More Tolls, Less Gridlock

I spent about 8 hours in the airport today, reading the Sunday NY Times from cover to cover, and I can report that the best article in it is John Tierney’s “The Autonomist Manifesto.” It’s a wide-ranging article making the case for sprawl and cars. Particularly interesting was his description of “HOT lanes,” high-occupancy toll lanes that can be used by carpoolers and busses for free, or lone drivers for pay.

Drivers sitting in a traffic jam outside San Diego used to glance across the median strip of I-15 at a maddening sight: car-pool lanes without any car-poolers. The lanes were so empty that engineers decided to let solo drivers share them for a price, which is displayed on electronic signs at the entrance to the lanes. A computer counts how many cars take the offer and then recalibrates the price every six minutes, raising the toll if too many cars accept, cutting it if not enough do.


When this experiment began in 1996, some critics said it was unfair to create these ”Lexus lanes.” But by now, even drivers who won’t pay the toll have come to appreciate the lanes because they divert traffic from the regular highway. And while affluent drivers are more likely to pay the bill, surveys have found people of all incomes using the lanes. Most of the ones I interviewed were budget-conscious, middle-class commuters who used the free lanes when possible. But when the traffic got heavy, they considered the toll a bargain.

San Diego-style congestion pricing could be a big deal if it spread widely; to other cities, and to gridlocked city centers as well as highways. According to Paul Krugman, writing in 1996 before four years of George Bush drove him shrill, traffic reform has a potential payoff about as big as tax reform: about $50 billion a year.

When an idea is promoted by the libertarian-leaning John Tierney, the liberal Paul Krugman, and “Red Ken” Livingstone, the socialist Mayor of London, that’s an idea whose time has come.