Solving the Problem of Traffic Congestion

October 9, 2012

Traffic congestion is a growing problem in many metropolitan areas. Congestion increases travel time, air pollution, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and fuel use because cars cannot run efficiently. The number of hours Americans waste sitting in traffic more than quintupled between 1982 and 2005, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, says Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute.

Some people point to the growth of traffic congestion as evidence of the need for more infrastructure spending. However, there are ways to manage traffic, particularly at times of peak demand, that are relatively inexpensive.

  • The expensive way to deal with traffic congestion is to build so many new highway lanes that traffic never rises above peak use.
  • This is especially expensive because if peak use lasts only a few minutes a day the new lanes will effectively be unused the rest of the day.

The low-cost solution to congestion is to encourage a few of the people who want to drive during those peak minutes to travel during a different part of the day. The most effective way to do this is to charge a toll during the peak minutes or hours, or to charge a toll all day and make the toll higher during peak periods. This is called congestion pricing.

Many people object to paying tolls to use roads that have traditionally been "free," which means paid for out of gas taxes. Yet the benefits of tolling congested roads are so great that many cities are beginning to experiment with such tolls. There are several different ways of doing this, including:

  • New York City has converted fixed tolls to congestion tolls for existing toll roads and bridges to Manhattan. California has done the same with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
  • Denver, Toronto and other cities charge tolls for newly constructed highways.
  • California has built new toll lanes next to existing lanes, and Colorado and Minnesota have converted underused carpool lanes to tolled lanes, allowing people in low-occupancy vehicles to use the lanes if they pay tolls.
  • London, Milan and a few other European cities have drawn a line ("cordon") around their city centers and charge variable tolls to any vehicle crossing the line.
  • Oregon and Minnesota are experimenting with replacing gas taxes entirely with vehicle-mile fees that charge a fixed price per mile to drive on uncongested roads and variable prices to drive on congested roads.

Source: Randal O'Toole, "Solving the Problem of Traffic Congestion," National Center for Policy Analysis, October 8, 2012.

 

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