The Benefits of Congestion Pricing

Slide from Michael Manville's congestion pricing presentation
Slide from Michael Manville's congestion pricing presentation

At today’s meeting of L.A. Metro’s Congestion, Highway and Roads Committee, UCLA professor Michael Manville made a convincing case for implementing congestion pricing.

Last month, the board heard from CEO Phil Washington that congestion pricing would be one approach to raising the revenue needed to accelerate projects for the 2028 Olympics. Metro staff estimate that congestion pricing could raise between $12-$100+ billion through 2028.

Manville’s presentation emphasized congestion pricing’s many important benefits, even before any revenue is spent. He likened the current under-priced road congestion to Black Friday crowds every day. When a valuable resource is provided for free to users, then it will be in short supply.

Manville explained the well established fundamental law of road congestion: road widening doesn’t reduce congestion. When a road is widened – or even when new transit opens (drawing some people who formerly traveled by car) – driver speed increases, at first. Faster speed means less time cost for driving, hence effectively the speed means driving is cheaper. This then draws drivers from other routes, other times, and other modes – in what Manville called a triple convergence. Within a few months, the widened road returns to its original level of congestion.

Manville cited congestion pricing success examples from London, Singapore, and Stockholm: “where it’s used, it works.”

Metro committee members expressed concerns about equity. Road pricing represents an additional cost paid by drivers, some of whom are low-income.

Manville acknowledged that congestion prices are regressive, but cautioned the committee against selectively applying that criteria. Manville pointed out that the entire transportation finance system – gas taxes, sales taxes, registration fees – is regressive. As are other infrastructure systems – water meters, electric meters, etc. Manville stressed that the current system subsidizes people with enough resources to afford a car.

Manville stressed congestion pricing’s tremendous benefits to transit riders. Road pricing creates a virtuous cycle of more people riding transit, more revenue, faster bus speeds – all benefits to low-income populations. All these benefits accrue even before funding is invested.

Manville recommends that a Metro congestion pricing program further address equity concerns by using some revenue to offset costs for poor people, similar to utility lifeline programs.

Metro CEO Phil Washington spoke positively of congestion pricing, stating that it would send a message to the world that Los Angeles is “doing something about congestion.” Washington stated that he will bring Metro staff recommendations to next week’s full board meeting. He didn’t give details, but said that the plan would be to pursue some sort of congestion pricing pilot, as well as feasibility studies. Washington said that he is taking road pricing seriously, stressing its potential for “saving humankind.”

What might be most remarkable is new Caltrans District 7 Director John Bulinski’s responses. Bulinski stated that it is “obvious” that widening is not a solution to address congestion. This contradicts what his staff are doing on the ground. Caltrans and Metro are spending billions to widen freeways and claiming these projects will reduce congestion. Bulinski further expressed that Caltrans would partner on Metro’s efforts to study and pilot congestion pricing, which he described as viable and valuable.

  • jennix

    … we’d all love to see the plan.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Yes. Equity. Will billionaires pay the same as minimum wage workers? Will Hummer drivers pay the same as electric motorcycles riders? The devil is in the details.

    If equity is not taken into consideration, it may result in more expensive single-occupant empty seat hauling.

  • SZwartz

    Only wealthy people should be allowed to drive. LA’s transportation motto “save the light for the white and put the brown underground.”

  • SZwartz

    If you reduce residential and office density, then there is no traffic congestion. That would cut into the wealth of the 1% who build the high rises and the mass transit. Thus, we need bike lanes and congestion pricing to stop the riff-raff from driving. If GOD wanted you to have a car, you would have been born rich.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Yes. There is a disconnect from what people are choosing to do now – driving cars alone – compared with the congestion pricing vision for the future. Before congestion pricing, I think it makes more sense to offer motorcycles drivers and thin highway-capable car drivers narrow lanes and narrow parking spaces for people who want to skip traffic and drive faster. According to this study, 25% transition from currently designed side seated cars to motorcycles (and other skinny vehicles) fixes congestion entirely: Skinny vehicle equity may be better than taxing equity.

