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Traffic: Bend the Rush-Hour Curve with Congestion Pricing

By Chris Dempsey. Chris is the Director of the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition and previously served as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth.

February 26, 2021

On Monday, March 9, 2020, the international traffic data firm INRIX named Greater Boston as the most congested region in the entire country—beating out cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. for the second consecutive year. Less than a week later, that soul-crushing congestion had vanished, as much of the Commonwealth’s “in-person” economy ground to a halt in response to the developing public-health crisis. Rush-hour trips on the Turnpike that typically took an hour instead took about half that time, according to MassDOT data. The Southeast Expressway, usually one of the most congested highways in the country, was suddenly an “Express”-way again. Empty roads became one of the indelible images of the early months of the pandemic.

A year later, COVID-19 has killed more than 15,000 Massachusetts residents, upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, and left us questioning and wondering what the “new normal” might look like once we have the virus defeated. Some predict a future where large numbers of white-collar employees work from home. This could be catastrophic to the long-term success of the Massachusetts economy, which is anchored by places like Boston’s Financial District and Cambridge’s Kendall Square that thrive precisely because, for centuries, they have brought together some of the smartest and most talented people in innovation agglomerations. In a future in which this talent is working from home, Massachusetts loses out to the low housing prices and better weather of states like Arizona and North Carolina. Others say that even if our downtowns come back, riders won’t return to public transit, as a packed commuter-rail train or subway car just feels a little too close for comfort to a populace now accustomed to social distancing. In this scenario, our worst-in-the-nation traffic only gets worse than it was before the pandemic.

There are already some troubling signs that this latter scenario could be our future if we do not take action. While driving on Greater Boston’s highways was a breeze in the early months of the pandemic, congestion has started to creep back, especially outside of the immediate urban core. Total vehicle-miles-traveled on Massachusetts roadways are already at about 80 percent of their February 2020 levels while transit ridership is at only at 20–30 percent. To build a future that is less gridlocked, more efficient, and more equitable than the pre-pandemic past, we have to start now. As a recent Boston Globe editorial put it, “If business and community leaders and transportation experts aren’t brought to the table now to discuss the road ahead, when would be a good time to start? When the roads are once again jammed and people are grumbling about their nightmare commutes?”

Traffic volumes west of Boston are already close to pre-pandemic levels.

Average weekday traffic volume heading eastbound on the MassPike at 15-minute intervals.

That discussion must include the controversial topic of congestion pricing, the only policy that has been shown to sustainably and reliably fix traffic (other than the vast economic destruction of a pandemic or a recession).

Road pricing takes advantage of what transportation engineers call the “nonlinear” nature of traffic congestion. As a highway reaches its design capacity, each additional vehicle added to the road creates more congestion than the vehicle that came before it. A good rule of thumb is that a 5 percent increase in vehicle volumes causes a 20 percent increase in travel delay for everyone. Luckily, the reverse is true: Taking 5 percent of cars off the road can reduce total congestion by 20 percent. We saw this dynamic on March 11 and 12, 2020, the earliest days of the pandemic response, when traffic volumes on the Turnpike were down only about 10 percent but trip times were down an incredible 50 percent compared with 2019.

With dynamic, real-time congestion pricing, the roadway toll is set as low as possible, but just high enough to keep traffic moving at free flow for drivers, bus riders, delivery trucks, and anyone who needs the road to work well. The technique “bends the curve” of traffic demand: first, by putting a price on something that we currently think of as free, discouraging trips that could have been taken by transit or in a carpool (or not taken at all), and second, by smoothing out the remaining demand in a way that is familiar to anyone who has enjoyed an early-bird special at a diner or matinee pricing at a movie theater. In all of these cases, people make adjustments in their schedules and habits to save money, but they still get to enjoy a meal, a movie, or an open road.

But wait—isn’t such a policy highly regressive? Doesn’t it punish commuters who have the least flexibility in their schedule? Does this mean only the rich get to enjoy our roads? These were reasonable questions to ask before the pandemic, but they are especially deserving of answers now, when we all want a future that is fairer and more equitable than what we had a year ago. In addition to making our roads more efficient, congestion pricing makes them more equitable in at least three important ways:

  1. Low-income drivers benefit from faster and more reliable trips. This is especially valuable if they get paid hourly, work multiple jobs, or are caregivers to children or elders. A salaried executive might be able to call into a meeting from the road, and gets paid the same even if she shows up 30 minutes late to work. That’s not true of a retail employee or restaurant worker who gets paid only when he is physically present. Faced with gridlocked traffic, it is relatively easy for a wealthy family to ask a nanny to stay longer or to pay a late fee for delayed pickup at daycare. Low-income drivers don’t have that luxury. Pricing also creates a pot of funding that can be used to subsidize low-income drivers for whom tolls would be a burden. We have precedents for these policies in other areas of public policy: We fund low-income assistance programs for water and electricity through payments made by other users in the form of utility bills.
  2. Hundreds of thousands of MBTA bus riders—who are more likely to be low-income, people of color, and women—benefit from faster and more reliable commutes. They also benefit from the transit-service expansion that is made possible by congestion-pricing revenue. When London implemented congestion pricing two decades ago, the city ramped up bus service into its congestion zone by 27 percent—paid for by toll revenue. Greater Boston could do the same by dedicating a large portion of congestion-pricing revenue to enhanced MBTA and commuter bus service along the tolled corridors.
  3. People who live along highways will see immediate improvements in their air quality. In Stockholm, juvenile asthma attacks dropped a stunning 50 percent in the neighborhoods within that city’s congestion pricing zone. We know from research by the Union of Concerned Scientists that in Massachusetts residents living near highways are more likely to be people of color, at least in part because of the racist history of redlining and its connections to where planners chose to site highways in the 1940s and 1950s. The result is that residents in communities along major highways—like Chinatown, Chelsea, East Somerville, and Quincy—disproportionately suffer from asthma, heart disease, and other health problems caused by tailpipe pollution. Just as congestion pricing clears our roads, it also helps clear our air and begins to address this environmental injustice.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the biggest beneficiaries are those who have the least flexibility in their commute. Need your pickup truck for work? Now you get a reliable commute that means you have more time to be on the job site, to get the kids ready for school in the morning, or to do anything you would rather be doing than sitting in traffic. Have a demanding boss who insists you are at your desk at 9:00 a.m.? Now you can leave your house at 8:15 a.m. for your 25-mile commute instead of being forced to leave at 7:30 a.m. as a hedge against bad traffic. Don’t own a car and your only option is the bus? Your bus runs more frequently and your trip time is cut in half.

Using pricing to reduce (or even eliminate) congestion remains a fantastical concept in Massachusetts. But it is common in other parts of the country. Of the ten largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Greater Boston is the only one that does not use this technique to reduce congestion on its roads. Competitor regions like Seattle and Washington, D.C., price certain roads so effectively that they can guarantee trip times for commuters. Imagine receiving a refund on your Turnpike toll if your average speed drops below 50 miles per hour!

Highways with congestion pricing move fewer vehicles but more people (this is an important distinction from programs to promote telecommuting, which have the goal of moving fewer people). For example, after dynamic roadway pricing was put in place on I-66, a radial highway in Northern Virginia, an average of 750 fewer vehicles traveled through the corridor each weekday morning, but thanks to increased rates of carpooling and bus riding, the road successfully moved 700 more people from the suburbs into Washington than it had before pricing was instituted.

These potential efficiency gains in urban mobility hold promise for the thousands of small businesses who need our cities to bounce back. COVID-19 has emptied out offices, decimated the restaurant industry, and turned Downtown Boston into a ghost town. Congestion pricing will do the opposite, actually helping revitalize downtown as we recover. In Stockholm, 20 percent fewer vehicles in the city center didn’t lead to a decline in retail sales. Making a place easier to get to is good for business.

The politics of advancing congestion pricing are challenging, but we’ve made progress over the last few years. In 2020, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to create a Roadway and Congestion Pricing Commission to study congestion pricing and to direct MassDOT to develop an implementation plan based on the commission's recommendations. The commission would have kicked off a transparent, stakeholder-engaged process to figure out how pricing might work in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, this provision was vetoed by Governor Baker, who prefers a form of congestion pricing called “managed lanes” in which some lanes are priced and uncongested while other lanes remain “free” and congested. But even if they disagree on the details, both the Governor and Legislature agree that the concept of using pricing to reduce congestion has merit.

Skepticism is understandable: Nobody likes to pay for something that used to be “free.” But it’s time to level with the commuting public: Roads are never free—when we don’t price them, we just pay with our time instead. It is time to join other regions across the country and across the world who have figured this out. The next critical step is to begin piloting and testing these policies in ways that engage communities and voters, build public support, and demonstrate the value they can deliver to road users. A place to start would be to convert the I-93 HOV lane in Somerville into a managed lane, a proposal by Cambridge resident Conrad Crawford that was recognized by the Pioneer Institute’s Better Government Competition and is consistent with Governor Baker’s stated approach.

While we still face uncertainty in the months ahead, all of us want to see Massachusetts build back better than before. If nothing else, COVID-19 has reminded us of the power of smart public policies to make—or break—our daily lives and routines. Our region is resilient to upheaval and we will get through this difficult time, but we also must keep focused on the long-term goals of improving transit, reducing congestion, and building a transportation system that works for all residents. Pricing our roads to “bend the curve” of traffic demand will make them work better for everyone in the Commonwealth. The conversation must start now.

Read more proposals in the Seizing the Moment series.