Urban Traffic Congestion: A New Approach to the Gordian Knot

By Small, Kenneth A. | Brookings Review, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Urban Traffic Congestion: A New Approach to the Gordian Knot


Small, Kenneth A., Brookings Review


As traffic policy in the United States has lurched from the contentious highway building of the 1960s to the ineffectual travel-demand management of more recent years, congestion in the nation's cities has worsened steadily. In his recent book, Stuck in Traffic, Brookings' urban policy expert Anthony Downs threw up his hands and advised motorists, only partly tongue-in-cheek, "to learn to enjoy congestion."

It is hard to imagine frazzled American drivers taking that advice. And in fact they may not need to. The time may soon be ripe for a radically new approach to the problem of urban congestion.

Dreams and Nightmares

Economists have long recognized that congestion can be dealt with simply and efficiently by charging motorists a very high premium for using the most popular roads during peak hours. But economists' dreams can be politicians' nightmares, and "congestion pricing" is no exception. Charging people for what has been free is no more popular in the United States than it is in Russia. And the efficiency rationale for making motorists pay steep fees to commute to and from work in Los Angeles is no more self-evident than that for raising the price of sugar in St. Petersburg.

Still, interest in congestion pricing is growing and has reached far beyond academia. A surge of conference activity has brought it to the fore among transportation planners and even some politicians. Important interest groups, ranging from business organizations, such as the Bay Area Economic Forum, to environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, are now open advocates. European policy analysts are infatuated, with Britain embarking on a third and massive study of how congestion pricing would work in London. In the past eight years, politicians nearly (but not quite) signed off on trials in Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Cambridge, England. The government of Chile is seriously considering it.

A few systems have even been implemented. Singapore has had a citywide system since 1975. In April of last year France began applying congestion pricing to Sunday traffic on the A1 motorway into Paris. California is planning congestion pricing on at least two of the four privately built highways recently contracted for by the state.

Why the sudden burst of interest? Several developments have combined to give currency to the unthinkable. For one thing, the failure of all other congestion policies gives new allure to drastic options. In addition, technology has made long waits at toll booths obsolete. From here on out toll collection can be nonintrusive and easy for the traveler. And finally, the potential of congestion pricing as a prodigious source of much-needed new revenue is being recognized by local, state, and federal officials alike.

Failures of the Past

Congestion, obviously, is a matter of too few roads carrying too many cars and trucks. Most suggested remedies attempt to rectify the imbalance either by increasing the supply of roads or by reducing the number of vehicles. Among the former remedies are constructing or widening highways, improving signal timing, and (more futuristically) using electronic sensors to allow closer vehicle spacing. All require large public outlays. Strategies to reduce demand include parking controls, ridesharing, mass transit, employer-based commuting requirements, staggered work hours, telecommuting, and measures to encourage workers to live closer to their jobs. These policies are costly too--not in terms of public spending, but in terms of changing people's behavior. High-occupancy-vehicle lanes are a combination of supply- and demand-side policies: they usually put new capacity in place and at the same time promote carpooling.

But these steps relieve congestion only temporarily. Once traffic begins to thin out a bit, heretofore respectable folks who have eschewed antisocial activities like driving to work alone find reasons to join the immoral majority.

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