Why You'll Love Paying for Roads That Used to Be Free, Part Two


Eric A. Morris is a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies, concentrating on a variety of transportation issues including history, economics, and management. Earlier this week, he wrote the first half of a provocative essay on road tolls. Here is the second half.

Why You’ll Love Paying for Roads That Used to Be Free, Part Two
By Eric A. Morris
A Guest Post

In my prior post, I blogged about introducing variable tolls on America’s highways. The basic idea: fight congestion by imposing tolls that vary in response to traffic levels. When roads are too crowded, hike up the tolls, keep some drivers out, and thus keep traffic free flowing at all times.

This idea is getting a lot of traction with opinion-makers and transportation officials, but a skeptical public has yet to be convinced. There is good reason for this; several perfectly valid arguments can be raised against tolling.

Is it fair that government will be charging for roads that motorists have already paid for through the gas tax? Won’t this policy benefit the wealthy, who can easily afford the tolls, and punish the poor? And what will happen to the drivers who avoid the tolled facilities? Won’t conditions in the lanes that remain free degenerate, as refugees from the tolled lanes pour in?

These are good questions, but toll advocates have equally good answers. Believe it or not, converting some of the lanes on a congested freeway to toll lanes should benefit everyone, even the people who choose to never use the tolled lanes.

The reason has to do with the curious mechanics of traffic congestion. When few cars are using a road, speeds are high, but the light volume means few cars get through. Add more cars and eventually speeds start to slow, but the increase in volume means that throughput rises. When a road is just crowded enough so that speeds are around 45 m.p.h., the most cars are pumped through the system.

But add even more cars and trouble starts. Speeds break down, taking throughput down with them. When roads are severely congested, you get a paradoxical situation: the more cars you jam in at one end, the fewer come out the other end.

By pricing to keep traffic speeds at 45 m.p.h. or a bit higher, the toll lanes will work with maximum efficiency. They’ll move a lot more cars through than they did when they were congested. During the peak periods on SR 91, the toll lanes handle 40 percent of the traffic despite the fact that they constitute only one-third of the road surface. So the toll lanes will actually ease the burden on the free lanes, hence the benefit even to those who never choose to pay.

What about the argument that only the rich will be able to afford these new “Lexus lanes”? Ed Sullivan of the California Polytechnic State University has extensively studied the express lanes on California’s SR 91, America’s first variable toll facility.

He finds the equity issue isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it may seem. Those with higher incomes and education do use the toll facility more than others — but not that much more. Many low-income people use the facility frequently; you don’t have to be rich for your time to be valuable. Moreover, many wealthy drivers do not use the facility at all. In all, Sullivan feels the “Lexus lanes” argument is largely a red herring.

Interestingly, the most important factor in predicting who will use toll lanes is not class, but gender. Women use the SR 91 tolled lanes 10 percent more than men do. This is probably due to the fact that women’s travel patterns are more complicated than men’s, and that even in this enlightened era, women undertake a disproportionate number of the household-serving trips. Since women have a more difficult time balancing home and work responsibilities, they are more likely to take advantage of the time savings. In a weird way, tolling may strike a blow for gender equality too.

Still, isn’t this just an excuse for government to get its hands on even more of your precious dollars? Uh, well, O.K., you got me on that one. Let’s not pretend government is jumping on this bandwagon due to fear of the political might of the transportation economist lobby. Although transportation officials are certainly cognizant of the many benefits tolling will bring, fundamentally this issue is getting political traction (six states have operational pilot programs) because the revenue is desperately needed.

Transportation agencies at all levels of government are in a serious financial bind. Thanks to the waning purchasing power of the fuel taxes (again, see this), they are facing unfunded maintenance backlogs, and fancy new projects seem like pipe dreams. Tolls are a very promising source of new revenue.

But is this a bad thing? Our transportation system is in trouble and tolls are a fair way of raising the revenue to maintain it. Shouldn’t users of the transportation system bear the burden of its upkeep?

Even better, paying government to use the roads would get us something for nothing. When you pay a toll, the money is transferred from one party (you) to another (the government). Granted, it is annoying to be the one doing the paying, but at least the money goes to a (presumably) good cause, such as an improved transportation system.

But when you sit stuck in traffic, your time is wasted and no one is benefiting. Better to transfer money from one pocket to another than to let all that time go up in smoke.

And there are other benefits. Since travelers will want to split the cost of the tolls, they’ll have an incentive to rideshare. And new possibilities will open up for transit, since buses that use the tolled lanes will now be able to provide high-speed express services, even on the most congested routes.

O.K., O.K., congestion pricing won’t cure the common cold or bring peace to the Middle East; but it’s rare that a public policy can produce so many winners with relatively small costs.

Selling variable tolling to the voters will be an uphill struggle, particularly when it comes to adding tolls to previously free lanes. There is considerable skepticism about this policy. But there is hope.

The early projects show that motorists initially have doubts, but they become enthusiastic converts when they see and use the facilities. According to the last survey, over 70 percent of SR 91 express-lane users — and even over half of the nonusers — approve of the use of variable tolls. My guess is that someday you will too. Here’s hoping it will cost you $6 to drive home in the near future.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. Mike says:

    Wait… presumably right now, 33% of the cars travel on 33% of the road space. So if your argument is that with 40% in the Lexus Lane, which is still 33% of the road, there’s more room in the free lanes, you’re correct. But why are people paying to be in the toll lanes, if it’s now even more crowded than the lanes were before the tolls began?

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  2. Karl says:

    I love these abstract discussions of adding tolls to highways that have been previously been toll-free.

    But has anyone actually tried to discuss this with people who know about road design? It’s one thing to design a road with tolls in mind. It’s quite another to add tolls to a road that was not designed with tolls in mind. The latter type of road typically has *far* more frequent opportunities for going an an alternate non-toll route than the toll road.

    I think, for example, of the rather breezy thoughts in the Boston area of adding tolls to I-93. If it were done close to Boston, however, the very design of the road network with I-93 would deeply frustrate the goal.

    For all their apparent realism, these discussions of congestion pricing seem very airy when it comes to fitting them with the actual design of road networks.

    This airiness indicates to me that the idea has yet to be taken seriously. When someone finally deals with the gritty issues of road network design, that might be a sign of seriousness.

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  3. Bobby G says:

    As a member of the skeptical public, I also am yet to be convinced.

    Encouraging rideshare is the only solution proposed that reduces the actual count of vehicles that need to get from point A to point B, and most likely it will be a weak effect. If at a free level there are already too many cars to hit optimal speeds, creating a price should remove cars, right? Sure. But those are people that will not be using that method to get where they’re going. One cannot say that the burden will be lessened on both the toll lanes and the free lanes without either reducing the DEMAND for cars to get to work every day or shifting traffic to surface streets, which seems to me to be an inevitable consequence.

    Likely you’ve also thought of this problem, but I haven’t seen a response I like yet (yes I’m picky): what happens to people who want to use the highway multiple times per day? Now they will be punished… again encouraging surface street usage over a larger distance? Will the price be so low during non rush hour that people will not care? One-purchase per day won’t work… some people might camp early-morning light times to lock in their cheaper price for the day… granted this might be corrected by prices increasing as more people start to camp, but now it seems like an unintended, non-equilibrium effect of the program.

    Not that I’m necessarily a fan of giving our government more money, I still assert that traffic is not a market inefficiency in and of itself… it’s an externality to a successful and popular gasoline market. Reducing traffic and gasoline consumption would both be positive effects of an increase in the gas tax… and even if levels of both didn’t improve, the government would make more money.

