Transportation Pricing

Matt Yglesias explains why public transit should be free through an analogy:

Say there’s no road between Washington, DC and Frederick, Maryland. You can go from the one place to the other, but it involves going way out of your way even though it could be a pretty quick trip on a direct road. What you need to ask yourself about building such a road is what would it cost and would it be worth it? You don’t build the road expecting to turn a profit. And you shouldn’t really build it expecting tolls to finance it. You should build it because you want to encourage people to drive from DC to Frederick. But if you build the road and it comes to pass that it’s choked with traffic during certain periods of time you don’t respond by making the road wider. Just like with building the road in the first place, you make it wider if you want to increase the number of people driving. If you want to eliminate the congestion problem, then you charge people to drive on the road during the peak times. The transit situation is similar. If you don’t want people to take the Metro from Bethesda to Gallery Place, then you shouldn’t build the Metro. But if you do want people to take the Metro from Bethesda to Gallery Place then you shouldn’t charge them to ride. But if it turns out that your route is too popular at certain times of day, then you want to charge them in order to prevent overcrowding.

But, if the public policy goal is to get the benefits that come from getting people from point A to point B, I’m not sure this makes much sense.

For one thing, trying to prevent overcrowding by raising prices during popular times imposes the burden entirely on the poor.  The Tim Geithners and Tom Daschles of the world will travel when they damned well please but plumbers named Joe have to either fork over a meaningful chunk of their income or waste a lot of time arriving to places, including their workplaces, very early and leaving very late.   (There is, after all, a reason certain times are more popular than others.)

Beyond that, if we want people to drive from Bethesda into DC, then we should make it as convenient to do so as practical.  Indeed, I avoid driving to Bethesda, which is a perfectly nice place, like the plague because it’s not worth the hassle of getting there.  Give me more traffic lanes or faster, more pleasant public transit and I’d adapt accordingly.

UPDATE: Alternatively, we could replace people with ants and solve all the problems.

Photo by Flickr user Sagebrush Photography, used under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. You should build it because you want to encourage people to drive from DC to Frederick.

    Freedom is so overrated in Young Mr. Yglesias’ world.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure I follow his argument.

    On the road example, if the people of Frederick and Washington, DC want to finance a road between the two I have no objection to their doing it nor do I much care whether they charge tolls or finance it completely through taxes. I do care if they want the people of Chicago to pay for the road. The argument that Chicagoans would benefit from the road is pretty sketchy and we’ve got road problems of our own which I don’t see anybody clamoring to solve for us.

    Similarly with public transportation. I don’t much care what the terms are for it unless it’s public transportation that I might conceivably use.

    From an economic standpoint I think user fees make the most sense for a lot of services including transportation. If you want to ameliorate the effects on the poor, figure out a way to rebate their expenses to them every month.

  3. M1EK says:

    Somebody who espouses conservatism ought to be skeptical of a road-pricing scheme that emulates the Soviet Union (provide as much as we can; ration access via queueing).

    Road pricing (and transit pricing) is a great thing – it encourages people to value their time and, possibly even more importantly, the time of others.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Somebody who espouses conservatism ought to be skeptical of a road-pricing scheme that emulates the Soviet Union (provide as much as we can; ration access via queueing).

    Very few conservatives consider roads other than a public good. We’ve had publicly funded interstates since the Eisenhower administration, and federal highways well before that.

    Road pricing (and transit pricing) is a great thing – it encourages people to value their time and, possibly even more importantly, the time of others.

    Not really. I’ve been on traffic jams on the Dulles Greenway, which is outrageously priced during peak periods. It’s just a way to extract money from people for something they need to do. Even at $5 a pop, though, only very poor people are going to waste 2 hours on each side of their daily commute — twice a day! — in order to save money.

    (The “rush hour” in DC is from roughly 6 to 10:30 in the morning and 3:30 to 7:30 in the evening.)

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Shorter James: Matt is an elitist.

    Me: Matt is an uber-conservative. Let’s imagine this train of thought: Health care is a public good. Unfortunately the demand for health care can outstrip supply. We don’t want to increase the supply of health care because it would generate more demand. Instead, we charge a fee for those health care services that are in highest demand.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Shorter James: Matt is an elitist.

    Hell, I’m an elitist. I think Matt’s just being a wonk while ignoring obvious consequences.

    Let’s imagine this train of thought: Health care is a public good. Unfortunately the demand for health care can outstrip supply. We don’t want to increase the supply of health care because it would generate more demand. Instead, we charge a fee for those health care services that are in highest demand.

    Well, health care isn’t a public good.

    And charging more for high demand services would generally be a disaster. If you want to ration by price, much better to charge more for elective surgeries (facelifts, liposuction, etc.)and for futile procedures at the end of life.

  7. M1EK says:

    e’ve had publicly funded interstates since the Eisenhower administration, and federal highways well before that.

    That’s true. The provision of the new breed of suburban commuter highways by taxing everybody, especially urban drivers and non-drivers, though, is a different story entirely – not precisely a public good in the old sense, and definitely something for which not charging has led to inefficient consumption.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    James, you are not an elitist as long as you are on the side of Joe the Plummer.

    Well, health care isn’t a public good.

    Well, I think Matt believes health care is a public good, but that is where my (non-serious) suggestion that Matt is an uber-conservative breaks down. But it still strikes me that Matt is taking a line of argument primarily because he doesn’t value urban-suburban transportation and he wouldn’t use similar arguments for something he values like health-care.

  9. Steve Plunk says:

    Don’t bring Joe into this.

    What many transportation planners forget is that we already pay for using the roads during peak hours. We pay with the currency of our valuable time. When that cost gets high enough we either forgo the trip or perhaps choose an alternate route.

    The problem with congestion pricing from this conservatives viewpoint is simply putting government in charge of more money and decision making. That politicizing will eventually create more problems that it could ever solve.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, James roads are not public goods. To be a public good a good must be non-rivalrous and non-excludable. The toll booths all along the roads hereabouts are testimony to the fact that roads are excludable. Consequently, by definition roads are not public goods.

    A public good is not synonymous with government benefit.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Consequently, by definition roads are not public goods.

    It’s true that roads can be private goods, although most aren’t. I don’t mind toll roads as an adjunct to public “free” ones. I’m not at all a fan of making normal roads toll roads, though. Even Adam Smith thought roads should be public goods, publicly financed.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    A good paid for out of the public purse is not the definition of a public good.

  13. Brett says:

    Could you build “car trains”? As in, you drive your car up on one side on to the train, ride with the train for a while (bathrooms are on the train, although you have to get out of your car), then drive off the other side on to the road at the next stop?

    Just a crazy idea. In the meantime, it would help if they would run trains more frequently all the time, and particularly at certain intervals.

  14. bob in fla says:

    There is a car train running between somewhere in Florida & somewhere around D.C. But the car has to make the entire trip. Why? They can”t be aligned from one side to the other simply because they are too long. The maximum width of any rail car is about 8 feet. Because of the way rail infrastructure is set up, much over that would cause collisions with signals, adjacent trains, tunnels, etc.

  15. Joe R. says:

    Freedom is so overrated in Young Mr. Yglesias’ world.

    You and I seem to be the only ones who learned that lesson from his argument.

  16. Joe R. says:

    Also, I hate the conflation of “free” and “publicly financed”. It’s only “free” if you believe that taxed money always belonged to the government in the first place–which explains much of the left’s policy preferences.