Honking and Swearing Never Work: An Examination of Urban Traffic Congestion Remedies

by Samuel Rosenberg March 18 2009, 10:27

I.  Introduction

As any city grows and develops a strong central business district (CBD), congestion is going to become a matter of concern for those who both live and work in that area.  While this pain has been universally felt amongst metropolitan areas, the handling of this problem has varied.  Despite the recognition of the issue, as the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has noted that congestion has nearly tripled in the last twenty five years, that same time period has seen an 239 percent increase in highway spending.  [1] A recent English study estimated that a five percent reduction in travel time could generate five billion U.S. dollars in savings per year. [2]  While no similar research has been commenced in the United States, American urban citizens lost 3.7 billion hours of time and wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel sitting in congested streets in 2003. [3]   The approaches to alleviating congestion can be divided into two main schools of thought: 1) traditional, demand based responses, and 2) creative, alternative means of reducing congestion through innovation.  This article will advocate and focus on the later by noting procedures that have been implemented with commercial vehicles, congestion pricing, and by discussing lessons for possible future policy implementation.

II.  Commercial Vehicles

With American cities advocating for greener construction standards (i.e. LEED) and community members fighting to maintain green space, the urban environmental movement is not focusing enough upon the roadways.  [4] Reducing traffic within urban areas could have a dramatic impact upon the health of city residents. [5] Specifically, urban traffic is a large contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, with freight traffic representing more than a quarter of such emissions. [6] Freight transportation, in particular (no pun intended), generates between 20 and 60% of local transport-based pollution. [7] While cities may try to enhance the efficiency of freight traffic through the relocation of freight hubs, what dictates how often and what deliveries are made is dependent upon the sector being served by the delivery, not specific characteristics of the city.  [8] No matter where transport centers are located, grocery stores are going to be receiving fresh milk every night, and banks will see the armored truck every few days.   The question is not how do we reduce the demand for such deliveries: the question is how do make such deliveries smarter and healthier for the urban landscape.

Given the historically small proportions of European roadways, European cities have by and large been the innovating force behind transportation reform.  In general, such initiatives have focused upon the width and dimensions of delivery vehicles.  Taking into account the space needed for deliveries limits the congestion in normal traffic lanes and parking areas. [9] Urban freight regulation in the United States has largely been cemented upon the tonnage of vehicles making deliveries, and the hours when such deliveries are made.  Oddly, the environmental impact of such vehicles has been absent for such regulation, as have incentives for more innovative delivery methods. [10] If an American city is serious about reducing its urban traffic problem and cleaning its air, it must not only punish those who make deliveries. It must make it more desirable for companies to improve their delivery mechanism.  

Taking this extra step of addressing the systematic problems in urban freight transportation requires American cities to examine initiatives that have been implemented elsewhere.   In Genoa and Lyon, electric delivery vehicles are allowed to use bus lanes to deliver outside of designated areas. [11] Urban planning initiatives in Bordeaux, Lille, Nice, and Lyon require for delivery zones to be inside of structures, while Paris has specified for certain industries to create internal delivery areas. [12]  Bordeax has also implemented a “local delivery space” in its CBD where delivery companies can leave their trucks to be watched by city attendants.  This allows for traffic to remain unobstructed, and for deliveries within a close proximity to be made by foot, and frequently in a timelier manner. [13]

With regards to actually regulating the freight trucks themselves, European cities have also taken the lead.  Some European municipalities require registration of delivery trucks within certain zones, providing lower rates for clean, small, and silent delivery vehicles.  Based upon the identification of high-density “environmental zones” or “low-emission zones,” benefits are granted to freight vehicles that are environmentally friendly.  For example, Copenhagen implemented a scheme where trucks with engines less than eight-years-old, and which are loaded with over 60% of capacity are granted a “green certificate, offering the truck access to areas in the city not available to more conventional trucks.  London, the poster child for Congestion Pricing, has exempted electric vehicles and naturally gas fueled trucks from the much-debated tax.  [14]  If a successful congestion reduction program is to be established within an American city, surely the commercial vehicles that are an integral part of the city’s economic activity must be taken into account.  

