Could Congestion Pricing Help Eliminate Traffic Jam Problem?

Whenever there is a traffic jam, it is not just the commuters who suffer. Manufacturers’ shipments per day to and from the city are restricted, multinationals opt to avoid traffic jams altogether instead of devising solutions to logistic problems, business meeting are reduced to possibly an average of 1-2 and a lot of fuel and time is wasted on roads not to mention increased emissions.

A 2013 research on Indonesia by McKinsey quantified the economic costs of poor road infrastructure at $5.2Billion in 2010 where road traffic was worsened by incentives on car ownership and fuel subsidies.

The usual approach of easing traffic flows through road expansions doesn’t always reduce traffic, if anything, the effect is usually very short-term. Take for instance a road that suddenly increases capacity overnight, the next few days, traffic will flow rapidly because the same number of drivers would now have twice the road space. It only takes a relatively short period of time before word spreads on how that highway isn’t congested anymore. Drivers who had abandoned that road before for alternative routes shift back into that route, other drivers who had been using other routes also shift to the same road, populations attracted by the convenience in access to the city shift to areas near the highway, businesses follow populations and because of demand with time population rises sharply. Within a few months or years, the road could even become more congested than it was before expansion.

This doesn’t in any way mean that expanding road capacities is pointless. With rising populations and growing middle class, it’s very necessary though road construction takes time. That increased capacity road would be able to carry more vehicles, maximum congestion time may be shorted and within the period during which there would be very little traffic, economic growth in the region would accelerate due to ease of flow of commerce.

Congestion pricing  

The Nairobi governor recently suggested that the solution to traffic problem would be people waking up earlier to avoid traffic, but that isn’t possible without any incentives in place. Travelling at the same period of time isn’t necessarily a problem because efficient operation of economy and school systems requires people to go to work and run errands at the same hours so that they can interact. But it’s possible to reduce amount of traffic during peak hours in such a way that people who are not in a rush can chose to travel during off-peak hours and to induce some of the car owners to commute.

Shifting from small capacity commuting vehicles to bigger capacity commuting vehicles could help in partly eliminating the problem, but would the pace of problem elimination keep up with the pace of middle class growth and rise in car ownership? Its debatable, but I would think not necessarily so. Removing other unnecessary impediments that cause traffic jams could work as well, but how about possibly testing automated congestion pricing where motorists could be supplied with payment electronic cards?

That suggested approach in reducing peak-hour traffic by introducing high occupancy toll lanes isn’t a new idea, it has been testing in a number of countries. This can executed by either adding new toll lanes to existing highways or converting underused lanes to toll lanes. This should allow people who have the need to move fast during peak hours to do so without pushing off the road people who have low income. The toll fee doesn’t have to be too high, possibly a $2 charge could work, about just material enough to influence the motorist’s economic decision making. Alternatively, they could introduce peak hours charges where they can charge for use of road during peak hours and make it free for use during off-peak hours. The biggest challenge in introducing the system is in the political implications, but it could help in raising much needed revenues to patch up budget short-falls.

Has it been successful before? Since Singapore introduced electronic road-pricing in the 1990s, peak-hour traffic volume into restricted zones declined by atleast 30%. And during the 7-month trial period in Stockhold, traffic volume in restricted zones as well declined by 22% during peak hours. As a bonus, carbon emissions reduced by 14% as the public shifted towards public transportation and the commuting time of bus riders was significantly reduced. It’s difficult to implement and adequate research and planning should be done before implementing but maybe it could work here.