Surge pricing can help traffic, but paying can be painful

Traffic policy expert Todd Litman examines some of the ways we're trying to design better urban commutes, like surge pricing for during rush hour
A traffic jam at the Vienne's tollbooth on the A7 highway leading to the southern French port city of Marseille, at the start of summer holidays. (FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

The state of Virginia in the U.S. is doing an interesting experiment in an attempt to ease traffic congestion: surge pricing on toll roads.

This means that drivers pay different fees to use the road based on traffic congestion. The toll adapts every six minutes, starting at a base toll of around six dollars.

For one short period, the toll actually rose to $40, which surprised drivers and analysts alike. One of them is Todd Litman, who is a planning consultant at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in B.C.
Todd Litman

"I don't support that particular price structure, because it doesn't allow motorists to predict what the price will be and therefore use that in planning their trips."

However, he is a fan of the idea of surge pricing, so long as it's a bit more predictable and probably has a maximum fee that can't be exceeded.

But he says those sorts of plans only work if cities take a holistic approach to transport planning, which means offering viable alternatives to driving a car downtown.

As he describes it, "you're either paying with money, or with time," when it comes to travelling to a destination in the centre of a city. And there are times when one option may be more viable.

Paying with money obviously includes schemes like toll roads and congestion pricing. Paying with time may mean accepting the fact that you have to sit in traffic.

Regardless, he says both options should be available. Drivers should be "protesting for tolls in front of city hall," he says.

That's because even if you don't use them, your neighbour might, and that will ease congestion. Similarly, drivers should support investment in public transit infrastructure.

Toronto, for example, has recently implemented a pilot project that made one of its busiest downtown streets accessible to cars for only one block at a time. Early results show that has resulted in a dramatic improvement in streetcar times along the route.

But Todd says to work best, that type of congestion-easing scheme has to be complemented with a way to help those who are still forced to drive, and will be inconvenienced by the lack of access to certain roads.

"There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution."


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