Schaller: Road Pricing Won’t Fly Without Driver Support

BQETrafficJam.jpgRoad pricing won’t ease this BQE traffic jam unless drivers want it to, says Bruce Schaller. Image: photoAtlas via Flickr.

Road pricing isn’t going to happen unless drivers want it to, writes Bruce Schaller, one of the architects of New York’s congestion pricing push. That’s the central conclusion of a new paper Schaller penned for the journal Transport Policy [PDF]. 

Schaller argues that the high-profile debate over congestion pricing in 2007 and 2008 helped forge a consensus in support of sustainable transportation, even if no such consensus exists around road pricing. He also writes that New York’s experience showed that it’s easier to sell congestion pricing when it is "embedded in goals related to climate change and the city’s growth" as compared to narrower transportation-related goals. 

Overall, however, Schaller concludes that New York’s failure to pass congestion pricing is indicative of the overwhelming political obstacles to pricing roads in the face of driver opposition. "Congestion pricing can be thwarted by a relatively small group of people," he writes, "particularly when it requires approval from several legislative bodies."

The five percent of New York City workers who would have paid the congestion fee were able to block its implementation despite the support of four of the five relevant government bodies: the City Council, the mayor, the State Senate, and the governor. The measure ultimately met its demise in the State Assembly. In comparison, the mayor of London was able to implement congestion pricing without any legislative approval at all. 

Schaller links the outcome of New York City’s congestion pricing saga to the prevalence of veto points and preference for the status quo endemic to the American political system: 

The out-sized power of negatively affected groups to block a proposal is not new to road pricing. Because neighborhood residents have been able to stop large-scale highway, transit and airport projects, major transportation projects since the 1970s have been subject to a ‘do no harm’ constraint.  Proponents of such projects have had to plan them to ‘be sited, designed and mitigated so as to leave no victims in their wake.’ (Altshuler and Luberoff, 2003, p. 228)  Drivers in New York City who would have had to pay as much as $2,000 annually in congestion fees showed a similar power to prevent adoption.

Schaller goes on to note that most successful attempts to price roads in America leave drivers the option of taking a free ride. Whether by pricing only a few HOT lanes or building new toll roads entirely, American road pricing exists where it doesn’t draw drivers’ fury. "Schemes that require all drivers to pay," he writes, "will need to convince drivers that they will benefit from the scheme… But the case for driver benefits is not an easy one to make." Road pricing does make the drivers who pay it worse off, argues Schaller, at least until the revenues are spent.

In the end, Schaller sees some sort of broad-based VMT tax replacing the gas tax. Once drivers are already paying per mile, he writes, adding a congestion surcharge might be more politically feasible. That day might not come for several years, so one implicit conclusion of the report is that road pricing won’t likely be enacted as a consequence of New York’s immediate transit funding crisis.

Schaller is currently NYCDOT’s Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability, but the opinions in the paper are his own. Read tea leaves at your own risk.

  • Bolwerk

    This meshes well with my thinking that we just need to push for more local autonomy, at least for larger cities, before we’re going to have serious transportation reform in New York City. The only power available to anyone right now is usually obstruction, and that has got to stop.

    I realize there are statewide priorities, but I have a hard time seeing how an entity that represents Buffalo should be micromanaging NYC the way the Legislature does. The relevant parties who should be involved for things like congestion charges are the mayor, city council, and the city’s voters – not Albany, Buffalo, Nassau, and Westchester.

  • I reviewed a draft of Bruce’s paper last year at the request of the editor of Transport Policy, and I fully endorsed it as cogent, lucid and extremely well-written. I learned a lot from reading it and I recommend it highly. Let’s bear in mind, however, that the “client” that Bruce, as DOT Deputy Commissioner, had to defend — the Bloomberg congestion pricing proposal — while highly laudable as a first effort, was weighted down by some pretty heavy-duty flaws, such as:

    * Marked “borough inequity,” with Manhattan residents reaping more of the benefit of reduced traffic while Brooklyn and Queens residents paid more of the tolls;
    * Fitful correspondence between trips’ toll costs and their congestion causation, due to the one-size-fits-all $8 toll;
    * Free pass for medallion taxi passengers and “black car” customers, even though both groups are above-average affluent;
    * Disappointingly small improvements in traffic speeds, even though reduced congestion was, supposedly, the rationale;
    * Absence of convincing demonstration that the toll revenues would be invested efficiently to improve transit performance;
    * Over-reliance on climate and air quality benefits to sell the proposal, given that those gains could only be modest, at best.