    I know personally I would prefer paying a gas tax more than paying tolls on a freeway, even if I ended up paying twice as much annually. The incentives are more solid with the gas tax I think, it’s much more difficult to subvert, and the less effective it is at accomplishing its goals (of less consumption and less traffic), the more money would be made for the government.

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  4. brazzy says:

    Mike, the point is that the “curious mechanics of traffic congestion” mean that you can NOT equate throughput with road space. The point of variable tolls is to use the toll price to restrict the number of cars on the toll lanes to the one that allows maximum throughput, i.e. somewhat below the “crowded” level. Ideally, the toll lanes have free-flowing traffic and can manage far more throughput on the same space than the non-toll lanes. Actually, if you applied the same restrictions to the entire road, it would allow more cars to pass then when it’s congested – you’d get to you destination quicker if you had to sit still at the entrance to the road until it’s your turn to enter at the maximum-throughput traffic level, instead of trying to get on as quickly as possible and spending most of the time on the road moving at snail’s pace.

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  5. David Heigham says:

    There ain’t no such thing as a free freeway. We drivers and citizens pay one way or another for their maintenance and improvement. The options are tolls where people who want the extra convenience pay; gasoline, etc., taxes where all drivers pay; or other taxes where all citizens, drivers or not, pay.

    Tolls are something that I don’t like; even the modern ones which avoid having to stop at toll booths. I don’t like them even when they are voluntary, and I choose to pay for the convenience. But they are better than the alternatives.

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  6. Alistair says:

    @Karl: Let’s take I-93 as an example. So far as I understand, the main proposal was for a barrier toll at the NH line. That would (of course) lead to extra traffic on Route 28, but it’s not such an awful idea and it’s separate.

    But if you were going to create a ‘Lexus lane’ on 93 north of town between 128 (I-95 to outsiders) and the Big Dig, that’s not so ridiculous. Make it a ‘high-speed lane to Boston only’ inbound and a ‘high-speed lane to Woburn only’ outbound (no intermediate exits), take over the HOV lane where it exists and the passing lane where it doesn’t, maybe create an underpass northbound so that traffic coming off the Sumner can access it, make it Fast Lane/EZ-Pass only, and sort out the north end in conjunction with the rebuilding of that awful cloverleaf. It can be a reasonably inexpensive add-on to the cloverleaf work.

    Nobody’s saying it costs nothing (although, say, on I-84 in East Hartford it _would_ cost close to nothing to convert the HOV lane) but the cost is worthwhile.

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  7. Seannibal says:

    it’s my understanding that politically, every time a retrofit from non-toll road into toll road comes about, the appearance of unfairness in the public’s eyes has caused enough of an outcry to cause them to be closed down immediately. Not enough political backbone to make them work.

    Also, there are the public-private toll partnerships mentioned occasionally, where the toll money goes NOT into a ‘transportation improvement’ general fund, but instead into the pockets of the developers. Those last just seem skeezy to me.

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  8. Karl says:


    The current discussion is about the NH border so that it is politically less costly, and with fewer environmental impact issues. But past discussions have discussed placing toll booths in the Somerville/Medford stretch. Won’t work due to the road network there.

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  9. James A says:

    “Even better, paying government to use the roads would get us something for nothing. When you pay a toll, the money is transferred from one party (you) to another (the government). Granted, it is annoying to be the one doing the paying, but at least the money goes to a (presumably) good cause, such as an improved transportation system.”

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Something for nothing? And from the government no less? It’s amazing how one paragraph can destroy any credibility you had in this writeup. All should know that the gov’t is one of the most inefficient users of capital the world has ever seen. Once they get a taste of new tax revenue, it won’t be just used for roads. It will then be used to plug “revenue gaps” in the general fund or be “diverted” to other “essential” needs. Anyone heard of the Educational Lottery? How much is going for education and how much is plugging gaps in other funds? The idea you propose is interesting, but to put gov’t in such grandeur is an insult to intelligence.

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  10. Ed Kay says:

    And don’t forget the safety issue. For years the State of Illinois brazenly proclaimed that its toll roads were built to be safer than its free roads. Here’s the ditty broadcast endlessly on the radio, sung to chorus of Loch Lomond:

    You’ll take the highway and I’ll take the tollway,
    and I’ll get there safely before you.

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  11. Corban says:

    Road design is an optimality problem.

    This article is merely a persuasion piece to encourage people to even bother with the problem.

    Thus, I think appealing to the road design issues at this point doesn’t discredit the idea. It is a matter of theoretical vs. practical concerns.

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  12. Olivia says:

    I echo Karl’s sentiments – I think that tolled lanes are obviously better suited to particular roads simply because of the design and amount of space available. The amount of capital that would have to be thrown into making certain roads toll-ready, though a long-term investment, is probably staggering enough for the project to be pushed aside for quite some time, at least in Ohio. But I can think of roads like OH-315 as it passes through the city, and even I-270 in Columbus that might be suited.

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  13. gtp says:

    wouldn’t the use of variable tolls require new roads /lanes to put them on? And wouldn’t the additional roads / lanes decrease congestion? You can’t retrofit all lanes with tolls because you would still have capacity issues where suface roads are not an option.

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  14. Erin says:

    In response to Mike, I think the idea is that if you were to drive those lanes today without the congestion pricing, the amount of traffic the lanes experience is variable. So, while the average load in the lane may be 33%, with so many more cars the actual travel time may vary considerably depending on what time of day it is. The congestion pricing would allow for users to be assured that they will always be allowed to travel at a minimum speed of 45 miles per hour, which isn’t something they get normally. I think that’s what they would be paying for.

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  15. jblog says:

    It’s not so much a question of adding tolls, in some cases, but varying them based on traffic conditions.

    In Stockholm they’re seeing success in reducing both traffic congestion and emissions through a congestion-charging system.


    Such a system may not be “fair” to everyone, but it is not inordinately unfair.

    Full disclosure: I work for the company that helped implement this system.

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  16. Jeff says:

    I understand congestion control but beleive we need to seperate the cost component from the argument. We already have transporation tax dollars being spent on non-transportation projects so advocating yet another tax is a long row to hoe.

    Lets assume the argument is true that restricting traffic entering into a freeway to hold average speeds at 45MPH or above actually INCREASES throughput. If that is the case then lets just do it with timed and gated on-ramps. Everyone gets the same hypothetical benefit without added taxes. I’m also assuming these gates are cheaper than building a new road…

    The authors argument also assumes all of the current toll information is available to the travelinng public the instant the routing decision is made. More reason for public resistance… a constantly changing toll cost that will change in a way that will be perceived as arbitrary.

    Now, what I’d love to hear are opinions on what the actual unintended consequences of interstate congestion pricing will be :-)

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  17. Mike B says:

    Once again I have to ask why are you putting so much effort arguing for HOT lanes. I don’t know any of reasonable party that is seriously against the use of HOT lanes. Even HOV -2 lanes are underutilized, increasing highway costs are big with the green lobby, are preferred over increasing gas taxes by the conservative lobby and by targeting those with disposable income it is popular with the liberal lobby.

    You seem to be picking a fight with uninformed BANANAs, which is a fight that’s not worth having. Even Pennsylvania is likely to slap toll booths on the currently free I-80 over its entire length, so point of view has already prevailed.

    I believe the problem that people have isn’t with tolls (or even variable tolls) on premium travel routes (State turnpikes when built were basically nothing but large “Lexus highways”), but the wide area congestion charging zones sticks a nip down to the grocery store with a $10 “convenience charge”. Not only do the overhead costs of such systems virtually wipe out the profits, they remove even the option for those with low opportunity costs to pay with time rather than cash.

