Alleviating Traffic Congestion: Alternatives to Road Pricing
Economists' favorite remedy for traffic congestion is road pricing. Not only is road pricing based on sound economic principles, but also given current technology it could be implemented at reasonable cost and in a flexible and sophisticated manner. But there are serious obstacles to the widespread adoption of road pricing. There are problems of phase-in: the fixed costs of introducing any system of road pricing, as well as the problems of coordinating road pricing across jurisdictions, including standardization and the treatment of out-of-towners. Political acceptability is an even more serious obstacle. How can congestion pricing be 'sold' to economically unsophisticated voters who are justifiably suspicious of any new government taxes and charges? This paper will not argue against road pricing, though it will point out some of the difficulties associated with the policy that economists have tended to ignore or to gloss over. Rather, it will examine some of the alternatives to road pricing. More specifically, it will focus on two related questions, one positive, one normative, on the assumption that congestion pricing is not introduced, at least on city streets. The positive question: What are the likely effects of policies other than road pricing on alleviating road congestion? The normative question: What mix of policies (road pricing excluded) would be most effective in alleviating traffic congestion? Throughout the focus will be on urban traffic congestion. Alternatives to road pricing can be grouped into five categories: 1. Expansion and upgrading of existing road capacity; 2. Expansion and upgrading of mass transit; 3. Regulation; 4. Information; 5. Non-road transport pricing. While the emphasis of the paper will be on qualitative analysis, there will be some attempts at quantification via back-of-the-envelope calculations.
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