I don’t know what’s most strange about this Matt DeBord post on Felix Salmon’s congestion pricing piece in Wired, his insistence on making every policy discussion into a tribal battle between Team Car and everyone else, his bizarre suggestion that drivers have no problem with congestion, or the ludicrously hyperbolic assertion that using pricing to cut congestion will mean that “we just wonâ€™t be able to do the car thing anymore”.
Congestion pricing really isn’t that hard. Congestion is a classic negative externality. When a driver gets on the road, he doesn’t have any reason to think about the additional traffic he is creating, and since the same is true for everyone using scarce, valuable road space, drivers opt to drive until traffic grinds to crawl. We confront problems like this all the time. We tax cigarettes because of the public health costs of smoking. We have used market pricing to limit emissions of various pollutants, and other countries have done the same for carbon. If you set the price to use a valuable piece of road high enough, then you don’t get congestion.
Will this lead to the end of driving? Obviously not. The idea is to allow cars to use the road as intended, at appropriate speeds, predictably and efficiently. If driving falls below the level at which congestion is a problem, you drop the price. In the mean time, we cut out the billions in annual losses due to time and gas wasted in traffic. DeBord writes as though climate control and a radio station eliminate the pain of sitting in a traffic jam. As far as I can tell, no sane person actually think this. It eases the pain somewhat, but jesus, wouldn’t we all rather have a congestion free trip to work?
A pleasant side effect of pricing roads is the revenue, which can be used to fund additional transportation capacity, including alternative modes. And it’s clear that congestion-free roads would make, say, bus commuting much more attractive. And that’s fine. If congestion pricing offers drivers a guaranteed smooth commute and, at the same time, enables the provision of high-quality, reliable transit, why would anyone in their right mind think that’s a bad thing?
Cars are useful inventions insofar as they make for effective transportation. Traffic-choked roads are not effective. Even if commuters did think that blowing an hour a day sitting still is no big deal, congestion nonetheless exacts costs on businesses seeking reliable shipping (and in doing so raises consumer prices) and causes health problems. It is stupid to tolerate it, particularly when there’s a ready solution to the problem. And it’s sad for Matt DeBord (and embarrassing for the Big Money) that he can’t conceive of the issue outside some drivers-versus-utopians nonsense frame.