    As an effective “road monopoly” the state must regulate itself to provide consumers with a range of driving options, some premium, some basic, and allow for a range of payment options in terms of cash and time. Geographic mobility is a basic necessity that when made unavailable traps people in disadvantaged circumstances.

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  18. Jesse says:

    The systems design on this one intrigues me.

    1) How to efficiently inform drivers of current toll rates and travel delays, as well as alternative routes available. Optimal route choices depend on knowing this before you arrive at a tollbooth.

    2) Construction and transactions costs. Modifying roadways and building tollbooths is expensive – when will the project pay for itself? What new costs are introduced to driving? (e.g. time through tolls, exact change or ez-pass devices, distraction of selecting efficient route)

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  19. Hume says:

    All roads should be private. Tolls, although the inevitable outcome of a free society, will not help the immoral and inefficient “public” highway system. Anyone with experience dealing in government highway contracting understands the reality of the situation.

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  20. CR says:

    There is something a little disheartening about the idea of erecting gates and concrete barriers in the middle of an interstate as a way of increasing the flow of traffic.

    I find the entire concept of toll roads to be misguided. Toll roads put a barrier on various forms of commerce, not just in the cost of the toll, but in the collection of the toll which often costs businesses more lost revenue than the cost of the toll itself. In other words, the cost of _paying_ the toll is actually, in terms of opportunity costs, more than the cost of the toll. This lost revenue also represents a loss of tax revenue.

    We increasingly have the means of making real time traffic monitoring data available to drivers. As this technology matures and becomes mass market, I believe that many of the traffic problems that we have will be able to self-correct much quicker as people’s route changes dynamically in response to congestion and accidents.

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  21. PaulK says:

    One of the problems with toll lanes is that you really need to limit the number of places you can enter and exit them, else they are slowed by cars entering from the non-toll lanes and slowed by people exiting to the non-toll lanes (which are likely slower). Minimizing entry/exit then limits their value and utility outside of rush hour, since more traffic will be short hop. This limitation of entry/exit increases the retrofit cost as well of course (barriers).
    If this model of fixing the speed works so well, then the red/green lights at freeway entrances should work better than they do. Three bigger problems causing the accordion effect are people merging in and out of roadway (and moving across lanes), lanes being added and removed (poor road design, usually from upgrades to add more lanes), and big trucks which have a very poor acceleration capability (so amplifying the effects of local slowing). Your toll roads do not address any of these, and likely make them worse (people trying to get over to/from the tool road have to cross the other lanes).
    I also did not see any explanation of how you stop more people using the local side roads (residential, towns, etc).

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  22. David Brent says:

    So no more free love on the free love freeway?

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  23. Kirilius says:

    Two comments from me:

    1) I think the goal is not to remove congestion on SOME roads but to help people get home or to work faster. Here in Toronto some of the highways get pretty busy during the rush hour (for that reason the DVP – Don Valley Parkway is often referred to as Don Valley Parking lot). But this does not mean that the small streets are empty at the same time. On the contrary – small streets are equally congested during rush hour and it is even slower go take an alternate route (believe me, I have seen that). So if congestion fee is charged at the peak hours this will drive some cars off the highway to the small streets, WHICH ARE ALREADY CONGESTED 😉
    The final result will be: a few (generally) wealthier drivers going home faster and many others going home slower.

    2) A comment to your previous post and the example given about how scarce goods were distributed in the former Soviet Union: suppose you have a good that has a very limited supply on the market, let’s say 1000 items produced only. Suppose that the demand is high – more than 1000 people want to have it. Now in Soviet Union the 1000 people that would get it will be those who are (a) lucky and (b) those who are friends/relatives to the people in charge of distribution. In the US those 1000 people will be the richest 1000 of those who want to have it.
    In each case ONLY 1000 people will get the good. What is different is the profile of those people. In once case those will be people with luck and connections, in the other those will be the people with money.

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  24. Joe D says:

    The best way I know of to reduce congestion is to mandate (through automatic control of brakes) minimum following distances. Try this the next time you’re on a highway where the speed is varying between 5 (or 0) and 45 mph: Accelerate more slowly than the vehicle in front of you, let a significant following distance build up, and don’t brake as soon as the car in front of you does, just coast for a while. This evens out not only your speed, but the speed of the car behind you (hopefully), the car behind that one, etc. It won’t actually get you any farther any faster (you won’t get past the guy ahead of you, and you can’t control his speed), but you will ease the congestion sooner for the cars way behind you.

    Alternatively, build highways that aren’t roller coasters. Here in Tampa, the contractor for I-275 cheaped out, and only elevated the highway over major thoroughfares. So when there’s heavy traffic, every time someone crests an overpass, they see brake lights, and slam theirs on. Then at the bottom of the hill, the pace picks up again. Stupid.

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  25. frankenduf says:

    again, the time is now to build public transportation infrastructure- rather then argue how many tolled cars can dance on the head of a highway, the Obama administration needs to be publicly lobbied to increase infrastructure spending- if we all go into a depression, unemployment will solve the rush hour conundrum

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  26. gospazha says:

    @Bobby G
    “If at a free level there are already too many cars to hit optimal speeds, creating a price should remove cars, right? Sure. But those are people that will not be using that method to get where they’re going.”

    Remember, this is a discussion about CONGESTION pricing. Creating a price that fluctuates with the number of cars on the road removes cars because some drivers will opt to make their trip later when prices are lower (or possibly free). Or they’ll opt to rideshare or take mass transit during peak hours in order to share the higher costs with others in the same vehicle. Rather than a sharp spike in traffic congestion, you’ll see a far more gradual increase and decrease. It’s taking the bell curve and flattening it.

    “…what happens to people who want to use the highway multiple times per day? Now they will be punished…”
    They are not being punished. They’re not being asked to pay $6 every time they make the trip. They’re being asked to make choices regarding the number of trips they make and the times they make them. Not only that, with congestion pricing, the toll would be lower (or even absent) for at least some of those trips, given the times of day and the likelihood they’ll be traveling opposite commuter traffic rather than with it at least part of the time.

    Lastly, your comments about gas taxes being effective are wrong. When a good gets expensive, either through tax increases or price increases, people consume that good less (which accomplishes your reduced consumption goals), but they also pay less taxes, and the programs dependent on those funds suffer. (We’ve seen this with states that use cigarette taxes to directly fund health care services. The programs dependent on those funds are suffering because people opt to smoke less as the taxes increase. It creates an endless cycle in which lawmakers increase the tax, causing lowered consumption, causing decreased revenue from that tax , causing the supported programs again become underfunded, causing then lawmakers to increase the tax…) Governments are testing congestion pricing at least in part because the current method of funding isn’t adequately funding the replacement aging road infrastructure.

    However, I’m not into being charged twice. I’m optimistic on the concept of congestion pricing, but I refuse to pay for both gas taxes AND congestion pricing. Drop the gas taxes for folks who pay congestion pricing, and I’m on board.

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  27. mfw13 says:

    Once again we have a discussion of how to reduce congestion that doesn’t even attempt to address the crucial question of why people drive.

    A significant portion of driving is done to get to and from work, i.e. commuting. Reduce the need for people to commute, and you will also reduce congestion.

    Millions of people in this country are forced to drive to work every day despite the fact that they probably could do their job just as effectively working from home. So one way to reduce congestion is to increase telecommuting.

    Here in Seattle, Microsoft makes thousands of people drive to their campus in Redmond every day who could telecommute just as easily, causing huge rush hour traffic jams that virtually paralyze the Eastside.

