Should We Replace the Term 'Congestion Pricing'?

Readers offer their suggestions — with road fare emerging as a top choice.

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After last week's post on the public perception problem facing congestion pricing, Jarrett Walker of the Human Transit blog (and book) replied that part of the problem is the very term congestion pricing. Walker believes the term carries a punitive connotation, and also finds it inaccurate. After all, drivers aren't paying for congestion; they're paying to avoid it. He prefers a term like decongestion pricing instead:

I have argued before that the term should be decongestion pricing, because escape from congestion is what the price buys, from the user's point of view.  And it's the user who needs to be convinced that this is a purchase, not a tax.  Finally, it has to be framed in a way that doesn't imply that it's only for the rich.

So I put a call for ideas out on Twitter and received a pile of suggestions. Thanks to all who submitted.

The responses ranged from the hyper-technical (variable road pricing, road demand mitigation) to the alliterative (smooth sailing zone, roadspace rental, free flow fee, peak price, congestion control) to the hopefully flippant (Early Bird Special). Some came with their own acronyms, like modal value pricing, or MVP. Some hinted at an agenda, like liveable city charge and public transport incentive pricing. The award for patriotism goes to freedom pricing, which obviously can be paid while scarfing freedom fries and blabbing on a hands-free freedom phone.

Several suggestions pushed beyond a generic description of the concept and moved toward the advertising end of the spectrum. Pay2Go, peak flow pass, downtown pass. Tom Vanderbilt (author of Traffic) liked the phrase premium access — something to suggest "you pay for 'peak perks.' " Aaron Naparstek (creator of Streetsblog) agreed that any name should be "marketed like ez-pass or the oyster card." To my mind, those ideas seem better suited to an implementation phase that comes down the road, as it were.

A short list of terms both accurate and inviting includes road space pricing, mobility pricing, congestion relief pricing, traffic reduction pricing, and commuter pricing. Of these, mobility pricing has the sweetest ring, but it feels a touch abstract for the average driver. Many readers placed a vote for Walker's own decongestion pricing (though one detractor found it too close to nasal decongestant). My only problem with decongestion pricing — and, admittedly, it's also a problem with congestion pricing, which I use all the time — is that it still feels rather wonkish for public consumption.

Two favorites in my mind come from transport scholar David Levinson, who suggests road fees for general road pricing (and peak road fees for road pricing aimed at heavy congestion), and urban planner Laurence Lui, who recommends road fares. What's nice about road fare is that it parallels mass transit, has an intuitive purpose, and offers flexibility. You can alter it to suit a specific situation — peak road fare, midtown road fare, etc. — without obscuring the basic meaning.

I don't know that I'll be changing terms just yet. There are several questions I haven't quite worked out, the largest being whether it would only muddy the waters to use a different term from the one used by scholars and experts. I'm all for clarity, but sometimes consistency is a greater virtue. Then again, climate change and global warming have become synonymous in the public eye, even if academics still distinguish them. If forced to choose right now, road fare would likely win out.

The odds of shifting American public opinion toward congestion pricing, whatever name it takes, seem long. Reading about the history of the concept, one quickly learns that antagonism toward it is nothing new. William Vickrey, the Columbia University economist who's credited with the idea of congestion pricing, found little reception for it until the very end of his life.

From a 1996 press release about his Nobel Prize, we see that the same public perception problem identified by Walker today followed Vickrey his entire career:

He has admitted that his ideas have sometimes not been well received by those who set public policy because, "People see it as a tax increase, which I think is a gut reaction. When motorists' time is considered, it's really a savings."

Interestingly, Vickrey first saw congestion pricing as a mechanism for reducing crowding on the New York City subway, back in the 1950s. In time he adapted the idea to urban road traffic and parking. (He referred to cars, in one paper, as a "rubber-shod sacred cow [that] is a ravenously space-hungry, shall I say, monster?")

Tragically, just days after receiving the Nobel, Vickrey was found dead behind the wheel of his car on the Hutchinson River Parkway. His New York Times obituary suggests that the excitement of finally getting a wide audience for his ideas contributed to his cardiac arrest:

The world appeared once and for all to be ready to listen. And then, as suddenly as it had happened, it was over.

The Vickrey fee, anyone?

Top image: Taras Vyshnya /Shutterstock

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