Successful Transportation Solutions Require Boldness, Transparency
Laying the foundations for long-term, sustainable economic development will require adopting innovative policy solutions to overcome obstacles to growth. Unfortunately, implementing new policy is often politically unpopular, especially when the change involves levying a new charge or increasing taxes to fund investment or influence behavior.
A case in point was illustrated in a presentation given by Dr. Jonas Eliasson of Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology at a recent Earth Day event in Chicago. Like most major metropolitan areas, the Swedish capital had long suffered from acute traffic congestion and all of the economic and environmental problems associated with it. Beginning in the early 1990’s, academics and policy experts had discussed the potential solution offered by “congestion pricing,” whereby drivers pay a fee for use of the city’s roads, the level of which depends upon the time of day and the “zone” of the city in which the driver is traveling.
Advocates of the system argued that putting a price on road use would discourage discretionary motorists from driving into the center of the city, leaving the roads less congested at peak times for drivers who had no choice but to drive. Congestion pricing could also encourage people to explore different commuting options like public transit or cycling, as well as provide a potential revenue stream to pay for road maintenance and investment in transit services.
Supporters of congestion pricing soon learned that developing effective solutions is not enough. Transforming ideas into actual implemented policies required a concerted effort to educate the voting public. As Dr. Eliasson described, early public opinion was predictably hostile to any plan to charge drivers for something that was thought of as “free.” However, with a combination of effective public education campaign and some bold political decision making during the early implementation phase in 2006, residents of Stockholm and the surrounding metro area came to see the benefits of the congestion price.
The public education campaign focused on the idea that the charge wasn’t a tax on driving. Instead, it was a fee that reduced traffic congestion. It reminded commuters that traffic-clogged streets are not “free” to use, and that congestion has costs: wasted time, wasted fuel and damage to the environment.
Residents realized that the congestion charge allowed for better traffic management without the need for expensive and disruptive new road building. Public support for the system, which hovered around 30 percent before the 2006 trial is now at close to 70 percent.
The Stockholm example teaches a number of crucial lessons for those interested in public policy. First, well-designed policy solutions can be practically effective in improving peoples’ lives if implemented and managed in a transparent and competent way. Second, the initial unpopularity of controversial ideas shouldn’t dissuade politicians from embracing bold solutions if they truly believe in them. People will notice the improvement and the system’s popularity will increase. Third, the public will support paying for real investment in improving infrastructure if the benefits are explained clearly and the results are visible.
Residents in cities like Stockholm and Singapore, which also has an effective road-pricing system, saw the positive effects of congestion pricing with their own eyes and were won around to the idea. Voters in Los Angeles and Denver supported the creation of dedicated revenue streams to fund transit expansion and improvement and are already beginning to enjoy the benefit of increased choice and reduced road traffic. There’s no reason to believe that the same wouldn’t be true for the voters of Chicago and Cook County.
What do you think? What type of fee or tax to support an expansion of transit and/or reduction in congestion could you support in your community?