    Millions more people who work for companies that have multiple locations (think banks, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, chain retailers, etc.) are forced to drive much further than they need to because their employers various locations do not coordinate with each other and make no effort to employ them at the location nearest to where they live. One of our local Bank of America tellers drives 40 minutes each way to get to our branch, for example, despite the fact that there are two branches within 5 minutes of where she lives.

    Reduce the need for people to drive long distances to and from work, and you will reduce congestion.

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  28. DrNova says:

    Right. That gives us bliss for the rich and agony for the poor, and who’s gonna profit from the Spanish Habsburg Dallas Opus Dei I-35 corridor from Mexico to Montreal? Please, NAME NAMES.

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  29. Kirilius says:

    Another comment: I agree with the post above that says that toll roads have to be build with the toll use in mind. There MUST be a viable alternate route so that the message to the drivers will be “Pay up or go home slowly”. If there is no alternate route, the message will be “Pay up or don’t drive”

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  30. John says:

    One of the interesting things that is only addressed in passing, is the value of “time”. In my personal life, I have decided that my “time” is worth $18/hour (needs to be adjusted to reflect deflation). If I can hire a job done, I will only do so if I believe that the cost will be less than the # of hours it would have taken to do it myself multiplied by $18.

    Using that same logic, if I can save 20 minutes of my time by paying less than $6, I come out ahead on the transaction.

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  31. Andrew says:

    When I moved to San Francisco in 1988, the toll on the state-owned bridges such as the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco with Oakland and is the busiest toll crossing in the world, was 75 cents. Less than twenty years later, it was (and still is) $4.00. How many things that you buy in the private sector have more than quintupled in price in 20 years? Not rent, not gas, certainly not food. The lesson here is that we can’t trust government monopolies not to bleed us dry.

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  32. J Greene says:

    (Thank you gospazha for clearing up one of the questions I intended to ask)

    Will this be as effective as it could be, though?

    Sure, rising tolls will keep nonessential traffic out of the system, but what about the other part of the equation, the employers that require everyone to be at work at the same time and release them at the same time?

    How about, along with the congestion pricing, adding a fee to business owners based on the popularity of their commuting employees’ starting and ending times?

    We can do five-minute increments, with the most popular start times costing the most. To protect the smallest businesses, we can exempt the first two commuting employees from the fees. We can ascertain which business is to be charged when we collect that congestion toll.

    After all, there are all sorts of costs associated with running a business that the actual business owner doesn’t pay, such as roads congested with cars driven by people who all have to be at work at the same time….

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  33. derek says:


    Exactly what I was thinking.

    I commute home through New York City (mostly through the Bronx) every day. There’s a reason everyone flocks to the highway, and this because the local streets take forever. They have lights, plenty of cars, and are often one lane. Even when the local streets are not congested, they can take twice as long a semi-busy highway. That’s why the local streets are the alt route and not just “the way”.

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  34. Jim says:

    Mike at #1: “Wait… presumably right now, 33% of the cars travel on 33% of the road space. So if your argument is that with 40% in the Lexus Lane, which is still 33% of the road, there’s more room in the free lanes, you’re correct. But why are people paying to be in the toll lanes, if it’s now even more crowded than the lanes were before the tolls began?”

    I do not think that is not a good assumption. To accurately make him claim, Eric should look at the percent of traffic who used this road space before and after the tolls were implemented. Perhaps the toll highway is a more direct route, has higher quality road, lacks traffic lights that other options may have, etc.

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  35. anonymous says:

    You still haven’t said a word about what alternatives people should take if they can’t afford the fast lane and the free lane is clogged up. You need to connect the dots: all revenue from the premium lane should go towards mass transit projects. For example, to fund and operate bus rapid transit on the freeway.

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  36. Nick F. says:

    I’m strongly in favor of this policy but I do have one issue with your reasoning on one point:

    “By pricing to keep traffic speeds at 45 m.p.h. or a bit higher, the toll lanes will work with maximum efficiency. They’ll move a lot more cars through than they did when they were congested. During the peak periods on SR 91, the toll lanes handle 40 percent of the traffic despite the fact that they constitute only one-third of the road surface. So the toll lanes will actually ease the burden on the free lanes, hence the benefit even to those who never choose to pay.”

    The real question isn’t whether the toll lanes carry a disproportionate amount of traffic, it’s whether they carry more traffic now then they did before the tolls were enacted. Conduct that analysis and we can properly discuss this point.

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  37. Bobby G says:

    @ gospazha (#26),

    You are misunderstanding the objective of my post.

    Let’s start with your first response. We have rush hour for a reason: the opportunity is already there for people to drive to work earlier or later or live closer as a means to avoid rush hour congestion. A new, adjustable toll that simply reinforces those same incentives will not likely show drastic changes in behavior… behavior has already had time to adjust. Even if the toll is $6 during rush hour, another poster has already said that $6 is about equal to 20 minutes of his time… that should be enough to make him adjust his drive-to-work time already.

    Even if what you proposed actually happened, shifting individual commute times, isn’t that moving away from optimal working hours now? Let me emphasize this basic economic principle again: government action (such as a toll) can only improve market scenarios when the free market has a market failure. Sure you can say that throughput is maximized at 45 mph, but as I said in my comment in the first post of this series, congestion is usually caused by bad driving practices by a minority of drivers. 45 may be the average, but clearly it is not the optimum… after all, the same amount of cars could go 65 mph and would not need to adjust spacing if there was no chance of slowdown due to driving error. The point here is you would change the times people come to work now if you push them to adjust times… instead of people arriving between 8am and 9am, leaving between 4pm and 5pm, the windows would increase to something like 630am to 930am etc. Hurting more markets there.

    My original post was asking for the ultimate objective of this toll system. I assumed it was to reduce congestion. Congestion, however, is not necessarily a market of its own, it is a by-product of gasoline consumption and car use; reductions in those will have waterfall effects on congestion as well, hence the proposal of the gas tax.

    You cite that a gas tax is bad because it reduces gas consumption, yet that is exactly what the objective would be! This would be new money, so as long as politicians don’t promise it to any immortal government social programs, there shouldn’t be a problem (how about paying down national or state debt with it?). It’s win-win: either consumption falls, as per the objective, or it doesn’t, and the state gets to pay off a lot of debt.

    I’m going to have to cut this short, but I still don’t see any pitfalls in my original argument.

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  38. E says:

    I might find congestion pricing or toll roads palatable if I believed that the revenue would be put to good use. I’d be willing to pay to use the LIE if it would pay for better road surfaces so didn’t need to be repaved every five years.

    Of course, I also would like a checklist on my tax form where I specify the areas I would like to see my tax dollars spent. And while I’m wishing, I would also like a pony and a Red Ryder BB gun.

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  39. Ben says:

    Are we at least learning proper road design such that we don’t get into the need for tolls to control traffic in future cities? Presumably, we have made historical mistakes as we’ve grown and therefore need tolls to correct them. It would seem that properly designed, the road system shouldn’t need tolls.

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  40. jeffreytg says:

    The roads have not been free. Tax dollars paid, and still do pay for them. Will my taxes be reduced if tolls are charged?

    This is all a ponzi scheme- just like with the CA lottery- Which was passed by the CA voters with the intent of the funds raised going to schools. But, all the legislature did is reduce general fund dollars for schools so that the net is that schools do not actually receive increased funding over that which they would have received had there not been a lottery.

    The pre-lottery general fund school dollars are then appropriated for some other programs. This is precisely what would occur with toll roads. Once the gov’t has money, it is unlikely to return it.

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  41. whoanellie says:

    Not only is trying to convert a “free”way into a toll road going to be hampered by the initial design of the road, it’s also extremely expensive. I also like the point of a previous post, where the actual cost of collecting the toll has to be high – sending bills or tickets to I-Pass holders, having an actual live person collecting money at the toll, etc.

