Putting Road Pricing to the Public

With congestion grinding cities down and road pricing hitting political buffers, is there a better route to a solution?

Singapore by Random Person

Congestion has been in the news again. The Washington Post presents Arity’s findings, that Americans spend almost three-times more time commuting by car than they get in vacation. More time each year spent travelling to work than they get off. Congestion is a pain. The great inefficiency of automobility.

A partial solution

Perhaps a partial solution to the congestion problem favoured by economists is road pricing. We have ready-made examples at work in London, Stockholm and Singapore. But road pricing is politically challenging such that the cities that have it are still a minority. Why?

Simply put, it’s a challenge for cities founded on democratic governance. When Ken Livingstone sought to bring one to London, it was billed as his great gamble: a decongested nirvana or international embarrassment and electoral defeat. But even when it was first considered in 2000, over half (52 per cent) of journeys in London were by public transport, walking or cycling. The majority of travelling Londoners were already set to benefit. And Livingstone must have taken confidence from this.

Cities have also held referendums to decide. In Manchester, road-pricing proposals fell foul of plebiscite. While in Stockholm citizens supported a charge

More recently, in New York and Toronto, proposals were called off by higher political office. Getting a form of rationing through our democratic institutions — particularly fragmented city governance — has proved problematic.


Indeed, one extreme view is that a solution cannot be delivered democratically (at least in America). Speaking to The Economist in 2003, Anthony Downs, author of Stuck in Traffic said, “this is a problem without a solution — at least a solution the American people will accept … Learn to enjoy being stuck in traffic as another leisure activity, because congestion is here to stay.”

Downs’ position is strengthened when we consider that trust in our political institutions has declined. According to polls highlighted by the OECD, trust in government sits at an average 43%. Between 2007 and 2015, trust in political parties decreased by an average two percentage points; while trust in parliaments decreased five percentage points between 2008 and 2014 in OECD/EU countries. Why are these stats an issue?

Government, political parties and parliaments are the bodies that would make the tough decisions needed to develop road pricing (decisions I’ve written about before). If we don’t trust them, we won’t trust the solutions they propose. In this environment, politicians might wish to stay clear of volatile policies and tough decisions.

But with time running out to curb carbon emissions, urban populations rising, and congestion with it, is there a way for democrats (with a small ‘d’) to deliver road pricing?