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Congestion tolling unnecessary; many other non-toll alternatives without punishing people for going to work!

Link to editorial here.

Professor Merrifield and I agree on a lot of things like the danger of granting 50 year monopolies over our public infrastructure using secret contracts, and the folly of free lanes being permanently congested to force motorists onto adjacent toll lanes. But some economists and transportation analysts would argue there’s no need for congestion tolling since congestion during peak hours is incentive enough to discourage non-essential trips until non-peak hours.

Also, in light of escalating gas prices with no end in sight, there is already a hefty financial constraint to discourage non-essential driving without TOLLS. I’m also convinced that increasing the cost transportation hurts the economy, period. The two biggest costs in every household are housing and transportation. Increasing transportation costs blows a gaping hole into the family budget. Read more here. Also, there are a host of non-toll, more affordable, less invasive ways to solve congestion relief other than tolls, which are the most expensive option. Read more here.

See thoughts on congestion by Public Policy Analyst Barry Klein in Houston following Professor Merrifield’s editorial.

Comment: Tolling roads during rush hour a smarter idea
By John Merrifield

State law allows only a wacky approach to tolls. It needs to be changed.
The state-mandated choice is between “free” lanes and toll lanes. Sounds great, right? You don’t have to pay the toll until the traffic gets bad enough that the toll seems a better choice.

But think what that means! The toll lanes will sit empty until the free lane traffic slows a lot, something that happens on our most heavily traveled roads only about six hours a day. Because of the toll cost, free lane users will still suffer congestion delays.

To pay for the toll lanes, used only six hours daily by a fraction of the total motorists, the toll will have to be quite high. Given that, I doubt the 12- to 18-cents-per-mile estimated toll charge will be enough to pay for the toll lanes. But even that toll rate will cost users about $500 per year. That assumes a 10-mile, one-way commute 200 days per year.

So state law mandates congested “free” lanes alongside expensive toll lanes that will sit there unused roughly 18 hours per day. It’s the same kind of absurd, limited choice we have now for schools: a “Nation at Risk”-quality, free public school system or better, expensive private schools. I’m not against that choice, but we must do a lot better. Likewise, having toll lanes next to free lanes is better than having just the free lanes, but there are much better strategies.

One hundred percent reliance on gasoline taxes makes as little sense as toll lanes alongside free lanes. It would take a massive tax increase to pay for enough road capacity to avoid persistent rush hour congestion. Note that Atlanta’s proposal to expand Interstate 75 from 15 to 23 lanes epitomizes the result of the latter.

Fortunately, a better approach already exists in the mainstream economics literature. It needs to be thought of as a third side to the debate about how to minimize traffic jams. It entails a toll for peak period use of congested road segments; yes, “tolls,” but only during rush hours where travel demand is high.

It’s not double taxation. The congestion-period tolls fund additional lanes. Since the economic basis for a toll during peak traffic periods is that each motorist imposes a delay cost on other motorists, every rush hour traveler must be charged. With everyone paying, it takes a lot smaller toll to pay for additional lanes, and every motorist benefits all day long.

It also avoids the obvious waste of building roads that no one uses most of the time and that just a few people use when the free lanes clog.

Toll payers get two direct benefits from the congestion fee: less traffic when they pay and more lanes to keep traffic down as the city grows. Congestion tolls also have enormous indirect benefits, including less auto maintenance, fewer accidents and reduced air pollution.

Much of the gas tax revenue has been diverted to non-highway uses and for highways in other places. But even with the additional highway capacity that the diverted money would have funded, congestion tolling would still be appropriate for some road segments to manage demand and to fund additional lanes at key places.

The Myth of Congestion and the Longer Commute
By Barry Klein
Public Policy Consultant
Houston, TX
Several members of the Citizens Transportation Coalition and people interested in transportation issues have heard me talk about the work of transportation scholar Yacov Zahavi.Mr. Zahavi died several years ago. He was from Israel, worked for USDOT, and for a time in the early 1970s worked in Houston with the Houston Galveston Area Council. Alan Clark, the head of HGAC’s transportation section today, knew him in those days.Zahavi later worked for the World Bank. I am in touch with one of his former colleagues from that time who used to edit his papers.Yacov Zahavi did some fundamental research that is ignored by US transportation planners but has the intellectual power to change the policy debates in Houston and elsewhere where “congestion” is treated as a community problem.In fact, congestion is a subjective experience and people have different levels of tolerance for it. The Federal Highway Administration bluntly admits to this on its website. When individuals perceive themselves to have an intolerable congestion problem they usually find a way to resolve their problem. This phenomenon is unacknowledged by transportation planners.