    Chicago has already sold the Skyway to a private company (Skyway Concession Company is owned by Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte S.A. and Macquarie Infrastructure Group) who in turn has done congestion pricing (for anyone with over 2 axles, mostly semi-trucks) between the hours of 4 a.m. and 8 p.m. no matter what day you’re driving.

    My biggest question about implementing a system of tolls that change depending on congestion is: how is the cost information relayed to the driver? Tollways here are pay-as-you-go, and I have few options if I’m already stuck on the tollway when price suddenly triples. Why should I have to pay more to sit on the road because some idiot caused a 20-car pile up? I’ve always thought that I should pay less when the roads are more congested, because I’m getting an inferior service.

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  42. Matt says:

    Why not just increase the fuel tax? This would solve all the problems the tolls claim to do and would not require any infrustructure costs. We saw that congestion went down and public transit ridership went up with the price of fuel. This tax would create the same situation. This tax can then be used to build better roads (or improve public transit).

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  43. Chris says:

    I would love to see some brainstorming of what some of the potential externalities would be. For instance, would the increased transportation costs ($6 per trip cited) lead to more hybrid or alternative vehicles as motorists looked for ways to offset the cost?

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  44. SP says:

    It my experience the biggest sources of congestion are, in no particular order

    1) Poor road design
    2) Accidents
    3) Toll booths

    Adding tolls to roads would likely have little impact during rush hour because most people are choosing their route out of necessity. At non rush hour times congestion usually isn’t an issue except for the cases above.

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  45. Kimota94 says:

    All this highway traffic talk brings to mind one of my biggest pet peeves: the closing of lanes!

    In my experience, a lane closure almost always follows the same pattern: signs are erected indicating that the lane will close in N miles, after which the lane (almost always) ends as advertised (typically for construction purposes). The warning of the lane closure is often many miles ahead of the actual termination point. So my question/pet peeve is this:

    How do you optimize traffic flow for all through that scenario? To my simple mind, it seems like everyone abandoning the lane-to-be-closed at first sign of it, when traffic is still moving at highway-appropriate speeds (let’s assume this isn’t rush hour and that there isn’t yet any slowdown), is optimal. There’s lots of warning, get out of the lane if you’re in it and don’t go into it from now on.

    But we all know that’s not what happens. Instead, some people get out / stay out of the lane (like me) while others stay in / get into it. And before long, you see the non-closing lanes start to slow, and then eventually grind to a halt. When you get up to the front of the mass of vehicles, you discover that the congestion ends just past the point where the lane closed, and it’s those select individuals who stayed in the closing lane who are now exiting it that are slowing everyone down (in order to let them in).

    So what would happen if no one went into those closing lanes? There were no slowdowns, based on volume, before the lane closure occurred (when there were still N lanes to use), but were there just too many vehicles on the road for N-1 lanes to suffice? Maybe in some cases, but in others I think N-1 lanes was still plenty, except when there’s one specific point at which cars are bailing out of a terminating lane. That mass-merge operation seems to slow everything down to a crawl.

    For those who zipped up in the closing lanes, the trip was shorter than if they’d merged in dutifully earlier (no doubt about it). But I suspect the journey for everyone else was longer as a result.

    If you want a new tax to impose, then, I’d say set up cameras along the closing lanes and fine each car that stays in that lane $100 for every quarter mile that they remain in it! They can still “get there faster” but let them pay for that privilege! Heck, I’d even love to see the revenue from that tax be paid out to the owners of the cars who did the right thing! There’s a great redistribution of wealth for you!

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  46. Eric says:

    I would like to see some discussion in your post on the effect a toll would have on surface streets. Take LA for example, where you can take the 10 or about 7 major roads to get from Santa Monica to downtown: Would a $5 toll force people onto surface streets, thereby causing more overall congestion than you started with?

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  47. AA says:

    The problem with the toll lanes is that the extra revenue provides a disincentive to design good roads in the first place. I can see the government thinking “If we leave off this one extra lane more people will pay the toll to avoid the congestion and we make more money!”

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  48. Patrick says:

    Are freeways anything but “Lexus Lanes?”

    Why should folks like myself, whom make little-to-no use of highways, pay federal fuel taxes? If they are such a viable and necessary component of our society, why not auction them off to be operated as toll-roads and eliminate the fuel tax? The logical conclusion is that they are not.

    The interstate wasn’t plagued with congestion from the get-go, it encouraged land use patterns that brought on the congestion.

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  49. mp says:

    What an insufferable bunch of poseurs you posters are. Half of you didn’t even bother to read the article.

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  50. Steve Elkins says:

    Reading these comments, I’m reminded of the joke about the economist who, when presented with incontrovertable evidence that something worked in practice, is said to have responded by asking, “Yes, but does it work in theory?”

    In this case, we know that variable-toll congestion pricing works in practice from the SR-91 and I-394 experiments in California and Minnesota, respectively. For information about I-394, visit: http://www.mnpass.org/394/index.html
    Just about all of the practical questions that have been posted above are answered here. I-394 was a converted HOV lane.

    I-394 has been such a success that MNDOT is currently in the process of converting an under-utilized HOV lane on I-35W to a variable-toll congestion priced HOT lane using a USDOT Urban Partnership Agreement grant: http://www.dot.state.mn.us/upa/tolling.html

    Let me give another illustration of how this makes everyone better off. Suppose you have a three-lane freeway which operates under stop-and-go conditions at rush hour. Each of the three lanes carries 1,000 cars per hour under these conditions for 3,000 total cars per hour. Now you convert one of the three lanes to a variable-tolled congestion-priced HOT lane which operates at 45 MPH and now carries 2,000 cars per hour. You’re now moving 4,000 cars per hour using the same pavement — more if the other two lanes also flow more freely as a result of the reduced pressure on them. Who is worse off? The folks paying the toll are better off (or they wouldn’t be choosing to pay the toll to move faster). The folks not paying the toll are better off because traffic is less congested in their lanes, as well. This has been the actual practical experience with I-394 in Minneapolis.

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  51. Jos says:

    Tom from ‘How we drive’ found an interesting piece:
    Cognitive Dissonance and Congestion Pricing

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  52. KevinH says:

    Mike, #1

    What your missing is that now there is something like 120% of the traffic there was before on the road as a whole. Imagine we had a three lane road that flowed at 100 cars/min (just for simplicities sake), then one lane would have 33 cars/min. Now we have 120 cars/min and one lane holds 40% of the traffic, or 48 cars/min. The remaining lanes still actually get an increase from 33 cars/min to 36 cars/min, but they are still only moving at 75% of the speed of the toll lanes. People are still paying to go faster in the toll lanes.

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  53. griff says:

    Does congestion management need toll lanes and toll booths?

    London’s congestion charge works on automatic numberplate recognition – you can pay at many places in advance or after if you forget (but pay, or like London’s Mayor you will be paying a fine!)

    A non-charging alternative on London’s orbital M25 motorway uses variable speed limits which traffic monitoring teams can set based on road conditions. Limits are camera enforced.

    Birmingham UK has a variant where they can additionally open the ‘hard shoulder’ (roadside breakdown area? What’s the US term?) to add an extra temporary lane.

    And of course the UK government is trialling technology for national road pricing, with satellite tracking technology. Pay per mile based on congestion/road load.

    I still predict that any and all of these will fail to produce consistently delay free commuter traffic.

    Public transport!!!!

