From Sydney to London to New York: why is congestion pricing so difficult to understand?

It’s also known as rational pricing. If you want people to use less of something, charge more for that thing, and people won’t buy as much. Ergo, if you want people to use less of your roads, demand a toll – a high one. Sigh.

First: Sydney is mooting plans to charge motorists to use the Bus Lane on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We have lanes especially for buses (and taxis).

bus lane

As you can see, that’s a prime piece of real estate, come rush hour. Just as it is supposed to be – it’s meant to get people to use buses instead of driving. The Bus/taxi lane would then become a Bus/taxi/HOT (High-Occupancy Tolling) lane. I.e. if you carpool, your reward for taking 2, 3 other cars off the road is access to the fast lane. The problem? It is already being called the Lexus Lane, because people who can afford, say, an AUD20 toll will pay that to bypass traffic (now that the days of owning all the traffic lights a la Rockefeller have gone).

The problem here is perspective:

However, the NRMA has given the proposal short shrift. “We’re after equity for motorists and in this instance if you have the money you can pay to use [the lane],” said its senior traffic and roads policy adviser, Mark Wolstenholme.

Americans, the NRMA is our version of an Automobile Association. Two problems here: (i) ‘equity’ is getting out of something what you pay in to it. If you pay more, you can by all means demand more – so the NRMA is after equality, not equity, and they aren’t the same. (ii) that is irrelevant anyway. The problem is one Lexus in the Bus Lan instead of the normal lane will do bugger-all to solve the problem – that is why it would be a bad thing. Congestion is the problem, not who is congested. If High-Occupancy lanes are to be introduced, they need to be enforced, and I didn’t see the SMH mention that once. Just a lot of talk about tags and tolls.

Second, here in New York:

The Staten Island Advance ran an article last Thursday about a “perfect storm” of crushing Staten Island-bound traffic on the Gowanus Expressway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. To give you a sense of the frustrated tone of the article, it was entitled “21-Month Nightmare: Agency Offers Zero Solutions for Verrazano Lane Mess.”

So, Sydney, it is not just you (not by a long shot). There is also no congestion pricing here. The toll is USD9 westbound (into SI, which is where the traffic is ‘jamming’), we’re seeing 2, 2.5 hour traffic jams. First-year Economics students, what is the solution? Yes, increase the bloody toll. Increase it until fewer and fewer people are driving into the city (we’d appreciate that, too, by the way. Owners of parking garages may not). And the solutions being discussed?

Instead of using rational pricing to solve the problem, officials are horsing around with pallatives aimed at making it easier to drive, which of course will encourage more traffic. A Verrazano traffic working group made up of elected and agency officials managed to avoid the issue of pricing or tolls, but did come up with some ideas to speed up traffic without inconveniencing anyone. (It’s magic!) Specifically: “An increased police presence, and the dispatch of traffic agents at certain Brooklyn intersections near the bridge, to help keep traffic moving smoothly, without backing up local neighborhood streets.”

Making the experience go away is to say, “there is no problem”. People are driving up to this point, and they will again. If the city goes through with all of this garbage it will only end up with the same problem in 6 months with twice as many cars.

Streetsblog guy (it’s a great blog, by the by) ultimately ended on the best solution – one the Mayor of London worked out a long time ago – which is to tax like hell access by motor vehicles to the primary destination, New York City (actually Ken Livingstone taxes people who drive in London. Not New York. You get the idea).

In fairness, more sensible proposals came from Councilman Vincent Ignizio, who suggested speeding up implementation of a fast ferry to the island’s South Shore and fast-tracking the planned extension of the Staten Island Expressway’s bus-only lane. More to the point, however, motorists’ expectations need to be managed better. They need to be told that their commute can be more expensive, it can be done in a bus or a ferry, or they can remain stuck in traffic on the Verrazano. There are no other options.

Clearly, the bridge’s $9 toll should be raised, if it’s not doing the job. The Staten Island Ferry is already free, so maybe pay people 25 cents to ride it. I’m not even kidding. Better yet, impose congestion pricing in Manhattan, and fewer people will drive to Manhattan, leaving fewer people to be stuck fuming on the Gowanus.

Just like Sydney. Clean up and streamline trains and buses (and I realise the impending strike will hardly help with that), and make driving a car into the area of congestion too expensive for more and more people.

Will this result in income-inequality on the roads? Yes. ‘Rich’ people won’t want to ride buses, and they will be willing to pay tolls. But ‘fairness’ isn’t supposed to be the guiding principle. Speed, safety, cleanliness, carbon emissions, those are. So tax rich motorists, use the money to fund public transport for everyone else, and that’s how it will have to be. If there’s a better solution than that out there, nobody in the cities on Earth has managed to think of it.

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