Would you pay to keep your trucks charging down the nation's highways, delivering freight to your customers instead of spending hours idling in traffic jams? Would you pay for the opportunity to commute to work each morning without riding the brake pedal for upwards of an hour? It's something to ponder because you may soon have the option of paying for the privilege of traffic-free motoring.
Called congestion pricing, the proposition is to price road use the same way utilities, housing and airline tickets are already priced—by supply and demand. The practice is already picking up speed in some parts of the world, although pricing schemes vary somewhat. In some locations, users are charged fees to use roads at peak times (typically daylight hours) but may cruise them for free during off hours. In others, motorists can elect to travel on toll roads that run parallel to free roads or choose faster-moving toll lanes that run alongside free lanes on the very same roadway.
Though the idea of charging people to use what many consider to be public infrastructure may raise some eyebrows, no one denies that road congestion presents a mounting problem in the industrialized world. "In many cities, the average speeds of road travel aren't much greater today than they were in the days of the horse-drawn vehicle," say the authors of a study published last month by Deloitte Research. That study, Combating Gridlock: How Road User Pricing Can Ease Congestion, warns that the number of road users and motor vehicles is increasing faster than new roads are being developed and congestion is destined to increase significantly in the next 10 years. Costs related to congestion include unpredictable travel times, environmental damage, property damage, delays and lost production. In the United States alone, the cost of congestion is estimated at about $150 billion, or 1.5 percent of GDP.
The study's authors see congestion pricing as a much more workable solution than previous attempts to address the congestion problem: building more roads, trying to change land use patterns, and encouraging people to use public transportation. "Road pricing has the potential to provide tremendous economic, time-saving and safety benefits for road users whether they're commercial drivers … or commuters who travel to work," says Greg Pellegrino, global consulting leader of Deloitte's public-sector practice. "A road user pricing program can prevent the overload of the road and damaging breakdowns in traffic flow, allowing businesses to move goods more efficiently, and workers to arrive at the office on time. This is a process that will greatly reduce the enormous costs associated with congestion, which everyone pays for."