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  54. KevinH says:

    Karl #2

    It doesn’t matter if people take alternate routes, as that still accomplishes the desired goal, lowering congestion on certain roads. Still there is nothing stopping us from simply applying this policy to the most well suited roads first, and seeing how that works, and moving from there. This concern is far from a show stopper

    Bobby G #3

    Noone has ever said you would only pay once per day. Most ideas I have seen would have people pay every time to entered the toll road. That would both prevent people from gaming the system. If people changed the times of day they drove on the roads, this would actually benefit everyone by spreading the demand more efficiently in time. Also, because you pay every time you use the road, people have additional incentives to make as few road trips as possible, providing a economically sound mechanism for reducing overall road demand.

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  55. Camp Freddie says:

    The fact is we already pay a toll for congested roads, but we pay the toll in time rather than money.
    Despite our complaints, we obviously think that the ‘time’ price is worth paying, or else we wouldn’t use the road.

    The toll booths, plate recognition or satellite tracking systems will introduce huge overheads, both for setting them up and maintaining them.

    I’ve yet to see an argument as to why we should be restricted from using roads based on money rather than time. Toll-proponents try to twist themselves in knots to claim it’s not regressive, but it’s a simple fact that they want to replace a progressive ‘time’ tax with a regressive ‘money’ tax.

    I also think the throughput argument is ridiculous. Why not just stick a big red light at the entrance to every freeway, preventing entry when the average speed is <45 mph? That would be much easier (and is actually done on the M1 around J40 in the UK).

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  56. Chris S says:

    “When you pay a toll, the money is transferred from one party (you) to another (the government).”

    Unfortunately, on a toll road, this is never completely true. You have not discussed transaction costs at all. Any time one party pays another, any number of transaction costs come into play. Moreover, the smaller the dollar value of the transaction, the higher the fraction that typically goes to transaction costs.

    Where this will show up is the point where the pure economics fails. Looking at the maximum toll is the wrong end. Congested times are likely to be no more than 25% of the hours in a week, but the tolling system will be in place full time. If I drive the road at 3AM, the toll should be almost zero – let’s say it is 1 cent. However, there is no practical way to charge 1 cent – the infrastructure needed to identify that you are using a toll road, and toll you, and collect the payment means you have to be charged at least 15 cents. (That’s an example – it’s likely going to be more.) If you pay with a payment instrument (a payment card of any kind) then you’ll probably have to add 50 cents just to cover payment infrastructure.

    We see this in Toronto with the 407. Here’s the fee chart. (Notice also that the lowest tolls apply 75% of the week.)


    Notice the large fees needed to cover infrastructure and billing. If I drive the 407 once a month for one kilometre at noon, I will pay a minimum of $2.55 with a transponder, and a minimum of $6.15 without a transponder — even if the price ‘per kilometre’ were reduced to zero. (Note that if I have a transponder, I have to pay every month even if I don’t use the road at all.)

    A huge chunk of the value in toll-less roads is that they can provide a service to people even when the value of the road to them is lower than the tolls can go, either because of infrequent use or off-peak use.

    The aggregation of tax revenue from many taxpayers (from, we hope, a progressive system) retains that progressiveness through the road pricing without sacrificing those gains to transaction losses, something that the toll system can’t really do.

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  57. Steve Elkins says:

    Camp Freddie wrote:

    “I also think the throughput argument is ridiculous. Why not just stick a big red light at the entrance to every freeway, preventing entry when the average speed is <45 mph? That would be much easier (and is actually done on the M1 around J40 in the UK).”

    We also do that quite extensively in the Twin Cities — we call it “Ramp Metering”. We have found that it has its practical limitations: traffic backs up onto local streets behind the ramp meters. Any economist will opine that rationing (e.g., Ramp Meters) is inherently less effective than a direct pricing approach (e.g., Congestion Pricing). That has been our practical experience in Minnesota.

    Incidentally, as part of our “Urban Partnership Agreement” project on I35W, we’ll be importing another idea imported from Britain: we’ll be posting variable speed limits on the non-tolled lanes. When traffic congestion begins to manifest itself in the non-tolled lanes, the speed limit on those lanes will be reduced to 45 MPH.

    The HOT lanes on I35W will also have Bus Rapid Transit Service with a novel design for “online” stations in the I35W median so that the buses don’t have to exit the freeway corridor. The BRT service will be like LRT service with rubber-tired vehicles. We’re taking quite a comprehensive approach to congestion relief in this corridor.

    Again, all of this stuff has already been proven to work in practice and all of the technology already exists and has already been successfully deployed at reasonable cost somewhere in the world. There is no need to speculate about the practicality, effectiveness or equity of these approaches — it all works!

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  58. Michael English says:

    The problem with this idea of converting roads into toll roads is that roads are a pure public good. It is simply more efficient in the long run to charge for the upkeep of roads by taxing everybody than by building toll booths and charging people for it who only use the roads, because (1) you can never perfectly predict when a person needs to use the road (this is true even of people who drive on it, and who may not be aware that they are on a toll road until it is too late to turn off of it) and (2) it is easier to tax via existing income tax methods than by constructing toll lanes.

    The principle argument in favor of toll lanes- that they put the burden of paying on those who benefit- ignores the whole point of a good being a public good- that the actual benefit cannot be reduced to the person using the road. It is the whole community who benefits, and thus the whole community which ought to pay- and the means to do that is by imposing taxes, not tolls.

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  59. JeffC says:

    The reason that congestion pricing is not popular is because the things it accomplishes are not the same as driver desires.

    What it does:
    1. Improve flow by preventing traffic density from going past the critical density.
    2. Give consumers $-based choice in their driving options.
    3. Tax drivers to use roads.

    What drivers want:
    1. Improved flow.

    Provide drivers with knowledge-based choice in their driving options.

    For example, cars could have sensors warning drivers that taking a section of the freeway will be very slow, quantitatively. This has all the benefits of congestion pricing without the rich/poor fairness and increased taxation issues.

    I’m not against taxing people more to drive, since we do have excess traffic. But it’s disingenuous to argue that congestion pricing’s only purpose is to improve traffic flow. It’s improved traffic flow with a tax thrown in.

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  60. Sean Bryan says:

    If they do this everywhere, because everyone read your article, and they realize that toll lanes will reduce congestion on the free lanes as well…won’t everyone just stay in the free lanes in the hope that some other schmuck will take the toll lane to ease the congestion?

    Plus, the class argument is clearly valid. Even if rich and poor alike use the toll lanes with equal frequency, taking $1 from someone making 20k a year is…obviously…a larger fraction of their monthly budget than someone making 100k a year…by a factor of five. Fixed fees are, by definition, a regressive tax. Not even a flat tax, and certainly not progressive.

    For an economist…where’s the common sense?

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  61. Kirilius says:

    We cannot put equation sign between time and money in this case. For some professions and positions it might make sense but for the regular Joe who works from 9 to 5 time is not equal to money before 9 and after 5. Most people will not get paid more if they go to work before 9. In their case the benefit of going to work faster does not translate to increased revenue to make the deal worthy. This is why most people prefer to pay with time rather than with money – because before 9 and after 5 time has less impact on their wallet size.

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  62. David Thalheimer says:

    The basic problem remains. There is a limited supply of road space. While there is some inefficiency in how it is used, by increasing the throughput on some lanes, you will inevitably have to decrease the throughput on the others, assuming that nobody decides not to drive. You have to get drivers off the road to increase overall throughput.

