If You Charge For It, They Will Come In Smaller Numbers

LR writes:

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on something I read yesterday in the Dallas Morning News. Is there evidence that half tolls/half free lanes decrease congestion?

There are a lot of variables that go into traffic congestion and we haven’t seen a lot of projects of this sort running over the long term, so empirical data is difficult to come by. But the theory here is impeccable. You have what amounts to two identical roads, one is free and one costs money. Naturally, everyone wants to take the free road. But as “everyone” tries to crowd onto it traffic moves slowly and some people will want to exchange money for time by taking the toll road. And at any given time of day, there’s got to be some price at which the tolled road will be uncongested.

The moral of the story, to me, is that in the end you get the kind of cities you want. People sometimes act as if it’s an act of nature that cities built at different times have different characteristics, but obviously if you build tons of untolled highways what you end up with auto-oriented development and giant traffic jams (Los Angeles). If you build trains and train stations and no highways, then you get transit-oriented development and giant traffic jams (Manhattan). All kinds of infrastructure strategies “work” and I bet Dallas’ will work too — if the tolls are set at an appropriate rate, this will become the best city for people who like to drive quickly and have money to burn on tolls. Given my personal lifestyle preferences that doesn’t seem like the place for me, but given how important improving housing and transportation are to increasing American living standards I think it’s good that someone’s going big on this.