    Building on the mayor’s pathbreaking effort, to which Bruce and others at DOT contributed mightily, it’s possible to envision a bolder plan that corrects these flaws without introducing new ones. For a paper outlining such a plan, please click here [pdf].

  • SJB

    “Road pricing does make the drivers who pay it worse off”

    I disagree. They call it “congestion pricing” for a reason. London didn’t just pocket a huge sum of money, they also saw marked increases in average travel speeds and huge reductions in congestion-related delay for those that chose to continue driving into the core of the city.

    For those willing to pay the congestion charge, their reward is better travel times and reduced delay. Not to mention probably having an easier time finding parking when they arrive at their destination.

    Pricing is a market correction. It is win-win for all parties, not just straphangers.

  • Transit Fare Hikes, Service Cuts Won’t Fly Without Rider Apathy

  • Andy

    I’m a driver, and I fully support congestion pricing. The era of driving personal vehicles to get a few miles away is going to meet it’s demise eventually. We might as well embrace livable communities that support walking, biking, and taking transit instead of packing our cities with cars and parking lots.

  • JK

    There seems to be a fixed belief that transportation issues are somehow subject to a different political calculus than other issues. That’s not how it is seen in Albany. Perhaps this is why Streetblog readers and other transportation analysts constantly generate theories that have little bearing on reality. You can’t talk about NYC congestion pricing in the abstract. Congestion pricing and PlaNYC came immediately after the failed Olympic’s 2012 campaign, and were pitched by the same person, Dep Mayor Dan Doctoroff. The centerpiece of 2012 was a new West Side Stadium, which Doctoroff pitched to the same legislators he pitched pricing. As presented as part of PlaNYC, the revenue from congestion pricing was slated to go to a giant mayoral controlled slush fund.

    Despite this, congestion pricing passed the 51 member New York City Council — which has only ten members from Manhattan. Schaller is certainly right about the many structural obstacles to pricing anywhere. But using NYC as an object lesson for why congestion pricing can or can’t win political approval elsewhere is problematic. The post-Olympic political timing of Bloomberg’s pricing bid could not have been worse.

  • The numbers in the Kheel Plan are fantasy. The notion that you’ll quadruple revenue by doubling the toll runs afoul of just about any sensible way of thinking.

    Just because someone with money puts out a plan doesn’t make it good or even worth discussing. Exxon and GM pay a lot of money to produce all those silly anti-transit position papers at Reason and Cato. My rule about almost anything involving public advocacy is that if it wasn’t good enough to pass peer review, it isn’t good enough for me to take it seriously.

  • Peter Smith

    Road pricing does make the drivers who pay it worse off, argues Schaller, at least until the revenues are spent.

    ok — i thought about this all night long (either that, or for just a split second, because common sense tends to work like that for me) and i am unable to figure out how reduced commute times for ‘drivers who pay it’ makes those drivers ‘worse off’ — ‘at least until the revenues are spent.’?

    how the revenues are spent has nothing to do with the immediate/day-of benefit(s) that ‘drivers who pay’ will experience.

    at a minimum, it would seem we’d have to admit those drivers got at least some ‘awesome’ for their money, which would make it a mixed bag, and possibly something that drivers might or might not want to pay for — thus, the HOT lanes argument, but they would certainly be the recipients of some benefit(s).

    that said, drivers are not necessary for this campaign to work. decongestion pricing is inevitable — it’s just a matter of when it happens, at this point, and whether it will be priced appropriately.

    and the decongestion pricing is just one aspect — we need to start charging drivers for the damage they do to the city and its residents every time they drive in. drivers need to get used to the idea that there is a significant fee for using this ginormous ATM we call New York City/Manhattan. i like the idea of a $5 Quality of Life tax for each car trip into the city. Regular toll + Decongestion fee + Quality of Life fee == a better, happier, healthier NYC.

