Words, Unhelpful

help kill the term “congestion pricing” (and “congestion charge”)

I've argued before that congestion pricing (or charging) is a terrible term for anything that you want someone to support.  It literally implies "paying for congestion," so it belongs to that set of terms that suggest we should pay for something we hate, e.g death taxes and traffic fines.  

"Congestion pricing" also sounds punitive.  When the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to join a discussion of the topic a couple of years ago, they framed the question as: "Should motorists pay for the congestion the cause?"  This is a reasonable inference from the term congestion pricing, and yet a totally backward and schoolmarmish description of what congestion pricing buys. 

In short, congestion pricing (or charge) sounds like a term coined by its opposition.

I have argued before that the term should be decongestion pricing, because escape from congestion is what the price buys, from the user's point of view.  And it's the user who needs to be convinced that this is a purchase, not a tax.  Finally, it has to be framed in a way that doesn't imply that it's only for the rich.  People who like a class-conflict frame will never let go of the term "Lexus lanes," which is why I'd avoid vaguely upscale terms like "premium." 

In any case, over on Twitter, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities (@e_jaffe) is soliciting your suggestions.  (Or your votes for mine!)  Another idea that meets my goals — to describe this as a purchase rather than a tax or penalty, and to describe it from the user's point of view — is "road fares," by @larrylarry.  


quote of the week: hopeful intentions of the u.s. federal transit administration

[In reading this, recall that mobility means "how far you can go" or "how much area you can cover" in a given time.  "Accessibility" or "access" means "how many economic, social, and recreational opportunites that you can reach" in a given time.]

"[The U.S. Federal Transit Administration (FTA)] believes improvements to both access and mobility are key features of a good transit investment. FTA agrees a measure that defines accessibility instead of mobility might be a better representation of the kind of benefits transit projects are intended to produce. As noted, however, it has proven very difficult to measure. Although it is relatively easy to specify a measure such as number of jobs within a specified travel time of a single location, creating a broader corridor or regional measure including calculations to and from multiple locations is more difficult and complex. FTA believes a measure focusing on project ridership will indirectly address access improvements since more people will ride a project that has enhanced access to jobs or other important activity centers. Focusing on the way a transit project can enhance an individual’s ability to get places, rather than just travel faster, is a desirable outcome of the evaluation process. FTA intends to continue to explore how best to do so."

The FTA's Notice of Proposed Rule Making [pdf] that
proposes to shift the criteria for funding
new transit projects from travel time to ridership,
a move that Socrates* had some questions about.
Hat tip to Susan Pantell for reminding me
of this passage. 

This is indeed hopeful.  I'll lay out a fuller argument on how this agenda might move forward in a coming post.

Question: When FTA refers to the difficulty of aggregating accessibility measures for everyone in a region, do you think they're referring to a logical problem (i.e. the stated task is logically or philophically incoherent), or a data availability problem, or some other kind of problem?  It certainly shouldn't be a processing power problem anymore.

* To anyone who suggests that I'm being grandiose in assigning my own thoughts to Socrates, I can only reply that (a) the dialogue in question is broadly consistent with Socratic method, which is Socrates's primary legacy, and (b) Plato made quite a successful career of ascribing his own ideas to Socrates, including many that were not at all consistent with Socratic method, and he doesn't seem to have come to much moral/karmic harm.  As long as a fiction is obviously a fiction, it's not lying, it's metaphor.  

the “cities vs suburbs” trope

We all have too much to read, so here's a tip to save time.  Whenever any article (such as this one) cites information about incorporated US cities as a basis for any claim about trends in the culture, quit reading.  US big-city boundaries are irrelevant to most people's lives, and to anything else that matters about our culture, economy, or destiny. 

Christopher Leinberger makes this point in a New Republic article recently, usefully expanded on by Sarah Goodyear at Grist.  Leinberger argues that "city" and "suburb" is no longer a useful opposition, and that what really matters are walkable urban places vs drivable suburban ones.  True enough, but replacing city with it's near-synonym urban doesn't take us far.   "City" and "suburb" are rich, evocative, and succinct words.  The word city in particular must be fought for, redefined in ways that defend its profound cultural heritage.  The word has an ancient and clear lineage from Latin, one that forms the basis for the word citizen, not to mention civic and civilization.

Greek and Roman political theory was all about the city, in a sense of that word that we can recognize today: groups of people living together in a small space for reasons of security and economy, but also the  site of humanity's cultural and intellectual development.  City is a word of enormous evocative power to capture a range of ideas that drive urbanism.  Leinberger himself can't describe what really matters without using the word urban, which evokes a similar history and resonance.

What Leinberger is really complaining about are discussions of data about incorporated US cities, which are a very narrow and specific problem.  A few of the oldest US cities (San Francisco, St. Louis) have coherent boundaries that describe real cultural and demographic units, but many are bizarre shapes of purely historical interest.

