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Is Congestion Pricing Bad for the Environment?

The idea of charging drivers based on how and where they drive has popped up again in New York City largely because of a man named Jay H. Walder, the newly appointed chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Walder helped create London’s congestion pricing system, and his arrival in New York brings the possibility that the city will look at charging fees for driving in some locations during peak hours.

The Wall Street Journal points out, though, that while congestion pricing is a good way to decrease traffic, it may also have a negative net impact on the environment.

After all, traffic jams are one of the best advertisements for public transportation. Curbing rush-hour traffic may be good for drivers who want to flow quickly and easily to and from work, but an easy commute will only induce more people to get behind the wheel rather than find alternate means of transportation.

Transportation planners call this “induced traffic” because short-sighted policies meant to alleviate traffic end up luring more people to drive and to do so more frequently. Take the example of Minnesota, which added freeway entrance ramp meters to help curb rush-hour traffic. The meters reduced peak-period travel times, but the overall volume of traffic increased by 9% and peak volume by 14%, which equates with an increase in fuel consumption by 5.5 million gallons of gasoline. Houston and Atlanta saw similar results when they introduced the meters.

These findings are counter-intuitive because when most people think “reduce traffic” it comes with a little glowing green pat on the back. As bad as idling cars in stand-still traffic are for the environment, they have the effect of pushing people off the road, not encouraging more drivers onto the roads.

Therefore, if New York City simply wants to distribute traffic patterns more sanely, congestion pricing is something to look at, but if it actually wants the environmental benefit of reducing fuel consumption and car emissions, Walder and the rest of the MTA might want to look at other options.

It’s an interesting argument, and as cities across the country look for ways to fight back against their growing transportation difficulties, one to keep in mind.

How Traffic Jams Help the Environment (The Wall Street Journal)