III.  Personal Vehicles & Congestion Pricing

As the rate of vehicle ownership has increased in the United States, so has the amount of miles traveled.  Every household in 1969 traveled approximately 12,400 miles per year.  By 2001, that figure had nearly doubled to 21,200 miles. [15]  With the sheer quantity of vehicles increasing dramatically, the USDOT has recognized the consensus among economists that congestion pricing is the most viable approach to reducing congestion and establishing a relative equivalent between the cost of driving and the related externalities from this activity. [16] Ranging from charging varying toll prices at different times of the day, to electronic taxation, to flexible parking meter rates, congestion pricing takes into account the high demand for certain roadways, and charges accordingly.  Based upon William Vickrey’s idea that traffic jams occur when drivers are not charged for the full costs they impose upon others the theory dates back to 1952.  [17]  While most proposals to end congestion focus upon the construction of new roadways, this is not an efficient way to address traffic congestion. [18]  

Roads are a public good that can be abused as in any typical tragedy of the commons scenario, but what makes them unique is that they are “congestible public goods.” [19]  In this sense, the externalities of traffic arise because of the differential between the cost to the user and the actual cost (including time lost, wear on the road, environmental impact, etc.).   By utilizing congestion pricing, the taxation system is forcing drivers to internalize part of the externality that they impose the roadway, thereby allowing the roads to be utilized at a more efficient level.  [20] As it currently stands, individuals who would pay to use a non-congested thoroughfare would not because it is not worth the time investment. [21]  Roadways, instead, are used by those who value roadways even less, but who also value their time at a relatively low rate.  [22]. While the historic solution to congestion has been to construct more roads, oddly, this approach has lead to an inverse incentive structure and actually more traffic. The construction of new roads actually induces more travel and overall, congestion is either no better or even worse then previously experienced.  [23]  Juxtaposed with the construction of new roads, congestion pricing regimes simply remedy the externality of congestion by changing drivers for access to the roadways at issue.  [24]

While congestion pricing may be a worthwhile proposal, it has run into its far share of opposition. [25] In 1987, As New York attempted to charge all drivers $10 per day to go south of 59th Street, the parking garage workers, the teamsters, and the tourism, hotel, and entertainment industry workers banded together to appose the plan.  [26]  Needless to say, Mayor Koch backed down.  Furthermore, the ambitious plan New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed in April of 2007 ran into political problems from within the legislature.  The system proposed would have been in operation from 6:00AM to 6:00PM Monday through Friday and would have changed cars $8 to go south of 86th Street, while trucks would have paid $21.  Utilizing a series of ratio frequency identification tags and cameras to capture those who had not paid, the system would have also exempted taxis, transit vehicles, handicapped vehicles, and emergency equipment. [27]  Like in 1987, the political backlash was intense, with new worries stemming from those who lived just north of 86th Street, worrying that the plan would simply turn their neighborhood into a parking lot for individuals who would drive to the edge of the congestion zone, and then walk the rest of the way.  [28]  While such programs may not have been as successful as initially intended, that by no means that the idea is not viable.  On the contrary, the implementation of congestion pricing must be done in a manner more cognizant of those impacted by the new pricing mechanism.  

IV.  Future Implementation

Despite the feasibility of a congestion pricing plan, the first element that has to be taken into account is the exceptions.  For any large-scale plan to succeed lower rates or exemptions would have to be offered to those who actually reside within the district.  Furthermore, the frequent players in downtown deliveries would have to be brought on board with the program.  Discounts for congestion pricing credits, especially for companies that recognize the frequency upon which they will be traveling in the congestion zone, could additionally be offered to those who buy such credits in bulk. Of course, pilot programs would first have to be implemented so as to test the response of the public and feasibility of the system.

The lesson to take from previous implementations of congestion pricing is largely focused upon the destination of the funds and the flexibility of the program.  Allowing for individuals to have alternatives to paying the tax is key to the program’s success.  One must keep in mind that the goal of the mechanism is not to raise funds, but is to reduce the congestion within the urban area.  Therefore, funding from the congestion pricing should, excluding operational costs of the system, go towards improving the public transportation network. [28] Furthermore, the pricing scheme must be variable with time, season, route and type of vehicle. [29]. Not only would rates be lower at off-peak times, but also discounts could be given to transportation that is environmentally conscious.  Due to technological advances, it is now conceivable to place a higher price on streets with more traffic, and a lower price tag on lesser-used alternative routes.  [30]  Given the fact that traffic patterns change over time the pricing scheme should change as well.  Keeping in mind that London re-evaluates its pricing scheme every few years, while Singapore does the same every few months, such a procedure is necessary in maintaining the effectiveness of the program, especially when introducing new fees.  [31] Furthermore, the extensive use of I-Pass and E-Z Pass in other provides many cities with the technological base necessary to shift fee structures easily.  If individuals, especially commuting in from the suburbs, are used to paying tolls in their home municipalities via electronic tolling, the extra toll within the city will be less difficult to implement.

