for more than a generation to expand transit without pricing road use, and it hasn't worked as well as we'd like. When we subsidize and support driving alone, make drive-alone trips the preferred transportation choice, why are we then surprised the other choices remain very secondary?

The recent increase in VMT correlates strongly with gas price
via the Federal Reserve
We see the effect of price clearly in the last few years as cheap gas has prompted more driving.

"congestion pricing...main candidate tool"
American Economic Review
Indeed, the foundational study concludes more roads and road capacity will fail to reduce congestion and that "congestion pricing [is] the main candidate tool to curb traffic congestion."

There's an extensive literature on the benefits of decongestion pricing. (We call it that because the service it purchases, its effect, is decongestion, in analogy with a nasal decongestant. One of the problems we have with "tolling" and "congestion pricing" is that we have not named it very well and it sounds punitive rather than beneficial. Decongestion pricing is the most descriptive and accurate.)

Here's decongestion pricing for Wilderness
So while it is true that we shouldn't wait for decongestion pricing, it's also true that the other programming won't be optimally successful until we implement decongestion pricing.

Additionally, decongestion pricing also fits with our need to decarbonize, and the editorial today is silent on greenhouse gas emissions. We also have a funding problem with road maintenance, and pricing road use helps close that. The editorial is also silent that maintenance problem.

In the end, today's editorial disparaging decongestion pricing is long on emotion, but not a very helpful contribution to the debate.

Postscript, December 13th

Here's a Strong Town blurb that nicely sums much of this:

via Twitter
And more...December 14th

Totally missed the relevant LTE just below the editorial! Whoops.
A new bridge should only be considered after tolling has been fully tried. As a professional economist, I can confidently state that putting a price on road use will change driving behavior.

Everyone wants more of something if each use is free. If rush-hour tolls are higher than during off-peak hours, it will definitely reduce congestion.
This is exactly right. (See a note from 2014 arguing that we should use decongestion pricing first.)


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Updated with Strong Towns clip

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

And added LTE from the paper the same day.