This morning, I criticized the effort by some to ramp up the use of tolls on highways as an unjust funding mechanism that will decrease the mobility of the poor and lower middle class. Ryan Avent responded, arguing that tolling’s flaws can be addressed and that road pricing is an effective method to increase funds for mass transit.
Avent argues that tolling could be made equitable by refunding “some of the revenues to lower-income workers” — something that he claims would probably be necessary to “get a plan like this passed.”
I have few illusions that such a progressive policy would be included with a nationwide tolling plan; when it comes to transportation, we Americans are particularly regressive. Tolling is common in much of the Northeast, but lower-income residents there do not get cash back. A look at our transit fare policies similarly demonstrates that we have no predilection for providing mobility benefits to people of fewer resources.
In other words, in an ideal world, we might have a congestion relief package in Congress that included both widespread tolling and rebates to low-income families. But evidence thus far suggests that we would probably only get the former, and that the poor would be stuck paying a higher percentage of their income on transportation than currently. That said, I might be willing to support a tolling plan that includes specific measures designed to feed revenue back into the transportation budgets of needy families.
Avent points out that congestion places a major cost burden on our society, but that this lost money could be retrieved as traffic diminishes because of tolling. The fact of the matter is that widespread road pricing would force a huge number of people off the roads — a good idea in the abstract — but one that would inevitably increase commute times — and decrease productivity — for a large segment of the population. Is it really better for low-income workers to sit twice as long in a bus than for them to cause some congestion on our roadways?
The most important issue here, however, is that much of the American landscape is so oriented around encouraging automobile use that it becomes ridiculous to argue that we could ever provide effective, efficient transit to everyone with tolling revenue. We could make a dent in improving service to some corridors, but the fact remains that even a doubling or tripling of services offered in most communities wouldn’t mean “good” public transportation.
That’s because most of our suburban and even urban communities are structured to favor car travel — something that no increase in transit provision will ever solve. Many of the people who barely get by paying for their automobiles today live in places that are only really accessible by car. Forcing them onto transit by pricing them off roads will only worsen our economy, no matter the potential congestion benefit.
Widespread tolling would be an appropriate manner to address congestion if public transportation could be improved to an extent to make it acceptable to the rich and the poor, in every neighborhood of each metropolitan area. That would only be possible if our communities were dense and transit-oriented, walkable and mixed-use; unfortunately, the vast majority of them are not, and we have decades to go before they will be. In other words, let’s stop building new highways and even which increasing transit capacity, but not start tolling until we’re satisfied with the public transportation our society offers.
A number of commenters have rightfully pointed to the fact that land use is not static and therefore that shifting resources to transit would address the dilemma facing toll-paying suburbanites by densifying uses around transit stations. I have no doubt that that will occur over time — it’s already happening in cities across the country. Here’s the problem: that shift takes years, not weeks, because you need to plan and construct the new homes and businesses that are transit-oriented in the midst of car-culture suburbs. This transition would only affect a portion of suburban land: when you densify, people take up less area; this means that even with better land use, large numbers of suburban cul-de-sacs will remain as they are, far from any reasonable transit service. Huge numbers of people in the lower middle class will continue to live in these environments.
As a result, we have a choice: either penalize a segment of the population for years through road pricing because they’ve bought or rented a home in a sprawled-out neighborhood, even though we’ve spent the last few decades encouraging them to do just that; or, expand transit significantly and focus development in accessible neighborhoods, and find ways to encourage people to live in them, all the while making suburban home habitation less appealing but stopping the expansion of highways. Then we can toll.