V.    Conclusion

While it may not be a realistic to imagine Americans no longer utilizing their cars, yet it is reasonable to propose a system upon which vehicle users would be charged for the negative externalities they impose while driving.  Coupled with creative solutions to freight movement, congestion pricing offers a unique and affective means of handling heavy vehicular traffic.  Regardless of what solution is adopted, a successful transportation policy should reduce congestion, lower energy consumption, and decrease air pollution while improving the speed and efficiency of the transportation network.  [32]  It is with high hopes that we, as an urban society, enter the second decade of the millennia with an awareness of our environmental impact and a desire to lessen its negative consequences.  


[1] U.S. Dept. of Transportation, A Fork in the Road (2007), http://www.fightgridlocknow.gov/docs/forkintheroadbrochure.htm.

[2] Sir Rod Eddington, The Eddington Transport Study: The Case for Action 5, 7 (2006), http://www.dft.gov.uk/162259/187604/206711/executivesummary. 

[3] David Schrank & Tim Lomax, The 2005 Urban Mobility Report 1 (2005), http://tti.tamu.edu/documents.mobility_report_2007.pdf. 

[4] Laetitia Deblanc, Good Transport in Large European Cities: Difficult to Organize, Difficult to Modernize, 41 TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH PART A 280, 285 (2007). 

[5] U Gehring, Long-term Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Cardiopulmonary Mortality in Women, 17 EPIDEMIOLOGY 545, 551 (2006). 

[6] European Conference of Ministers of Transport, Cutting Tranport CO2 Emissions. What progress? (2007). 

[7] LET – Aria Technologies, Implementation of a methodology for a physical environmental assessment of urban goods movement, (2006). 

[8] Laetitia Deblanc, Urban Goods Movement and Air Quality Policy and Regulation Issues in European Cities, 20 J. ENVTL. L. 245, 249 (2008).  

[9] Id. at 247.

[10] Id. at 258.

[11] Id. at 260.

[12] Id. at 250.

[13] Id. at 260-261.

[14] European Commission, Green Paper: Towards a New Culture for Urban Mobility (2007) [hereinafter GREEN PAPER].

[15] Pat S. Hu & Timoth R. Reuscher, U.S. Dept of Transportation, Summary of Travel Trends 2001, National Household Survey 16, 32 (2004), http://nhts.ornl.gov/2001/pub/STT.pdf. 

[16] Sam Schwartz, Gerad Soffian, Jee Mee Kim, & Annie Weinstock, A Comprehensive Transportation Policy for the 21st Century: A Case Study of Congestion Pricing in New York City, 17 N.Y.U. ENVTL. L.J. 580, 589 (2008) [hereinafter Schwartz].

[17] Id. at 591.

[18] Lewis M. Fulton, Robert B. Nolda, Daniel J. Meszler & John V. Thomas, A Statistical Analysis of Induced Travel Effects in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic Region, 3 J. TRANSP. & STAT. 1, 13 (2000). 

[19] Clayton P. Gillette & Thomas D. Hopkins, Federal User Fees: A Legal and Economic Analysis, 67 B.U.L. REV. 795, 801-02 (1987).  

[20] Borje Johansson & Lars-Goran Mattson, Principles of Road Pricing, in Road Pricing: Theory, Empirical Assessment and Policy, 7-8 (Borje Johansson & Lars-Goran Mattson eds., 1995). 

[21] Robert G. McGillivray, On Road Congestion Theory 2 (1974).

[22] Id.

[23] Fulton, supra note 18.

[24] Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, How Changes in Property Regimes Influence Social Norms: Commodifying California’s Carpool Lanes, 75 IND. L.J. 1231, 1237 (2000). 

[25] Jonathan Remy Nash, Economic Efficiency versus Public Choice: The Case of Property Rights in Road Traffic Management, 49 B.C. L. REV., 673 (2008). 

[26] Aaron Naparstek, Congestion Charging in New York City: The Political Bloodbath, http://www.streetblog.org/2006/12/04/congestion-charging-in-new-york-city-the-political-bloodbath/ (Dec. 12, 2006).

[27] City of New York, PlaNYC, A Greener, Greater New York 135 (2007), http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc2030/downloads/pdf/full_report.pef.

[28] Annie Karni, Residential Parking Permits May Accompany Congestion Tax, NEW YORK SUN, May 7, 2007, http://www.nysun.com/new-york/residential-parking-permits-may-accompany/53932/. 

[29] GREEN PAPER, supra note 14.

[30] Schwartz, supra note 16, at 602.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. at 589

Comments (1) -

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