Map_los_angelesNobody who understands the lived experience of Los Angeles would claim that the City of Los Angeles is a useful or interesting demographic unit.  While the city excludes a great deal of dense inner-city fabric close to downtown, it has long balloonlike tentacles extending north to take in the whole San Fernando Valley and also south to grab the port of San Pedro.  It also contains a good deal of near-wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The tentacular, pockmarked, pulsating blob that we call the City of Los Angeles is the map of a long-ago war over water and power.  The only people who care about it today are those who work for city government or serve as its elected officials, plus a few who've considered city taxes and services as a reason to locate in the city or out of it.

Americans should notice, too, that bizarre and misleading city boundaries are largely a US phenomenon.  Europe, Australia, and New Zealand generally allow central (state or national) governments to draw the boundaries of their local governments, so these boundaries usually (not always) end up making some kind of sense.  (With the exception of Queensland, Australian local government areas are too small to have much influence, but that's a different problem.)

As Leinberger says, we need a distinction between walkable urban communities and drivable suburban ones, and American city limits are useless for understanding that distinction.  But the word city — whose Latin ancestor meant "walkable urban" for millennia until about 1950 — is still worth fighting for.  Legal US "city limits" are an imperfect and aspirational approximation of what cities really are, and what they really mean for the human project.  Despite their pedantic misuse by the likes of Cox and Kotkin, city limits have no authority to tell us what a city is, and why we should want to live in a real city or not.  The deep attractions and repulsions that we feel for big cities are the key to a longer and truer cultural understanding of what cities are, and of why the civic is the root of civilization.

watching our words: congestion charge or price or (shudder) tax

There seems to be a flurry of new interest in congestion pricing, partly under the pressure of tight budgets almost everywhere.  But journalists can muddy the waters by describing congestion pricing as either exploitative or punitive.

Last month, I was invited to contribute to a Sydney Morning Herald thinkpiece on the subject.  My contribution, the second of four pieces here, emphasises that congestion pricing is not about paying for congestion, it's about paying to avoid congestion.  The core point:

Suppose you announce that you'll give away free concert tickets to the first 500 people in a queue. You'll get a queue of 500 people. These people are paying time to save money.

Other people will just buy a ticket and avoid the queue. They're choosing to pay money to save time.

Today, we require all motorists to wait in the queue. When stuck in congestion, we are paying for the road space in time rather than in money.

Shouldn't we have a choice about this? Why are we required to save money, a renewable resource, by spending time, the least renewable resource of all?

Unfortunately, the Sydney Morning Herald framed the whole piece with the question, "Should motorists pay for the congestion they cause?"    The implication is that congestion pricing is punitive, that some citizens believe that other citizens should be punished for their behavior.  The question seems designed to sow misunderstanding and inflame rage.  To their credit, none of the four expert responses — even the one from the auto club opposing the congestion charge — really took this bait.

So there's a problem with the terms congestion charge and congestion price.  The terms sound like "paying for congestion," when the truth is the opposite, we're being invited to choose whether to spend money to avoid congestion.  A more accurate term would be congestion avoidance price or even better, congestion avoidance option.  But those are too many words. 

Should we call it a decongestion price

Real congestion pricing is about giving free and responsible adults a set of options that reflect the real-world geometry of cities.  The core geometry problem is this:

  • Cities are, by definition, places where lots of people are close together.
  • Cities are therefore, by defintion, places with relatively little space per person.
  • Your car takes 50-100 times as much space as your body does.
  • Therefore, people in cars consume vastly more of the scarce resource, urban space, than the same people without their cars — for example, as pedestrians or public transit riders. 
  • When people choose whether to drive, they're choosing how much scarce urban space to consume.
  • If urban space is to be used like any other scarce resource, its price needs to be deregulated so that it is used efficiently. 

Congestion pricing is a form of deregulation.  It is the most libertarian concept imaginable.

There's another way to mess this up, and that's the term "congestion tax."  Here's the New Zealand Herald

Aucklanders may be levied to drive through increasingly congested streets in the absence of Government funding of the region's "strategic aspirations".

A paper released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide before Auckland's first spatial plan due out in 11 days suggests raising revenue by charging motorists to drive around the Super City at peak times.

Hide makes clear that this isn't a congestion price intended to reduce congestion.  It's just another tax, intended to raise revenue.  So just to be clear: If it's congestion pricing, there are public transit (and bike-ped, and casual carpool) alternatives that enable people to get where they're going.  The congestion price cordons on the CBDs of London and Singapore work because there's abundant public transit to those places, so relatively few people absolutely have to drive into them.  The San Francisco Bay Bridge tolls have a congestion-pricing value because there's both abundant transit and casual carpool options for avoiding them. 

