The Driver’s Case for Congestion Pricing



Like normal people, when I’m in New York City I don’t drive anywhere. But last time I was in New York City, things were such that it seemed sharing a cab ride to JFK airport would be the best way to go. Unfortunately for me, it was rush hour and as a result there was a ton of traffic and the whole thing took forever.

That did, however, give me plenty of time to reflect on what I think has been one of the major oddities about the conversation on congestion pricing. Namely, that I don’t really understand why this has normally been construed as an “anti-driving” or “anti-driver” policy initiative. At the end of the day, folks with pedestrian-, cycling-, or transit-oriented lives in a city like New York or Washington have relatively little at stake when it comes to adopting a sensible policy approach to congestion. By contrast, people who commute every day to and from work in congestion heavy cities would benefit a lot from policies that reduce the amount of traffic they deal with on a daily basis. It’s true of course that habitual auto commuters would be paying the bulk of the direct financial cost of such a policy, but they’d also be receiving the vast majority of the benefits. Maybe some people just think sitting in traffic is awesome, but personally it seems terrible to me.

Looking back on the New York congestion pricing fight, it really seems as if the whole thing got somewhat misframed as of a piece with Jeanette Sadik-Khan’s efforts to make the city less car-oriented. In fact, that’s really quite a separate debate. The case for congestion pricing is simply that if you have a valuable, scare resource like “space on a road in a major urban area at peak traffic time” you need to price that resource appropriate (i.e., at something more than $0.00) or else it will get consumed inefficiently and you’ll have endless traffic jams. That case holds up whether you think cities should look like Copenhagen or whether you think they should look like Phoenix and really has nothing to do with urbanism per se.