Charles Wheelan, a new columnist at Yahoo! Finance, suggests raising the price of driving (through the costs of gas and tolls) in order to eliminate traffic congestion.
The future of transportation will look a lot like the I-15 FastTrak in San Diego. This expressway has free lanes and HOT (High-Occupancy/Toll) lanes that run parallel. Here’s the twist: The price of the HOT lanes fluctuates between $.50 and $4.00 depending on traffic conditions. Carpools use the HOT lanes free at all times.
Your toll for the HOT lanes guarantees a “free flowing” speed of travel. If the HOT lanes begin to get congested, the toll will rise immediately, prompting more drivers to choose the free lanes rather than the HOT lanes. (The toll at any given time is advertised on electronic signs on the side of the road.)
There is a drawback to congestion pricing: The HOT lanes are sometimes referred to as “Lexus lanes” because those with deep pockets care less about $4 than those who are counting their pennies. But don’t assume automatically that congestion pricing is bad for people lower on the economic ladder. If a plumber’s assistant earning $14 an hour shows up for work half an hour late, he gets docked $7. Or, he can get there on time by using the HOT lanes–with a maximum toll of $4.00. Do the math.
An economist sees traffic as a problem of money. An engineer sees congestion as an infrastructure issue. Commuters view congestion as a societal design problem. Environmentalists and others have even more differing views.
Updated October 9, 2016 and originally published October 5, 2005.