If, on the other hand, you're in a place where there's no reasonable alternative to driving — such as large parts of Auckland — then anything  that suppresses driving will suppress travel, and that means it will suppress economic activity.  And if you're just taxing economic activity, then this is really no different from sales taxes, Goods and Services Taxes (GST), or income taxes. By taxing economic activity, you're suppressing something that government and society should be encouraging.  That's not a libertarian idea; quite the opposite.

new year’s resolution: no more coercion

PC310069 If you want to find vigorous attacks on urbanism and sustainable transport by car-and-highway advocates, just Google for forms of the verb to coerce.  The most recent one you'll find is from the reliable Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard.  Called "Coercing people out of their cars," it exploits an unfortunate comment by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.  As Barnes puts it:

Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.

Here's the source, reported on conservative blogs but not much elsewhere.  CNS News:

On May 21, [2009?] LaHood told reporters at the National Press Club that the “Partnership for Sustainable Communities’ his department had formed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing—sometimes known as the “livability initiative”–was designed to “coerce” people out of their cars.

If LaHood did describe the sustainable transportation project as coercion, even in jest, he should be more careful. Just as one doesn't joke about terrorism at airport security checkpoints, we shouldn't even joke about coercion in urban and transportation policy.  The word is a primitive grenade that can blow up any and all parties present.

The idea that urbanists and transit advocates are trying to coerce people to give up cars is one of the most treasured bits of pro-car rhetoric, because it feeds the association of cars with liberty.  Because so much urbanist work necessarily happens through government, the image of coercion also helps people think of government as intrinsically an oppressor, always a convenient refuge for the lazier kind of libertarian.

Google assembles a convenient list of definitions of to coerceWikipedia's is typical of the range:

Coercion (pronounced /koʊˈɜrʃən/) is the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force.

Almost all of the definitions refer to actual or threatened force.  

By those definitions, I can't think of anything that I have done, in 20 years in this business, that would qualify as coercion.  Certainly, I've never threatened any motorist with force, or advised anyone else to do so.  No, Barnes would respond, but I have advised governments to adopt policies that are coercive toward motorists.  For example, I advised the City of Minneapolis to restrict traffic on certain streets to create a functional transit mall, which they did in 2009.  They even changed the direction of certain lanes.  Something that used to be legal is now prohibited.  If someone drives his private car through the bus lanes (especially in their pre-2009 direction!) police might show up and, if all else fails, might even shoot at him.  Force!  Coercion!  Rhetorically, the coercion-victim wins.  Of course, the vehicle he was driving was also a deadly weapon, so he too was threatening force, but he's already declared victory, paid his citation with an air of martyrdom, written his angry article, and gone home.

In the new year, let us all resolve not to be coerced by the rhetoric of coercion, and never to use the term, even in jest, to describe our own project. 

In its impact on motorists, sustainable urbanism is all about accurate pricing.  We care about pricing in two separate and non-convertible currencies: money, and the limited road space of our cities. 

We experience urban congestion, and parking shortages, when road-space is inaccurately priced.  As I explored here, it's as though we were giving out free tickets to a concert; when you do that, you get lots of people waiting in line, spending time to save money.  Today's approach to pricing forces everyone to act like those frugal concertgoers, when in fact many could easily afford to spend some money to save time, and would prefer to do so if asked.  High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are one experiment in that direction, while the downtown congestion charges of London, Stockholm, and Singapore are another.  On the pricing front, San Francisco's free-market approach, which may finally liberate motorists from endlessly circling the block seeking a space, is another breakthrough. 

The absurdity of underpricing scarce urban road space, and thus causing congestion and parking shortages, is simply this: It forces us all to save money, a renewable resource, by wasting time, the least renewable resource of all.

Of course, when a price goes up, some who could afford it now can't, and may blame the government.  This happens when the price of anything goes up; it will always happen as long as people hold exaggerated notions about the power of government over the economy.  To meet the needs of people who are dissuaded from driving by price, and ensure that they continue participating in the economy, road-pricing and parking-pricing strategies work only in the context of abundant and attractive travel alternatives, including transit.  This is part of the free-market justification for transit subsidies, in a big-city context, so long as there continue to be equal or greater subsidies for the motorist.

Reduction of government subsidies is not coercion.  Fred Barnes is the socialist in this debate, demanding government subsidy for his own chosen lifestyle but not for that of others.  As for those of us who support more accurate pricing — of road space, parking, and all the other incremental costs of transport, including transit fares — we are the libertarians!

Avoiding Car-Centered Language: A Directive

In 1996, the City Administrator of West Palm Beach, Florida, Michael J. Wright, issued a directive to his staff on how to avoid biased language in the descriptions of transportation investments and policies.  It’s four pages, sharply written, and may well be the smartest bureaucratic directive you’ll ever read.  (Thanks to Peter Bilton at the Vorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers for pointing it out.) Continue Reading →