    If you think that people will make driving decisions based on real-time pricing, I think you are mostly wrong. People who work have a schedule to meet every day. They can’t decide to be late simply because the price is currently too high. They either have to suck up the price, find a new job closer to home, or move closer to their job. If they have to get to their job and the cost of getting there increases, either they will have to pay the price or encourage their employer to subsidize it. The cost will eventually be passed on to the consumer of the business that hires the workers that travel on the roads. The end result, I think, will be that people will continue to pay more to travel, but if the government does not use the money to increase the supply of “road space”, it will all be wasted.

    People who don’t have to drive already regulate their driving based on their expectation of traffic. But I don’t think they will turn around and go home once they are committed to an errand just because the price just spiked up unexpectedly. They will just change their future behavior based on their estimate of when is a good time to travel.

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  63. Hydra says:

    We are taxing the wrong people, by imposing a congestion tax.

    Congestion is primarily caused by too many people trying to get to the same place at the same time. this is caused by “attractive nuisances” like jobs or sports complexes.

    Job sites are permitted by our own government officials, but we can’t very well tax THEM, so we should tax the attractive nuisances.

    Put a “cap and trade” value onthe amount of traffic that can reach a given area, and let the job providers work it out among themselves or pay the penalty taxes for exceeding the cap.

    Some businesses will leave the area and goto places that are less congested. Congestion tolls are already predicted to have much the same result, but by charging the wrong people.

    Use the excess money collected to reduce other taxes, or support mass transit more (Let the attractive nuisances pay for the infrastructure tey need). Then people can move closer to work or work will move closer to where people live.

    Whether congestion tolls will actually work or not is problematic to begin with, and then there is the propblem of what hppens to the money (Goes to MacQarrie in Australia?) Either way you haven”t solved the problem (congestion) youare just making people pay MORE to enjoy it.

    you need to attack the root problem, which is the attractive nuisances.

    Use the money to reducethe t

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  64. shaman says:

    I said this in the part 1 comments, and hoped you would address it this time. But instead of addressing real questions, you set up straw men that you already have answers to.

    If I’m going to pay more for roads, I want more roads – roads that will provide capacity where needed.

    You say 45mph is an optimum throughput? Give us enough lanes so that all highways can handle 45mph at all times.

    Playing around with tolls just puts money in the gov’t coffers without delivering a better service. If McDonald’s had too much congestion at their drive-thru, do you think they’d raise prices to drive away customers, or do you think they’d build another McDonald’s close enough to take some of the traffic?

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  65. Tom says:

    Well, if this whole congestion pricing scheme is “fair” when applied to highways, then why not apply it to every “public” item, particularly health care when it become a universal gvt provided service. People with money can get in to see the doctor NOW and those with less money will just wait till “next week”. Lets do the same for garbage pickup too, people with money can pay more and get it collected every week, others with less money will just have it collected once a month.

    Lets be honest, the ONLY reason anyone wants to do congestion pricing is to collect MORE money from the taxpayers without actually providing anything more then already exists.

    Just raise the dang gas tax, build more highways and be done with it. For those of you who want transit, institute a transit tax and then build whatever you want with that tax.

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  66. aaron says:

    Excellent post.

    I would like to see you address the gas tax again, especially the fact that fuel efficiency and price have been negatively correlated the past few years, despite less driving and more efficient cars being bought.

    (yes, even adjusted for seasonality, MPG goes down with higher gas prices.)

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  67. yot says:

    Only under one condition: the toll must be collected by the government (state, federal or local) and used for transportation related costs. The government must not be allowed to contract out the collection or dispersal of the funds to the a private entity.

    This precondtion should not make a difference as to whether tolls are a good solution for congestion or not. The money will still be collected and road maintenance and/or public transport will still benefit (after accounting for the salaries and benefits of the public employess, the toll collectors themselves).

    But I can guarantee that this precondtion will never be accepted by the proponents of tolls for one simple reason.

    Their intent is not to solve congestion but to turn public property into private property (I read somewhere that an Australian private company actually already owns the toll roads in at least one state. I can’t remember the name of the company or the state.)

    Now, you might not have a problem with this as long as it appears to solve the congestion problem and at the same time puts money into governmet coffers. Nothing like taxes that don’t look like taxes! But ask yourself this: would you give your home to someone else and then pay them monthly rent to be able to live in it?

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  68. Dan Wylie-Sears says:

    The interesting part is the too-good-to-be-true bit: that tolls wouldn’t need to decrease demand for the road-capacity because you get more throughput. If that really is true, then we don’t need tolls, just reservoirs that allow people onto the road at the maximum-throughput rate.

    So here’s what I propose: buildings where you spiral up one side and down the other, just like a parking structure, but with the entire surface being traffic lanes instead of parking spaces. When a stretch of highway falls below 45mph, traffic going into it gets diverted into the traffic structure until the jam dissipates. If there really is plenty of road capacity and you can process the information to manage traffic to maintain maximum throughput, as assumed in the article, then the structures will empty again promptly.

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  69. schneitj - Tom Schneider says:

    Alternate Idea: I view commuting as a work-home pairing problem. The government could create incentive tax credits similar to those that encourage employment of veterans, those on welfare, convicts, etc; but instead aimed at reducing commuting distances.

    The hiring credit value would directly correspond to the reduction of commuting times the cost of commuting per mile. (http://www.commutesolutions.org/calc.htm)

    x (average applicants commute distance – applicants commute distance)
    * 1.27 (cost of commuting per mile)
    * 2 (there and back)
    * 250 (work days in year)
    * 5 ? (years employed)

    Other options could involve the zip code’s average commute and national average commute. This wouldn’t mandate the hiring of someone over someone else, but it would introduces those external costs into the hiring process.

    For the employees incentive to choose closer work… it would have to be some sort of calculation on their end of year taxes.

    From the governments point of view, a direct reduction in commuting would have a measurable benefit.

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  70. aaron says:

    A simple way to explain this is that people all use some form of the equation for stopping distance we learned in drivers ed to allow safe following distance to react to traffic changes.

    distance = velocity * reaction time + braking coefficient * velocity^2 + some constant

    Reaction distance increases linearly with speed, slowing distance increases quadratically. Once the speed is reached where reaction distance is equal to stopping distance, more speed requires much more stopping distance. So at high speeds, more space is needed to follow safely. At 45mph, much less space is needed than at 70, so more cars fit onto the roads.

    Also, once capacity for a given speed has been reached, when new cars enter the system, traffic must slow down to make space. This is true whether traffic is flowing above or below the ~45mph threshold. So preventing new cars from entering the system allows traffic to flow at a more efficient speed.

    Interestingly, the 45mph speed is very near the optimal speed for fuel efficiency. 55mph gets optimal fuel efficiency, but there is little difference between 55 and 45mph efficiency.

    Below 55mph, faster is more fuel efficient. This is probably a big part of why high gas prices cause fuel efficiency to go down, as has been happening for several years. Despite less driving and more efficient vehicles being bought.

    People mistakenly think slow is more fuel efficient, both in acceleration and speed. Accelerating quickly, but smoothly, is more efficient than accelerating slowly. And faster is more efficient except for freeway speeds above 55mph.

    When people bring this slow is efficient mentality to the surface streets, congestion at bottlenecks compounds this problem.

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  71. judy says:

    How bout if the government pays ME whenever I drive on an empty road?

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  72. Anon says:

    “The final result will be: a few (generally) wealthier drivers going home faster and many others going home slower.”

    This is absolutely incorrect.
    If a toll system is put in place which increases total throughput in tolled lanes–which is exactly what the author proposes–there is consequentially MORE ROOM and LESS CONGESTION in other lanes. Everyone wins. Free roadways operate at substantially inefficient congestion levels, leaving a ton of room for improvement via tolling or other means.

