What If We Called it “Decongestion Pricing”?

Seattle’s KUOW picked up my argument on this today:

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker said the problem is with the name – “congestion pricing.” It’s like the term “death tax,” which was drummed up to discredit the inheritance tax.

Nobody likes death or taxes. Put the two words together and you get a thing politicians have trouble supporting.

Similarly, nobody likes congestion or paying the price for it.

“I’ve suggested the word ‘decongestion pricing,’ because that is what the price buys,” said Walker. “The price buys less congested streets, with more room for all people of all modes to get through. ”

An older, longer, more rambling discussion of this is here.


14 Responses to What If We Called it “Decongestion Pricing”?

  1. JJJJ April 5, 2018 at 10:25 am #

    Planners are bad at naming things. I recently heard something similar about “road diets”. Nobody actually wants to go on a diet.

    • Mike April 5, 2018 at 11:05 am #

      People who see the legacy streets as bloated like the term. Parts of the US have gone particularly crazy with arterials as wide as freeways, in both the lane width and total road width. Some even have a 45-55 mph speed limit to boot. But you’re right that people who like wide-open streets for their cars don’t like the term “road diet”, and that becomes a hinderance in getting a critical mass to approve the changes. But that’s where the more positive term “complete street” comes in. Savvy drivers notice that it often means the same thing — converting four GP lanes to three or two and using the freed-up space for transit, bikes, or sidewalks — and oppose it just as much, but the more positive term probably blunts opposition. (I’m assuming “road diet” means converting lanes because I’ve never heard it in its other possible meaning: reducing the number of roads or not building highways).

  2. el_slapper April 6, 2018 at 4:56 am #

    What about “fluidity shared investment”?

  3. Rob Fellows April 6, 2018 at 7:23 am #

    I like it, but am challenged by it because even though pricing works to reduce congestion, the public doesn’t believe the engineers on this one. They are more skeptical than ever of government in the first place, but downright cynical that people asking them to pay tolls have a real plan to improve their travel time.

    FHWA settled on value pricing, which may not communicate well to the public, but is an important concept for anyone proposing tolls: that is, lead with value. Decongestion may be the most important, but least convincing value statement. My gut tells me, make sure any toll will pay for something the public really values and lead with that, noting that it will also improve efficiency and performance.

    • unrelated April 13, 2018 at 9:48 am #


      (De)congestion pricing benefits people in two ways: 1) it decongests the roads and 2) provides funding for other, ideally transit-oriented, projects.

      The first of these only benefits people who are able and willing to pay the fees. The second is only relevant if the transit department is responsible and reliable with its funds.

      Congestion pricing can also hurt people in two ways: 1) it congests the the untolled roads (if any remain) and 2) it costs people money they aren’t used to spending.

      These two, especially the second, are guaranteed outcomes. The benefits, however, are contingent. Transit engineers, of course, trust themselves with funds. Citizens, though, rightly or wrongly, often do not. Why would they support a measure they clearly see hurts them, while they can only hope for the benefit?

      Congestion pricing cannot be an end in itself because it only benefits the general population if it is used to fund projects which benefit the general population.

      This is not to say congestion pricing is a poor strategy, but it will only have support when the people trust transit departments to use their money well, in ways that benefit them.

  4. John D April 6, 2018 at 11:22 am #

    It’s important to achieve public acceptability in order to support public policy changes. For example, no one like late fee in their credit. So people usually pay to avoid this fee. It’s similar, we want people to avoid this fee by not using their car. In past, a successful project name “congestion charging” which applied in Central London, UK. The project reduce both traffic levels and congestion over 20% in Central London and around the congestion charging area. In my opinion, a balance must be struck between the desired scheme and an acceptable scheme to achieve successful implementation.

  5. Bjorn April 6, 2018 at 12:59 pm #

    This reminds me of when Lisa Simpson referred to a tax hike as a “temporary refund adjustment.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuieYXLiG-8

    I agree that it is better to market this positively, and decongestion pricing might be the best phrase, but it still sounds somewhat unwieldy.

  6. asdf2 April 7, 2018 at 8:47 pm #

    There’s a part of me that almost feels like car congestion is a good thing, in that it’s the most effective way to force people to drive slower, thereby improving safety for everyone.

    • Adam Short April 9, 2018 at 3:14 am #

      This isn’t totally wrong factually [Marchesini 2010] but it’s a strange, costly way to go about achieving something that could be easily achieved through car governors, better enforcement, etc.

      It is true that driving too fast is probably the most dangerous thing (other than smoking cigarettes) that people routinely do. It’s worth a big cost to curtail, but I have to imagine there are better ways of doing it.

    • Georgist Economist April 9, 2018 at 12:13 pm #

      Congestion slowing cars down might improve safety, but that’s at the price of greatly increased air pollution and noise. (Also, society-as-a-whole uses a whole lot more gasoline, which could have been exported/not imported and instead something more useful imported.) And, of course, congestion tends to go hand in hand with a lot of real estate in the form of road surface and parking places being dedicated to cars, as opposed to squares/plazas, park(let)s, or even the buildings that the city *is*.

      And since this site is primarily about transit, let’s mention that congestion at rush hour causes a very peaked demand for transit. Outside of rush hour (say, at noon), when there is little congestion, driving is fast and therefore a very attractive option; thus a low fraction of people wanting to move around choose transit. During rush hour, when car travel time becomes too long, but transit is unaffected, thanks to its separate right of way, the difference in travel time shrinks considerably, thus a *large share* of the higher number of commuters choose transit.

      This strains the agency financially (or simply causes tremendous crowding during the peak). A lot of extra buses have to be bought, but they are only in service during the peak. Several additional drivers have to be hired. Even worse, buses that are in service for a short time still need to go to and from the depot just as much as buses that stay in service all day, thus there is much more deadheading relative to revenue service.

  7. Adam Short April 9, 2018 at 1:45 am #

    Here’s the issue with this nomenclature from a citizen perspective. In DC there is congestion pricing. It helps! But it doesn’t eliminate congestion, obviously. Last Thursday there were several problems including the Orange and Silver lines at one point filling with smoke. That happened in the morning, so the effect on evening traffic was profound (since people had their cars at work.)

    At one point I believe the I-66 congestion price was close to $50 Thursday. So the experience of a motorist Thursday is that they had to pay $100 to get to and from work, and of course most of those people still sat in traffic for hours. To call that toll a “decongestion price” feels very Orwellian.

    Maybe still the right name, but it’s important to consider these things.

  8. Scott Albrecht April 20, 2018 at 5:24 am #

    Could we call it simply “road pricing”? That might remind people that use of a road has a value that someone needs to pay for.

  9. Scott April 24, 2018 at 7:45 am #

    While it mostly seems to be used to describe gantries that collect tolls on various tollways where you can drive through at speed rather than needing to slow down for a booth, I’ve always found ‘Open Road Tolling’ to be a rather clever name. “Decongestion Pricing’ is certainly better than congestion pricing, but it still feels like it focuses on the problem rather than the proposed improvement. As well as (de)congestion itself just being a rather awkward sounding word.

  10. SpyOne January 4, 2019 at 1:17 am #

    I encountered this same issue in a blog about game design:
    A popular online game instituted a penalty on the rewards for completing a given task after the first time it was done in a given day. People hated it.
    Without changing the mechanic, they re-branded it as a bonus for the first time. It was well-received.

    While it feels a bit dirty to simply change the marketing, people will be a lot happier about an “off-peak discount” on their toll than a “congestion charge”.