How Urban Planners Want to Reduce Traffic Without Building Highways

August 4th 2017

If you live in a big city, you're familiar with heavy traffic, and you probably want less of it. And while past ideas—like adding traffic lanes—haven't yielded encouraging results, urban planners have recently proposed one suggestion that might actually work.

The concept is called "congestion pricing." Basically, it's the idea that making people pay to use highways and major thoroughfares during busy times can significantly reduce traffic on those roadways. Congestion pricing is already in effect in London, Stockholm and Singapore, and it's shown results. 

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Why adding lanes doesn't reduce traffic

The reason that simply adding lanes doesn't make the roads less busy has to do with how people choose to drive. 

Martin Wachs, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, told ATTN: that people tend to avoid rush hour altogether if they can. And commuters will often try to take roads that they think are less busy during these times, which causes traffic in other areas. Finally, some decide to use public transit, when the traffic is simply too much to handle.

But once roads are widened with added lanes, people tend to think less about when they go out and use public transit, so the expanded road winds up hosting more cars. 

"Congestion pricing is the only strategy that has worked 100 percent of the time wherever it's been used, because you can always raise the price high enough to get people to say, 'I won't pay that much to use that road, so I'm going to try something different,'" Wachs said. "If you really want to control congestion—if that's the goal—then pricing is the ideal solution."

Singapore has been using congestion pricing for decades, and much of the money that's been made from it has gone to improving public transit and other infrastructure projects.

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People typically don't like this idea

"It's politically very unpopular," Wachs said. "People assume that the roads should be free, so politicians don't want to place prices on roads."

That's part of the reason an effort to start using congestion pricing in New York State failed in 2008. Despite efforts from politicians to convince constituents of the plan's benefits, people overwhelmingly rejected the idea of paying to use the road during busy times. 

Wachs said that people in Stockholm warmed to the idea of congestion pricing after the city offered it as a trial run for six months and then curbed the practice. Residents actually requested for the policy to be restored and the city has had it ever since.

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Is it unfair?

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told ATTN: he thinks this kind of system is unfair to lower income people. He noted that while a wealthier person might not care about paying for highway use, because they can afford almost any price that would be required, a less wealthy person might not be able to pay. 

"Once again, the social costs of excluding those unable/unwilling to pay are not asked about, let alone assessed to see if they outweigh whatever positive outcomes one attaches to imposing such charges," Wolff said.

But Wachs noted that there are many things that cost the same no matter your income, like food, so wealthier people are always going to have certain advantages. Thus, it might not make sense to dismiss a congestion tax for such reasons. He also suggested that cities could decide to give less wealthy residents tax credits as an incentive to ameliorate the cost of congestion pricing. 

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