  • KentinLA

    Re the claim that congestion pricing is regressive, consider:

    – People are often forced to use too much of their income on a car because other modes are so underdeveloped that they may not be viable for their needs.

    – Continuing to favor the existing system, and with no price incentives to fund development of other travel modes, will only worsen this problem over time.

    – Revenue from congestion pricing will expand transit and other modes, making lower cost transportation choices more attractive.

    – As affordable transportation options improve, allowing more people to take advantage of them, they will be able to retain more of their income for other necessities.

    This sure seems progressive to me. Thanks for the article, Joe.

  • jcwconsult

    Planning to spend congestion pricing profits to support athletic contests is theft.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • JustJake

    “well established fundamental law of road congestion”

    Fundamental law of bs. It’s a theory, and is questionable.

    Cars will not always equate to air pollution. Cars are here to stay, but we will always have the small minority of people who are trying to extinguish automobiles.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    “If you reduce residential and office density, then there is no traffic congestion.”

    That’s not a reliable solution, though. Look at Atlanta as an example. It’s one of the lowest-density big cities in America, and its traffic-congestion problem is one of the worst in the country.

  • Sincerely

    It’s a “theory” the same way we have a theory of gravity and a theory of evolution. It’s testable, it has been tested, and it is observed in the real world.

  • Darren

    Where does the article mention that the profits will go toward athletic contests?

  • jcwconsult

    Last month, the board heard from CEO Phil Washington that congestion pricing would be one approach to raising the revenue needed to accelerate projects for the 2028 Olympics.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe Linton

    Please let us all know the day that cars don’t equate to air pollution.

  • lunartree

    Driving is not an identity, and in 21st century America public transit is a middle class thing. The rich drive, but the poor can’t afford to live near good transit.

  • These are transportation projects. Such as adding ExpressLanes on 3 freeways.

  • midringrider

    One way to reduce the impact of the regressive nature of the congestion pricing would be to reduce transit fares by some increment of the money collected. And or add more transit to the system wither by increasing the number of times the transit runs or adding routes to under served areas.

  • Congestion pricing is a two-fer for the anti-car folks: punishing everyone who drives and raising money for the “progressive” bike/anti-car government bureaucracies. The only problem: the idea is politically unpopular:

  • johnsmart

    IN TIME for the Olympics. Not FOR the Olympics.

  • johnsmart

    I love this idea. Do it ASAP.
    Let the whiners leave. In fact , if enough libertarian whiners leave we may not need congestion pricing.

  • jcwconsult

    If already planned and would have been built anyway – but perhaps a bit slower, I withdraw my objection.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Kevin Withers

    If LASB is still around, sure.
    PS: A throwback to 10 years ago, when LA congestion pricing was imminent…

  • Wranger

    So what if it’s unpopular? It’s what’s needed, so deal with it. How is it punishing drivers to make them pay a tiny amount to help cover the massive amount of land space that they hog up, the gobs of money it takes to build and maintain roads that they demand, and the massive amounts of pollution they spout into our air? Why shouldn’t we create more equity between vehicle drivers and those who travel in other ways? We’ve been subsidizing drivers for way way way too long at the expense of everyone else. It drives me nuts…when Americans vacation in places with great transit and walkable streets they absolutely love it but then they resist that same sort of development in their own cities…WHY?

  • TM

    If only you would withdraw yourself from speaking ever again.

  • Claude

    If you reduce density people have to travel farther to reach their destinations, meaning more people spending more time on the roads. This increases the demand on the roads and increases congestion.
    Increasing the density of mixed use traditional neighborhoods gives more people easy access to their destinations, many of which can be reached by an easy stroll. This reduces the need for driving and reduces congestion.
    This also reduces the cost of infrastructure per taxpayer, so the cities can provide better services at a lower tax rate. And because people can live closer to their place of employment they have a shorter commute and can spend less time and money traveling and more time with their families.



An Animated Argument For Congestion Pricing

In 1951, Milton Friedman coauthored a paper on road pricing. It would be a mere footnote in both Friedman’s career and in the intellectual history of road pricing, if not for one sci-fi flourish: The authors propose painting radioactive material alongside expressways, so that road operators can charge drivers using car-mounted geiger counters. Obviously, this […]