This story about urban congestion and pollution was first published on Gas2.
Cities are great. They have sports teams, universities, symphony orchestras, and public parks. But cities also are congested places where getting to work is a nightmare. From Beijing to London, they tend to have a pall of polluted air hanging over them. Together, congestion and pollution can make urban living stressful and even life threatening.
There are many ideas on how to fight urban congestion and pollution. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have investigated more than 60 of them and come up with one recommendation — “pay for use” pricing of roads. Yup, the unseen hand of market economics is indeed best for the efficient allocation of scarce resources. The study is available now at the Journal of Transport and Health.
Lead author Alexander Bigazzi says, “We looked at the entire body of literature, including hundreds of published papers, and identified 65 studies documenting the real-world effects of 22 types of traffic management strategies, including speed enforcement programs, lane management such as HOV lanes, road and congestion pricing, and trip reduction strategies like incentives for telecommuting or ride sharing.
“The strategies with the best evidence of air quality improvements are area road/congestion pricing and low emission zones. Other strategies have potential benefits, but there is less empirical evidence, either because the benefits are very small or because the benefits are offset by some other effect. It’s often assumed that any traffic management strategy that reduces congestion will also reduce emissions, but that’s not always the case.”
If people know they are going to pay a fee to drive, they may combine several destinations into one trip or elect to shop online instead. Fewer journeys means fewer cars on the road. Fewer cars means less congestion and lower emissions. It’s simple arithmetic. Life is like a slow-motion auction. We decide with fruits and vegetables to buy, which cars to own, what clothes to buy, and what house to purchase based on price. Pricing signals rank high in the hierarchy of factors we consider as part of almost every decision we make on a daily basis.
Pay for use is already used to manage other scenarios. Time-of-use pricing encourages people to charge their electric cars or run their air conditioners when the cost of electricity is low. Airlines use demand pricing to even out the demand for seats. If you are willing to book two months in advance and travel on a Tuesday, you may be able to fly for a lot less money than if you decide to fly tomorrow at 8:00 am.
“To be most effective, these strategies need to be deployed on a fairly large scale, not just on individual corridors,” Alexander Biggaxi says. “Hundreds of cities in Europe have congestion pricing or low emission zones in their city centers and are enjoying improved traffic flow and air quality. These strategies haven’t been embraced in North America in the same way for a variety of reasons, but there are great potential benefits for cities here ready to embrace innovation.”
How would a pay-for-use program work? In the digital age, a GPS-enabled transponder would simply report every movement by every car to a computer, which would automatically debit each driver’s bank account electronically after each trip. If that makes you a little nervous about your personal privacy, relax. Your smartphone already tracks your every move. In the digital world, the issue of privacy is but a quaint and obsolete notion.
Source: University of British Columbia