There are 15,000 miles of road in Harris County. This network is a huge resource that allows for 100 million miles of travel during workdays. Much of the travel occurs at speeds above the legal limits, which is a sign the network is underutilized. Very importantly, this transportation resource allows individuals to adapt their travel activity based on their personal goals and needs, and levels of patience with traffic.

Here are three examples of how individuals in different social roles adapt their use of the road network and allow the commute time to stay under half an hour. Workers often-times relocate (not hard for renters), adjust their work hours and even change employers when traffic becomes irritating. Employers will relocate to parts of the region that are less congested or that put them close to the workforce that they desire. Retailers play a role, because of their habit of looking for under-served pockets of consumers and then set up stores in their proximity, which incidentally reduces congestion by giving consumers shorter shopping trips.

All these factors combine to disperse traffic over the road network. They each play a role in the on-going, unplanned but never ceasing trends that mitigate congestion.
By these spontaneous adjustments the average home-to-work commute time in Harris County sits at 27 minutes, roughly where it’s been for the last several decades. This information comes in a 2003 Census Bureau survey released this year (

Back to Zahavi… Zahavi’s research defined the idea of the “Travel-Time Budget.” The research showed that…
a) most of the world spends about an hour a day in travel
b) most commutes are under half an hour, and
c) Families spend about 12-15% of their disposable income for mobility.

Here are two papers by contemporary scholars that draw on Zahavi’s analyses.
The Evolution of Transport
Jesse H. Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti
The Industrial Physicist 7(2):20-24, April/May 2001.

Toward Green Mobility: The Evolution of Transport
Jesse H. Ausubel, Cesare Marchetti, and Perrin S. Meyer
European Review 6(2):143-162, 1998.

This is a quote from the first paper:
“for humans, a large accessible territory means greater liberty in choosing the three points of gravity in of our lives: the home, the workplace, and the school. Four-fifths of all travel ends in this ambit.”

Mr. Ausubel, in an email to me several months ago, made this statement…

“We envision a transport system producing zero emissions and sparing the surface landscape, while people on average range hundreds of kilometers daily. We believe this prospect of “green mobility” is consistent in general principles with historical evolution. We lay out these general principles, extracted from widespread observations of human behavior over long periods, and use them to explain past transport and to project the next 50 to 100 years. Our picture emphasizes the slow penetration of new technologies of transport adding speed in the course of substituting for the old ones in terms of time allocation. We discuss serially and in increasing detail railroads, cars, airplanes, and magnetically levitated trains (maglevs).”

This is a link to a website featuring Zahavi’s papers:

A google search on Yacov Zahavi name will result in over 200 hits.

I think that the more people become aware of Zahavi’s work and its impact on the thinking of a number of urban scholars the more quickly will spread the understanding that congestion can actually be thought of as “self-limiting.”

Here are three links to pages on the Federal Highway Administration website to see more about how the FHWA views congestion:,, and On the last look for the link to Rethinking Traffic Congestion by Brian Taylor, the Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.

Several hundred Houston area residents will soon be engaged in an extensive regional planning process being conducted by HGAC with help from several local sponsors, including Blueprint Houston. By bearing in mind the work of Zahavi and his disciples, participants can treat with skepticism the description of future traffic conditions as projected by the men and women whose careers and incomes are tied to the idea that gridlock is Houston’s destiny unless billions of dollars in new road and transit facilities are constructed.

Henceforth, Houston area residents can do their infrastructure planning freed of the grip of “traffic panic.” New planning options are thereby opened up for consideration.

Yacov Zahavi’s research allows Houstonians to approach transportation questions much more calmly than we have in the past. Being aware of its existence means that, as we reach our private and collective conclusions on proposed infrastructure projects, our thinking can be based on a wider range of growth scenarios for the Houston area.

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