Congestion Pricing – An asset-light BRT?

By Anonymous

The two transportation schemes we discussed in class, BRT and MRT, both have very similar goals in mind: reduce congestion and pollution and increase safety while getting more people to their destination faster. The major constraints for both systems are the huge up-front capital costs and the lack of flexibility once the system’s major lines are in place. One interesting aspect, however, is that neither system deals with the other major source of congestion, pollution and accidents: cars. On the contrary, during our discussion the need to eliminate car lanes on behalf of BRT as the system expands to new areas was a major drawback.

If we take a step away from this car-centric perspective and examine ways to manage all transit options on existing roads, there is a transportation scheme that accomplishes the stated goals in a much more flexible and dynamic way with lower capital requirements upfront: congestion pricing.

In the case of Bogota, the system would charge cars and buses for accessing certain avenues and major traffic arteries according to the time of day and the level of congestion. The fees would keep cars off the road during rush-hour and encourage the use of buses, assuming the system establishes appropriate pricing tiers across time and between cars, buses and taxis. The increased fixed cost would discourage empty buses from running and encourage industry consolidation. In order to encourage the use of newer and greener busses, the pricing could be structured to give low-emission vehicles an edge. A less congested system with fewer competing bus lines would also make transit safer and decrease travel times for commuters.

Initial capital cost to establish the system would also be much lower because traffic control systems could be installed above the street at lower costs than digging tunnels or adding separate bus lanes and platforms. From an infrastructure standpoint the congestion pricing system is much more flexible to expansion as new routes can be added or eliminated in a matter of days not years. On the revenue side, this system starts collecting revenue very soon after installation and provides a safer return on investment to the city.

Of course, this system also has trade-offs. For example, the enforcement of violations is crucial to as successful launch. If the political system is unlikely to punish those who drive without paying, congestion pricing will not improve the current situation. In addition, the implementation of this system hurts a much bigger political constituency (not just bus drivers, but all drivers) which makes this implementation much harder from a political standpoint. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether such a system can support the anticipated growth in travelers and residents over time.

Compared to BRT and MRT, the congestion pricing system would be a much less capital intensive and dynamic solution to the traffic congestion problem. However, this alternative likely has a much higher political price.