Paying to Drive: Making Every Road a Toll Road
If people had to pay tolls everywhere they drove, they’d drive less according to a recent study. While the main finding was rather obvious, the study has some interesting implications.
For about eight months, drivers in 275 Seattle-area households agreed to pay for something the rest of us get for free: The right to drive on the region’s freeways and streets. They were guinea pigs in a pioneering study that explored how motorists’ behavior might change if they had to pay tolls — not just on a few bridges or highways, but on almost every road with a yellow center line.
Researchers established virtual tolls ranging from a nickel to 50 cents a mile. They gave participants pre-paid accounts of between $600 and $3,000, and told them they could keep whatever the tolls didn’t eat up. The experiment ended in February. Preliminary results, released this month, suggest that if such so-called “road pricing” were widespread, it could make a significant dent in traffic.
Participants in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Traffic Choices” study had devices mounted on their dashboards in late 2004 and early 2005 that tracked their travel and transmitted the information to a central computer. Tolls, which varied by road and time of day, were deducted electronically from the pre-paid accounts, which were funded by the study’s sponsors and sized to match how much participants had been driving before the study.
The promise of keeping some of that money proved to be a powerful incentive. Nearly 80 percent of the participants drove less than they did before, or they changed their routes or travel times to avoid the highest tolls, said Matthew Kitchen, the study’s director. When the study was finished, the average payout was nearly $700 per household.
When other variables are factored out, Kitchen said, participants took 5 percent fewer auto trips and drove 2.5 percent fewer miles each weekday because of the tolls. The drop was even more dramatic during peak-traffic periods, when tolls were highest: 10 percent fewer trips and 4 percent fewer miles in the morning, 6 percent fewer trips and 11 percent fewer miles at night.
Such systemwide tolls could have an even greater impact in the real world than the preliminary study results indicate, Kitchen said. For starters, a real-world toll scheme presumably would reduce congestion, he said. Traffic Choices participants didn’t get that benefit in return for the tolls they paid. Real toll payers also might be motivated to drive even less because they would be paying out of their own pockets, not with cash provided by the study. Finally, systemwide tolls could lead to long-term changes in driving behavior — moving closer to work, or finding a job closer to home — that Traffic Choices drivers had no reason to make, Kitchen said.
The Netherlands plans to implement such a system nationwide by 2012. It will face much more resistance here, though. We’ve come to regard driving as an absolute right and expect roads to be a public good.
Still, toll roads have caught on in heavily congested areas. When I lived in the Loudoun County exurbs, I took the Dulles Greenway and Toll Road daily on my commute into the Beltway in order to bypass the maddening congestion on Route 7. There are plans to create High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the I-495 Beltway to allow those willing to pay to drive solo in carpool lanes to buy their way out of traffic. And those driving along I-95 through New Jersey and Delaware have for decades had to pay tolls for the privilege of driving on the Interstate highway system.
The problem with a pay-per-mile system, though, aside from issues of privacy, is that tolls have a variable impact on behavior depending on affluence. The very wealthy won’t think twice about driving whenever they please; the very poor may simply not be able to afford driving at all. Intrinsically, there’s no problem with that. There are all manner of things the well-off can buy that the less fortunate can not. Still, Americans have long considered the ability to use the roads a birthright. Charging for it will be seen as taking away a basic freedom. That will not go over well, regardless of whether it makes practical sense.