Monday, October 1

The price of congestion

I'm gathering that the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility report is the authoritative metric for traffic congestion in the United States. The 2007 report, released a week ago, confirms a troubling trend in urban congestion. The numbers are numbingly high,

Traffic congestion continues to worsen in American cities of all sizes, creating a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel—that's 105 million weeks of vacation and 58 fully-loaded supertankers.

As my wife can attest, I get a little upset when the I let a couple of pieces of fruit mold before eating them. I can't imagine pouring 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline down the drain (or rather out into the atmosphere) while waiting 4.2 billion hours for the last drop to trickle out. What a catastrophic loss of efficiency?

I've been ruminating lately on traffic pricing mechanisms. How can we assure that commuters pay the real price for their road use? And, secondly, how can we be sure that they are paying this price willingly? To know this there must be viable alternatives in place. The report,

"An extension of [road pricing] would treat transportation services like most other aspects of society. There would be a direct charge for using more important system elements. Price is used to regulate the use and demand patterns of telephones, movie seats, electricity, food and many other elements of the economy."

Raising gasoline tax would be helpful but a little clunky, not fine-tuned to the time and place of the usage. Tolls are pretty inefficient in their own right. Several European nations have been toying with GPS monitoring systems, at first in commercial vehicles. Although, recently this proposal has been dramatically unpopular in the U.K., with many suggesting possible privacy violations.

The Texas Transportation Institute doesn't suggest this option at all. It's likely far to intrusive for the American public. But perhaps driving to work is as much a public act as taking the subway, which can be easily monitored and priced accordingly. Certainly the action of driving has a substantial impact on the public realm, as this report clearly indicates. The privacy of a self-enclosed and air-conditioned compartment is really only an illusion.

update: ok. Here's a rationale for road pricing from an actual economist. A better explanation than my fumbling attempt.


J.W. said...

Thanks for posting the link to the report. I will be reading this, especially in light of the fact that i live in central texas, one of the areas where the impact is greatest. Something crazy, like 70 more cars, are added to TX interstates every single day. There is a major cost to be paid on multiple levels for this extravagance.

TX also consistently ranks among the states with the largest populations and worst public transportation systems in the nation. Something must be done.

J.W. said...

here's a start:

Daniel Nairn said...

It looks like Austin is working hard at resolving this problem. I've heard that several communities have been vamping up their light rail systems. Some folks are actually even talking about a light rail way up here in Montana, but I think it's still a long ways from realization.