We can tackle traffic congestion

To paraphrase Beyoncé, put a price on it

THE FACTS ARE IN and they aren’t pretty.  Metro Boston ranks in the top tier of regions suffering from severe, chronic traffic congestion.

You knew that, didn’t you?  You’ve been stuck in that traffic, day after day, morning and evening after morning and evening. Or you’ve been on commuter rail from Worcester or Framingham, waving at the traffic sitting idle on the Turnpike as you approached the city.

Mind you, the state has been helpful informing you of exactly how long you should expect to sit idle in traffic, wasting your time, wasting fuel, and polluting the air.  Handsome message signs offer “real time” read-outs of how long it will take to reach certain milestones: “Zakim Bridge: 20 miles/45 minutes.”   You’ve seen them.  It’s helpful information, allowing you to call ahead (hands-free, of course) so the boss will know you are running late again and will miss that important staff meeting she called.  Helpful when you need to let the doctor’s office know you will miss the appointment it took you three weeks to schedule.  Sitting in traffic congestion and being fully informed of the duration of your highway imprisonment gives you a chance to perform those deep breathing exercises that help stave off the anxiety that washes over you when you realize you may miss your flight.

A report issued recently by A Better City noted that when “measured by the percentage of peak hour time spent in gridlock, Boston is the most congested city in America.”  Absorb that for a moment.  “The most congested city” – in the nation.  Not Los Angeles, not Chicago, not Miami, or Fort Worth.  Boston.  That means, in plain English, that we are spending 14 percent of our drive time not actually driving, but stuck in traffic congestion.

The data collection company INRIX, which monitors traffic congestion across the nation, reported last week that each driver in metro Boston spent an average of 60 hours stuck in traffic last year.  That level of congestion comes at a price, costing each driver over $2,000 a year, which is the combination of direct costs (more fuel) and indirect costs (such as higher delivery costs that get passed along to consumers).  It does not include a monetized cost of the reduction of quality of life, or the increased air pollution caused by slow moving or idle traffic.

We cannot sustain a strong economy or a decent quality of life if we continue to accept traffic congestion levels at this scale.  Eventually, and probably sooner than you think, it will catch up with us, causing businesses to reconsider where they are locating jobs, causing people with choices to relocate.  Once the slide begins, it will be difficult to stop.

The A Better City report offers some insight into how a fully and high functioning transit system can serve as a powerful counterbalance to the negative outcomes of traffic congestion.  Today, even though it does not function at a full or high level, the MBTA provides a combination of tangible benefits to metro Boston residents that are worth $6,700 per regional household every year.  What are those benefits?  An astounding $7.1 billion in travel-time savings, and $3.6 billion in travel cost savings.  Fewer traffic crashes means over $600 million in saved costs, and more people on transit means a reduction in auto emissions that can be monetized as $30 million in savings annually. These benefits are quantifiable and critical to maintaining our current highly productive regional economy.

Our regional future is at stake. This is no exaggeration, simply a statement based on the facts, the data, and history.  Without a highly functioning, efficient and reliable mobility system, we cannot continue to attract investment and grow jobs.  As I have said many times, no one comes to Boston because of the weather.  Our assets are rooted in our ability to offer a certain quality of life, but when people in Mattapan cannot get a frequent and reliable train ride into the city, when people in the Seaport District cannot get to Logan Airport without suffering through a grueling third world transit experience, when a professional invited to an early breakfast meeting has to book a hotel room because he knows he cannot leave his North Shore home at a reasonable hour and make his appointment in the city, then you know we are on the cusp of a regional mobility failure.

We’ve talked about this before, you and I.  Having spent almost the entirety of the 20th Century, and nearly the first quarter of the present era, continuing an unabated focus and funding of an auto-centric transportation system, it is time to reimagine how we provide mobility to people, and change the funding paradigm.

By reimagining our mobility system, I do not mean moving toward a future of gridlocked autonomous vehicles.  The current autonomous vehicle mania will one day settle down, once it becomes clear that its utility is not for urban settings but for other (potentially less profitable) applications.  By reimagining the system, I mean transforming our transit system into one that functions at the highest levels, a system that is always in good repair, and that is able to meet demand (by virtue of wisely purchased and well maintained equipment, and expanded schedules). I also mean an intercity rail system that is fundamentally different from our current “haul ‘em in, and haul ‘em out” commuter rail system.  We are operating a commuter rail system as if it was still mid-20th Century and Chubby Checker had just broken into celebrity with the twist.  Times change, and so, too, do the mobility preferences of people who have fundamentally different expectations of what personal mobility ought to look like.

UCLA Professor Michael Manville was recently in town, and my TransitMatters colleague Josh Fairchild and I had a chance to record a Commonwealth Codcast with him. Manville, who has made a study of the traffic congestion issue, asserted that the only proven way to manage and reduce congestion is to put a price on the use of the highway and charge drivers an appropriate cost for the use of the facility.  I know that there are those who say “But wait, didn’t I already pay for that highway with my gas tax?”  The answer is: not really.  You paid for some (but not all) of the costs of building and maintaining the road, but you haven’t ever paid anything close to the real cost of driving on the highway.  Manville made a compelling case that we have very valuable land – the highways that get us to our destinations – and we give that away for free.  He pointed out a proven marketplace principle: if you have something everyone wants and hold the price at zero, you get a shortage.  This is true whether the something is washing machines, watermelons, or highways.  That shortage is expressed as our chronic weekday congestion.  Those of you who take Interstate 90 might say, “But hold on, I pay a toll and the Pike is still congested every day,” and you’d be right.  But, as Manville pointed out, the Turnpike isn’t being tolled to reduce congestion, it is being tolled to pay off debt and raise revenue for the Metro Highway System.  If MassDOT actually imposed a congestion pricing regime on the Turnpike, and charged people more during certain hours of the day, it might actually have a salient impact on traffic congestion.

Pricing is the only proven and effective way to get people to shift modes.  We wouldn’t need to invest in new technology to adopt a congestion pricing policy. We already know that we can charge variable toll rates through the current EZ-Pass system, because we do it to provide well-deserved neighborhood discounts.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is promoting a cordon pricing idea (the driver gets charged once he enters a certain geographical boundary) that would address congestion in New York City head-on, and possibly provide the transit system there the kind of revenue support that London’s successful cordon pricing regime has provided for its bus system. Cordon pricing in Boston as a strategy to tame traffic congestion won’t be the easiest policy to adopt, but we need to start exploring the idea with carefully tailored pilot programs.  As we do that, imposing a daily carbon impact fee on every non-residential parking space in the city, and dedicating 100 percent of the revenue toward transit, cycling, and walking projects would be a powerful first step in the battle to alleviate the threat that growing traffic congestion poses to our economic and environmental future.

There is growing interest in the city and region to tackle the issue of traffic congestion in an effective way.  We cannot be afraid to experiment with approaches like smart tolling, congestion pricing, charging for miles traveled, and carbon fees on non-residential parking in urban settings. We ought to try all of these as volunteer pilot programs, collect data, and get people comfortable with new ways of pricing vehicular mobility and generating transportation revenue for transit.  That will help illuminate the right pathways forward.

Meet the Author

Tackling traffic congestion won’t be easy, although it isn’t rocket science.  And as much as I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of Elon Musk, sending cars into outer space is not a solution to the problem. It will take a combination of vision, acceptance, and political courage to get the job done.  Are we going to continue to stand by and watch traffic congestion grow and strangle our future, or are we going to act? The question is squarely put to each of us, and answering it cannot be avoided or deferred.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.