Pricing, our only feasible path to reduced congestion?

A recent article by Benjamin Orr in The New Republic, previewing a forthcoming article by researchers, Gilles Duranton and Mathew Turner, at the University of Toronto that looks at data to test the claim that it is impossible to build our way out of traffic congestion. Duranton and Turner found that the movement of both people and goods on roads increases as new capacity is provided and that people move to cities with better road supplies:

“Gilles Duranton and Mathew Turner examine new data on city level traffic from 1983 to 2003 and find that building more roads leads to more traffic. Why, you might ask? Duranton and Turner found three sources of traffic growth: people drive more as more roads are provided, commercial use (trucking, buses, etc.) increases in a similar fashion, and people move to cities with better road supplies.”

Their work shows that adding transit, despite lowering overall vehicle-miles traveled and serving critical mobility needs, does little to reduce peak period congestion.

Congestion pricing appears to be one of the few available options that could provide significant congestion relief. Dynamic pricing, used for years on State Route 91 in California, is seeing greater acceptance in the U.S. and will be implemented on the new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the Capital Beltway (I-495) currently under construction. Adjusting parking prices in accordance with demand (i.e., downtown parking spaces cost more), although not often conceived of as congestion pricing, is another strategy that has been widely used to induce would-be drivers to take transit instead. As New York would be the first to acknowledge, congestion pricing is a tough political challenge.