Drivers on board with dynamic tolling

The public largely backs a proposal to pay a toll to avoid sitting in traffic.

The majority of the public is willing to pay a toll to avoid congestion. That’s the message of a new report from Washington, D.C.

According to, “What Do People Think About Congestion Pricing?” around 60 percent of those surveyed by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board of Metropolitan Washington D.C. said they would support a plan to introduce at least one priced lane on all of the region’s major highways, and pay a toll that rises in response to the level of congestion. During times of low demandoutside of normal business hours and weekendsthe cost of using a highway would fall sharply or disappear altogether.

This model of tolling is known as dynamic tolling and has been implemented—with great success—in several U.S. highways.

Furthermore, those surveyed became more amenable to the idea of dynamic tolls the more they learned about them. Prior to discussion groups held by the transportation planning board, 51% of those surveyed supported dynamic tolls, but that number increased to 60% after a series of roundtable talks.

The report warns, however, that while the public remains “sceptical” that dynamic tolls or congestion charges will provide a solution to traffic problems, more people are likely to support them if they “see direct benefits in their daily lives.” To that end, congestion charges should “explicitly state a compelling value proposition” for road users and emphasize the benefits of greater choice and individual control, the report added.

Choice, in fact, was the major appeal of dynamic tolls. Many respondents said they would appreciate the predictability of paying to avoid sitting in traffic and are willing to pay a little extra to get to work on time when they are running late. Others said it would make it easier to determine the true cost of commuting.

Providing drivers with a free option—one with no tolls to control congestion—was also popular, the report said, as it would, again, “offer a choice.”

The power of both choice and self-control is evident throughout “What Do People Think About Congestion Pricing?”, based on the responses of more than 300 participants gathering together for five forums lasting more than four hours each. The report’s authors repeatedly stress road congestion is perceived by people as a “critical” issue, one that undermined time spent with family members and limited job opportunities. Congestion, observed the authors, “seemed to rob people of a sense of control over their lives.”

The report’s findings should also act as a warning shot to governments and politicians nurturing ambitious plans to tackle congestion through massive infrastructure projects. A large number of respondents expressed little confidence in the government’s ability to solve traffic flow problems, even if they had access to more revenue. Only 39 percent of respondents agreed with the view that there would be a “better transportation system” if the government had more money to spend.

“More generally, the public seems increasingly distrustful of government’s competence and disdainful of the lack of leadership among public officials. They express these opinions openly,” the opinion survey concluded.

It also showed the public felt little concern over so-called “Lexus Lanes”, a label critics have attached to dynamic toll lanes based on the assumption that higher income drivers would enjoy clearer roads while everyone else remained stuck in traffic. Paradoxically, the report said, the option most susceptible to such criticism—dynamic toll lanes—was the most popular among the survey’s participants because this option provided drivers with a choice: pay to avoid traffic, or not. Many of the respondents were open to the idea of paying for the “luxury” of traffic-free driving at some point.

“What Do People Think About Congestion Pricing?” is the latest green light survey signal to suggest people are open to the idea of dynamic tolling. According to a comprehensive study of public opinion polls in 2008, undertaken by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, there is a “clear majority” of support for tolling and road pricing in the U.S.

The study, “Compilation of Public Opinion Data on Tolls and Road Pricing”, found that when people are provided with a clear benefit—such as free-flowing traffic—support for road tolls increases. The report also found that people for the most part favoured tolls over higher taxes, because at least with tolls “the public is more assured of getting their fair share” and “tolling represents freedom of choice.”

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org

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