What our highways can learn from movie theaters

An argument for congestion pricing

GOVERNOR BAKER aims to improve transportation in our state with an $18 billion bond – $10 billion of which is earmarked for highway construction. Certainly, commuters need relief: stop-and-go traffic in Greater Boston is an unwelcome fact of daily life. But spending on highways does not always achieve the desired effect. To bring sanity to the comedic horrors of our commutes, we can learn from a seemingly unrelated realm: movie theaters. 

To understand why, let’s start with some basic highway facts. When highways are first built or expanded, drivers benefit, but only for a little while; about as long as between film sequels. Driving on a fresh new highway is an attractive thing, so eventually you see more drivers and more brake lights. In fact, there’s strong evidence that building more highway capacity leads to more traffic. 

Of course, transportation officials could respond by building even more highways. But adding highway capacity in Greater Boston is expensive for taxpayers–like a medium-sized Big Dig. It usually requires destroying homes and businesses, which generate tax revenue. The result is a heavier tax burden, less revenue, more air pollution, and just as much congestion. Expanding highways isn’t much of a solution. 

The good news is that there are better solutions out there — as movie theaters figured out long ago. Movie theaters and highways both have a finite number of seats or vehicle lanes. And both have huge fluctuations in demand depending on the time of day. While many people want to go to the movies at 7 PM, fewer people want to go at 4 PM. Movie theaters respond by providing incentives for people to attend earlier shows. They call this “matinee pricing,” and it works. By drawing in more people earlier in the day, matinee pricing manages evening capacity and lets theaters maximize the usage of their fixed supply. Overall, more people get to see more movies at a lower total cost to everyone. 

We can implement the equivalent of matinee pricing on our roads. With “congestion pricing,” we can reward drivers who are able to shift their trips to free up space on the highway. This means charging a bit more to drivers who are on the roads at the busiest times and less to those driving off-peak. Shifting demand will work on roads just like it works at movie theaters. 

How much will this increase the cost to drive? Well, it depends on what time of the day and how frequently you drive. To maximize impact, employers can receive incentives to increase work-from-home opportunities. Also, we should relax the cost to drive for people of low incomes, so we don’t disproportionately impact these populations. 

What will the money be used for? Well, the T needs help. Revenues could be used to improve bus service with bus-only lanes, and railroad frequency could be enhanced. Also, congestion pricing revenues could be used to construct Light Individual Transportation (LIT) Lanes on major roads to and from transit hubs. This will help solve the problem of parking at transit stations, enabling a fast, safe, and inexpensive connection by the wheels of your choice: a scooter, bicycle, or e-bike. 

Meet the Author
The bottom line is that traffic congestion is a solvable problem. To solve it, we have to think about managing our highways differently than we have in the past. If we priced highways like movie theaters, then when you really needed to drive, there would be fewer people in front of you. That’ll means you’ll have more time with your family, at the gym, or at the movies. 

Jesse Boudart is a transportation engineer who leads multimodal planning and engineering firm called Toole Design.