Pay For Use Most Effective Way To Reduce Congestion And Air Pollution


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.

urban congestion

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 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 cell phone 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 via Science Daily

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • Epicurus

    Exemptions for electric cars should make them more popular.

    • Steve Hanley

      Good point.

    • Jim Smith

      no, all users of the roads should pay their fair share aka, an equal rate. Exemptions and favoritism only lead to Cronyism. The social engineering nonsense must be stopped to allow market forces to work.

      • Epicurus

        Favoritism, yes! We favor good things over bad things. We want to encourage people to buy EVs because we value clean air over dirty air, and we value fewer carbon emissions over more carbon emissions.

        • Jim Smith

          what is good to you, is not good for others and vice versa. Better to keep the government out, and let people choose what is good for them. Elitists are idiots.

          • Epicurus

            Clean air and a stable climate are not good for everyone? Really?

          • Jim Smith

            battery powered vehicles do not work for the vast majority of people. Period. You can dishonestly frame the discussion anyway you like though.

          • Epicurus

            “battery powered vehicles do not work for the vast majority of people.”

            Because of current costs, I agree that there is a conflict between the short-term, self-centered needs of many people and the long-term needs of everyone, and consequently we want to encourage and subsidize those things that fulfill the long-term needs of everyone.

            “if the government did not trample property rights, there would not be any pollution.”

            Pure libertarian fantasy.

          • Jim Smith

            Good. People living in cities need to pay a tax for all the pollution they cause. People outside cities have yards with grass, trees, and bushes reducing CO2 and producing Oxygen while cleaning the air. Also, people in cities need to pay a global warming tax because of the heat islands produced by the large unsustainable cities. We need to encourage people to not pollute so much and cities lead the way with their over population. After all, we need to subsidize those things that fulfill the long term needs of everyone.

            It is called fact. If i could sue polluters for defiling my property, there would be no pollution. If you are too stupid to understand that, there is nothing anyone can do to help you.

          • Epicurus

            “If i could sue polluters for defiling my property, there would be no pollution.”

            Why don’t you sue all the car owners in America for defiling your lungs? And try to get a permanent injunction against them to prevent them from operating their vehicles. See how far you get.

            You don’t know what is actionable and what is not actionable under our legal system. The legal system in your imagination has never existed.

          • Jim Smith

            You know nothing about the legal system so why comment?

            Antonik v. Chamberlain (1947) set the precendent. You can not sue over pollution. Pollution is “for the common good” according to the courts. It is also illegal to purse Class Action suits against anyone for pollution.

  • Jim Smith

    “Yup, the unseen hand of market economics is indeed best for the efficient allocation of scarce resources.”

    Too bad the majority of people do not understand this basic fact and want more government control over things.

  • Epicurus

    “Yup, the unseen hand of market economics is indeed best for the efficient allocation of scarce resources.”

    That’s worked out so well for health care in the U.S. Those who can pay get it and those who can’t don’t.

  • Tadeusz Piskozub

    Doesn’t sound like much of a solution to me. One thing it’s sure to do is further disenfranchise the working poor.

    Here’s an alternative: Remote work. I bet that at least 30% of the people stuck in traffic every day don’t really need to be there in the first place.

    Imagine having all those people work from their homes. This would mean:
    -Less cars on the road.
    -Savings for the employees(time, fuel, car wear & tear).
    -Savings for their employers(precious city real estate normally used for offices).
    -Last but not least: less pollution.

    In the words of one character from a show that jumped the shark a few good times:
    “Why are we not funding this?”

    • Steve Hanley

      As someone who works from home, I have to agree with you!