Congestion Pricing's Enduring Public Perception Problem

The need for better awareness about traffic strategies is quite clear.

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Over the past couple years the Capital Region Transportation Planning Board has hosted a series of public forums in metro Washington, D.C. (two in Virginia, two in Maryland, one in the District) to gauge local support for congestion strategies. A couple weeks ago, the board released its general conclusions [PDF]. As you might expect, pretty much everyone in the Beltway area considers traffic a major problem. When it comes to potential solutions, however, they're far less unified or convinced.

At each forum, attendees learned the extent of the region's congestion trouble and got a primer on three options for reducing it. The first idea was highway pricing: interstate toll lanes whose revenue would go toward better bus service in the corridor. The second was mileage pricing: a per-mile fee that could reduce traffic by charging more on the most congested roads. The third was standard congestion pricing: paying a fee to enter a high-traffic zone.

Option 1, highway pricing, got the most support. People liked that it was optional — you could still drive in non-toll lanes if you wanted — though they had some equity concerns. Option 2, a mileage system, got the least support, on account of seeming invasive and complicated. ("The phrase 'big brother' was repeated frequently," according to the board.) Option 3, congestion pricing, got considerable support, but many people remained doubtful it would actually work.

With or without knowing it, metro D.C. residents more or less echoed the standard reactions to these various proposals. The impact of H.O.T. lanes on low-income workers has long been a concern. Privacy issues are holding back V.M.T. programs in a general sense. Meanwhile congestion pricing has never made it in the United States — despite being the best hope for reducing traffic in the eyes of many experts — in part because people aren't convinced it makes a difference.

The funny thing about opposition to pricing programs is how quickly it dissolves in the face of success. In Stockholm, home to the world's most successful pricing zone, public opinion shifted from 70 percent opposed to 70 percent in favor in just a few years. Not only did people begin to love the program, they forget they were the same people who used to hate it.

What the Washington forums showed was that some of this initial doubt can be addressed through public education. When forum participants were asked how receptive they were to congestion programs, before the start of each session, only 39 percent thought they were reasonable ways to resolve the traffic problem. By the end of the session, however, that figure had jumped to nearly half. (Having said that, opposition also rose a bit from beginning to end.)

Transportation scholars are beginning to understand just how important public awareness is when it comes to congestion programs. A recent analysis of successful and unsuccessful pricing referenda around the world underscores this point. Uncertainty about the effectiveness of congestion pricing and a lack of information on the strategy were the two main reasons the public rejected losing ballots.

For that reason, the researchers who conducted this analysis (published in an upcoming issue of Transport Policy) recommend a two-step approach to gaining public support. First, present traffic forecasting models that explain the impact of congestion charges, and make them widely known. Second, implement a trial before the decision and give the public regular reports on its progress — especially signs of improved travel time.

Telling people traffic can decrease is one thing. Showing them is much, much better.

Top image: Sakala/Shutterstock.com

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