    back when congestion talk came to SF, I wanted to see commercial comparing our roads and bridges coming into and leaving San Francisco to a set of congested lungs, then the inhaler — the decongestion pricing is used — and the lungs clear up (traffic is then shown zooming along). the benefit can’t get much more crystal clear than that.

    then, when we start the campaign for the Quality of Life tax, we start banging on the public health issue — we enlist the help of the american lung association and record some promo videos of children not being able to breath because some rich jerk has to drive his rich self to work, etc.

    that said, i don’t understand how well HOT lanes work. last video i saw, it looked like drivers would rather sit in 2 hours of traffic rather than pay a couple of bucks.

    i would like to see a pro-livable streets drivers advocacy group. i’d start it myself, but i’m not driving at all at the moment. maybe i don’t need to be? we’ll see.

    the self-described ‘pro-drivers’ contingent is like the ‘pro-Israel’ contingent in American politics — doing everything they can to oppress the Palestinians (walkers/bikers/etc.) because they think it makes sense for some reason, but the exact opposite is true. they’ll be forced to reckon with reality eventually, it’s just a matter of time, and how much everyone suffers between now and then. unfortunately, sometimes things have to get really bad before people are forced to re-evaluate their positions.

  • lic res

    as a western queens resident i’ve owned a car and struggled with the decision of whether to get rid of it for 2 – 3 years now. If there was a toll on the queensboro the decision would be that much simpler. Perhaps if enough people like myself got rid of our cars and used transit on nights and weekends the critical mass needed to offer more frequent service would be reached…making it more convenient to use transit for other car owners still on the fence. The tide would turn for many outerboro residents who think they need a car because the infrequent transit offerings on nights and weekends make it more convenient to drive…

  • Congestion charging has made cycling in London so much better – cleaner air and less traffic; definitely a win-win.

  • @ Alon Levy: “The numbers in the Kheel Plan are fantasy. The notion that you’ll quadruple revenue by doubling the toll runs afoul of just about any sensible way of thinking.”

    If you’re referring to the $16 flat toll in the original (Jan. 2008) Kheel Plan (which was double Bloomberg’s $8), please note that our toll would have been in effect every hour of the year (8,760) vs. Bloomberg’s 8 hours on weekdays (2,000). Plus, our plan had no “netback” for current tolls on tunnels. And we had a medallion taxi surcharge.

    That’s not our current plan, though. We’ve moved on to a much smarter toll, that varies from $9 to $2 depending on time of day and day of week the car is driven into the CBD. Counting the taxi surcharge, we project it to gross $1,740 million a year. Every assumption and algorithm is in the spreadsheet model referenced in the report I linked to in my earlier comment. If you have a disagreement with anything there, please specify.

  • Yes, I have a disagreement with the rigor of your spreadsheet model. I’m going to ask you the questions I’d ask any Reason fellow: if the model is good enough to pass peer-review, why is it not published in a reputable journal? And if it’s not, why should I take it seriously?

    The “double the toll for double the hours” argument is wrong. Most traffic into Manhattan is peak hour on weekdays. So is the taxi issue: taxis would just change their behavior to roam only inside the congestion charge zone. And the netback for the busiest tolled crossings would still be there, as New York City has no authority to toll the Hudson crossings.

    $2 at night, when there’s no congestion, is just raising money for the sake of raising money. You need to decide whether CP is a way of reducing congestion or placing a random tax on driving.

  • J:Lai

    Road pricing makes the MARGINAL driver worse off, not all drivers.

    For those who have relatively little sensitivity to the new toll, it makes them better off it terms of reduced traffic and faster travel times. This would include people whose time is valuable, and people people who have no other viable option (eg. delivery trucks and vans.)

    For those who are currently at or near the margin, it would make them worse off as they would either have to absorb a big expense (which is not offset by the value of time savings) or switch to a less convenient mode of transportation.

  • Road pricing at times when there’s no congestion makes all drivers worse off. Remember: we’re not discussing congestion pricing or bridge tolls, which are a good if controversial idea, but the Kheel plan, which as far as I can tell is based on Reason grade research.


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