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  73. Dave says:

    You should look to the experience of Toronto’s 407 ETR. It has been disaster. What was intended was a bypass around Toronto for one of the world’s busiest freeways (the 401). What has been created is a very high fee freeway that primarily services a wealthy area.

    It is completely unaffordable to an average wage earner. Tolls have increased by many multiples since the highway was opened. Customer complaints have made news headlines on many occassions. The contractual arrangements associated with the highway perpetuate this mess and hamper public policy.

    What is worse is that existing traffic infrastructure in Markham and Richmond Hill (large northern suburbs of Toronto) was disrupted by the new freeway. Many regional streets now cut off or more difficult to access. As a result, traffic has been made worse. More than a decade later, new public transit options are only now starting to be discussed.

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  74. Kirilius says:

    I agree with Dave (@73).

    407 was probably designed with the idea that private business will take care of the cost for building it (and get revenue from the toll). In reality 407 is very underutilized because of the high toll. So people still flock on the 401 and the original problem of getting more people home faster is still not solved.
    If both 401 and 407 were to operate as public free motorways, THAT would really increase the throughout significantly because for the whole span of 407 the traffic could literally be split in half.

    Anon (@72): “If a toll system is put in place which increases total throughput in tolled lanes” – I agree – the throughput will be increased ONLY in the toll lanes (so those willing to pay will go home faster) but this it at the expense of the people who will not pay and therefore take the already slower local streets making them even slower.

    I love the comparison given by shaman (@64) with McDonald’s. The real issue will not be solved until more roads are built. Toll lanes solve the problem only for those willing to pay.

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  75. ginsbu says:

    Disappointed that you didn’t make the equality argument for road pricing: free roads, the costs of which are not covered by gas taxes, are a huge subsidy to motor vehicles. Road pricing is just a way of getting drivers to pay for what they use, so other people don’t have to subsidize them. For all the complaints about subsidizing public transit, it’s astonishing to me how rarely it is mentioned that motor vehicles are actually subsidized more!

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  76. Sam says:

    I believe pricing is a viable option for managing congestion in areas with few other options, such as Southern California. However, in all discussions of congestion pricing and tolling I have heard nothing mentioned about how “human factors” will influence the operations and effectiveness of any priced facility.

    First, a brief discussion of average travel speeds and assumed operations:

    There have been numerous statements to the effect that maintaining an average speed of 45 mph on the priced facility will allow for maximum throughput and minimal congestion. The Level of Service concept in traffic engineering states that LOS A (or the best) operations occur at free-flow speeds (typically 65 mph or greater on modern freeways). Therefore a 45 mph average speed would indicate a reduced Level of Service, perhaps LOS C or even D. A Level of Service C or D indicates increased congestion and reduced ability to maneuver on a freeway segment.

    Next, a discussion of human factors:

    Most freeways in Southern California have free-flow speeds of 65 mph or greater (some of the older freeways have lower free-flow speeds). If one was to drive their vehicle and set the cruise control at 65 mph they would likely be passed, honked at, tailgated, or much worse. Drivers tend to exceed the speed limit with increased frequency. I believe this is one of the human factors that pricing must address.

    It seems that there is a desire for all drivers to “get there faster” and to “go faster than everyone else.” I believe this results in increased speeding, which in turn results in more drivers reacting differently, increased breaking on corners that were not designed for high speeds, and a quicker “shockwave” effect when one driver in a queue slams on their brakes. If vehicles traveled at or near the free-flow speeds of facilities, operations would improve greatly.

    One example is I-110 between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. This is the oldest freeway in America. It has a posted speed limit of 55 mph (and many turns caution 45 mph or less). I have observed many drivers flying down the freeway at speeds in excess of 65 mph, only to watch as they slam on their brakes when they approach a turn or at gore points. This results in other vehicles behind them slamming on their brakes, quickly causing traffic congestion and bottlenecks. However, if one was to set their cruise control at 55 mph exactly, they would find that there is little or no need to use the brakes (in regards to freeway design) along the entire freeway segment. It is purely human factors that appear to cause the congestion.

    How does this relate to pricing?

    If the goal of pricing is to ensure 45 mph average speeds, I believe that a majority of drivers will enter the facilities and try to travel at speeds in excess of 65 mph, causing a rapid decline in system performance. I believe that the benefits of pricing must include educating drivers to the benefits of traveling at constant speeds within a group. Similar to quantum mechanics, the erratic movements of some particles (vehicles) in the system can cause a rapid destabilization in overall system performance.

    In conclusion, I believe that it is the human factor of an increased propensity to speed that needs to be addressed in order to make pricing a truly effective tool.

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  77. Boris says:


    If the average speed is 65, clearly it cannot be that “a majority of drivers” are traveling above 65. I think that some people speed because they want to go faster than everyone else, as you said, but others speed because of some perceived (or real) obstacle ahead that they want to get past. This is one reason traffic lights are bad- people race to the light to try to make it while it’s green.

    If the traffic flows freely- and is guaranteed to flow freely, as in the case with congestion pricing- then many drivers would no longer have a reason to race, reducing dangerous speeding.

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  78. Sam says:


    If you read my previous post closely you will see that I never say that average speed is 65 mph.

    Your statement about traffic lights highlights my point about human factors. Why is a red light perceived as an obstacle one must get ahead? Everyone knows traffic lights alternate between green and red (with the yellow interval), allowing people at intersecting streets their turn to travel. If a driver approaches a light that is turning from green to red, there is an excellent chance that after a short while, typically between 60 and 120 seconds, the light will turn green once again.

    I believe people have a mindset, a similar mindset as when they speed, that they must make the next green light because they are in such a hurry. This is exactly the human factor which I believe has not been addressed in the discussion of pricing. It is only my observation, but it seems that more and more vehicles are speeding along our freeways, always in a rush and always in a hurry, and I think this human factor is a critical element to consider in the design and operation of priced facilities.

    In my opinion, it is this sense of rush and hurry that will guarantee that a substantial amount of users of a priced facility will continue to travel at speeds greater than the free-flow speed. This in turn will negatively affect operations on priced facilities unless something is done to address these human factors.

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  79. Driver and Transit Rider says:

    While it’s a ‘nice idea’ to claim that transit services will also benefit, the real world of real trips is much messier. It turns out that freeways are usually the absolute worst place to run transit routes! For many reasons – mainly that freeways are not pedestrian friendly and are not the hubs of much housing or employment density due to noise, pollution etc. Developments are “close by” by driving terms, but not via walking. So to address this you claim express services will benefit, well, perhaps some will. In my region where they’ve done this – it turns out there’s very little market for the express services, so the funding is going to run buses that are mostly empty. Transit networks are complex systems to make work well and mainly we don’t plan them well enough in the USA since in most places they are considered a welfare service – not competitive infrastructure required to support smart growth. For an interesting presentation on global best transit planning, see: http://movesd.org/Downloads/FASTonline%20version%202.4.htm

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  80. MekhongKurt says:

    I can tell you another objection, at least in Texas: the state government wanting to privatize toll roads, regardless of the type of pricing they use. Not every single one, but some — and I’m among the suspicious. I have to pay the fuel tax. I might choose (and have chosen) to pay the toll on a government-owned tollway. But I’m deeply suspicious of the private sector getting in on this. For years our roads have too often ended up costing way too much — roads built by private contractors.

    You make some cogent arguments here, true. But I’m not fully convinced, though that likely has a much to do with my dim view of state and local government in Texas as it does with the merits and demerits of tolls, variable and otherwise.

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  81. Tara says:

    Due to women’s complicated driving patterns, the fact they take up the slack of the man wouldn’t that suggest they do NOT have difficulty balancing home and work responsibilities.

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