We’re used to seeing bizarre patterns of thinking on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, but an op-ed in Friday’s Journal took it to a new level: “How Traffic Jams Help the Environment.”
Still more bizarrely, the author was New Yorker writer David Owen, promoter of the commonsensical idea that urban density is energy-efficient, hence big cities are green.
For some reason Owen has taken a dislike to congestion
pricing, and it has led him to construct an elaborate Rube Goldberg argument to
prove that congestion pricing leads to more driving:
If reducing [congestion] merely makes life easier for those who drive, then the improved traffic flow can actually increase the
environmental damage done by cars, by raising overall traffic volume, encouraging sprawl and long car commutes.
What a lovely paradox … and how ridiculous, as Owen could
have discovered by giving London’s congestion pricing experience (or
Stockholm’s or Singapore’s) more than a cursory glance.
As any student of urban traffic now knows, London’s cordon
pricing scheme cut traffic within the charging zone an average of 15 percent, raised
travel speeds 30 percent, and greatly expanded bus ridership and cycle commuting —
with little increase in traffic outside the zone or other negative effects. Nearly
seven years on, the reasons are fairly obvious:
- Raising the
price to drive into the center of London made car commuting less
- The gain in
driving speeds attracted some new trips but not so many as to cancel the
- Bus transit
benefited from a virtuous cycle in which improved speeds attracted
riders, further reducing traffic and also financing service improvements
which attracted still more riders, further reducing traffic, etc.
- Ditto for
cycling, though here the synergy was via safety in numbers.
All this was intuited back in the day by Transport for
staff, including Jay Walder, who has subsequently become the new MTA chief. The
only uncertainty was the extent to which new car trips attracted by the time
savings would undercut the reduction in trips from the congestion charge.
As it happened, some “induced traffic,” as Owen might have
termed it, did materialize, but at far less than the one-for-one rate he assumed in his
article. Without it, the drop in traffic might have been 20 percent or more. But the
actual equilibrium, a settled 15 percent reduction in cordon traffic, was robust
enough to achieve the desired results: faster travel by every mode, greater use
of transit, and less VMT (vehicle miles traveled). Congestion pricing is indeed
To trace Owen’s error, look no further than his hypothesis:
“If reducing [congestion] merely
makes life easier for those who drive …”
Emphasis added; the “merely” is quite important. When the
reduction in traffic is caused by a congestion charge, life is not just easier
for those who continue driving but more costly as well. Yes, there’s a seesaw between
price effects and time effects, but setting the congestion price at the right
point will rebalance the system toward less driving, without harming the city’s
What’s that right price point, then? It’s not quite rocket
science to figure it out, though it does take some thinking (not to mention
continual tinkering if exogenous reductions in road capacity erode the original
congestion benefits, as TfL reported recently). It’s a subject
while now, and if you would like to do some thinking about it too, start with
our Balanced Transportation Analyzer and contact us with questions or
criticisms (email: kea AT igc.org).
In his piece, Owen linked former Londoner and current MTA
honcho Walder with the idea of congestion pricing. One can’t help wondering
whether he or the Journal intended it as a pre-emptive strike against a possible
renewed push for congestion pricing in
Whatever the motivation, it’s disappointing to see a writer who has rightly
urged Americans to “live closer” peddling the defeatist — and false — notion
that the price of urban virtue is eternal gridlock.