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Could price leveling ease traffic in some major cities?

A lot of people think traffic is like bad weather: a storm we can avoid if we leave at a different time. But traffic isn’t a force of nature. You are never in traffic, you are the traffic. Traffic is us. Which means we can do something about it, if we let the free market decide how to price our road space.

On this episode of No Parking, we talked to Jeffrey Tumlin, then Principal and Director of Strategy of Transportation Consultancy Nelson/Nygaard, now Executive Director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, to discuss the cognitive dissonance required to drive to work if you don’t have to, the hypocrisy of urban parking policy, and why freedom isn’t free.

“Our investment in the interstate highway system was one of the smartest infrastructure investments that any country has ever made,” said Tumlin. “It knit this country together in a way that was previously unimaginable. And yet (automakers are) also very cognizant that the retrofitting of cities for their cars rather than for people was a complete disaster.”

Tumlin cut to the heart of the problem, which is that for all the freedom cars grant us as individuals, we haven’t been consistent in applying free market principles to the infrastructure required to keep cars rolling.

“Congestion is not an infrastructure problem,” said Tumlin, “it’s an economic problem. Congestion is simply what happens when the demand for mobility equals the supply. For every commodity in American society, every utility—food, clothing, housing, your cell phone bill, electricity—we use price to balance supply and demand. And only in mobility do we use time to balance supply and demand. So we’ve not socialized health care or parental leave in America, we socialized driving, and so it is no wonder that our roads are simultaneously congested and potholed.”

He favors decongestant pricing, which suggests charging the lowest price necessary to allow traffic to flow smoothly. But even that is a balancing act, Tumlin said, because cost is relative to the experience of the consumer.

“It’s a terrible mistake to assume that just because somebody is low income, they have no value on their time,” he said. “If I’m late for work, nobody cares. Shift workers, if they’re late for work, they’re fired. Single parents who are late picking up their child from daycare are charged by the minute.”

He pointed to New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where even short commutes can mean hours in traffic on major thoroughfares. Incentivizing people using more efficient transit could reduce congestion and even the scales.

“You can balance the system out so that everyone can take care of the business that they need to take care of, the city can make the transportation system more geometrically efficient, and we can not only correct for social inequity, but we can lead with social equity in order to use the power of mobility to equalize opportunity.”

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