Traffic is so bad it could hurt our economy. But there is a way to fix it.

So, who is on the road and why?

Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, said that during the pandemic, “what has really never changed is the idea in people’s minds that ‘there’s a place to go, and I’ll drive there.'” “

Manville, who spoke to me during a visit to his hometown of Reading, said there are several reasons the road isn’t much better than it was in 2019, despite all the bond buying, corporate lawyers and administrative assistance continuing from home.

First, he said, “it just doesn’t take that many people to screw up the road.” And there’s a huge underlying demand — especially where the economy is strong — for road space. So if a few people stay home and traffic is slightly better, others will eagerly jump into their cars to fill the void.

Second, Manville points out, “A road like 95 or 93 is not just a road to Boston. It’s a way to handle a lot of other things.” People use highways to get to airports, restaurants, dentists, supermarkets. “Nearly half,” Manville said, “sometimes more than half, the people who drive in the morning are not on their way to work or school.”

Indeed, one of the benefits of working from home is that you can have lunch with someone. You can pick up dry cleaning. You can take your child out of school. Just because your office is empty doesn’t mean your car is empty.

Many, many people never stop commuting. Delivering packages from home, stocking grocery stores, helping hospital patients or cleaning offices is nearly impossible.

Manville said he wasn’t surprised that our traffic was still bad. We remain one of the most crowded metro areas in the country.

So, what should we do? Manville says it’s simple: put a price on the road.

Pricing must adapt to demand, such as airfare prices. After all, being on the road at 8am is preferable to being on the road at midnight – so it should be much more expensive.

Essentially, he argues, we need to treat these extremely valuable real estate like a limited resource. Roads are public goods, like water and electricity. But we rarely run out of water or electricity because they are priced. In contrast, we run out of space on the road every day.

Some lawmakers in Massachusetts want to explore “congestion pricing” and have proposed creating a committee to study it, though Gov. Baker rejected the idea in 2021, arguing that the pandemic could permanently change the way we work.

Chris Dempsey, ex assistant secretary “Among the 10 most populous metro areas in the U.S., Greater Boston is the only one that doesn’t have any time pricing on toll roads… – Frustrated drivers explore using a reduction or even solution,” said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Commissioner. Tools for congestion in other metropolitan areas.”

In Singapore, congestion in the CBD got so bad a few decades ago that they turned to congestion charging. The average speed quickly rose to about 25 mph.

Several roads in Southern California price specific lanes to keep traffic flowing. Stockholm and London have also adopted the form of congestion charging, leading to a drop in traffic, especially in the case of London where public transport use has surged. (New York is also considering congestion pricing.)

Dempsey believes Massachusetts transportation will hinder our economy, and he worries that politicians may shy away from congestion pricing. “What I often say is that we are 10 years away from Boston’s complex road management system. But 10 years ago, we were 10 years away.”

But if we price roads, reduce congestion, and — importantly — curb the enormous environmental impact of stop-and-go traffic, will the poorest be hurt the most?

Well, Manville said.

After all, traffic jams are not free. It takes gasoline and it takes time. If you work in a restaurant, you may lose an hour that could have been profitable. (The same goes for high-paid hourly workers like lawyers.) If you have kids, you may have to pay for an extra hour of childcare, babysitting, or after-school because you’re stuck in traffic.

Manville believes “the status quo is unfair”. Pollutants from traffic — which can increase the incidence of asthma, lung cancer and low birth weight — tend to be the most harmful to poor communities, often located near highways. Both Manville and Dempsey noted that some of the poorest workers don’t drive, but are stuck in crowded MBTA buses, competing with trucks and SUVs for road space.

Still, if bankers are better off paying $4 a day tolls than gatekeepers, there’s an easy fix. You just received a large sum of money; distribute it.

Manville advocates finding an income level — perhaps twice the poverty level — and using the money collected by congestion charging to write a check to everyone below that level. It’s simple and low cost to manage. If the family needs money to drive, no problem; if they can switch to public transportation, they can keep the money.

It was such a precarious solution that most technocrats and Europeans embraced it. But it’s smart. Good for your physical and mental health. environmental. progress. A lot of what we imagine ourselves.

Now, Massachusetts has a chance to put its money where its mouth is.

Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @caramiller.

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