Here’s a puzzle:
Badge into almost any building in Boston, and try to find all the lawyers, bankers, and architects who populated vast warrens of offices in 2019. Many simply aren’t there. Others have adopted hybrid schedules, with a slim slice back full-time.
Then head out onto the highways, where gridlock reigns during the morning and evening commutes, pretty much no matter where you are: I-93, I-95, Route 2, Route 1. It’s a numerical grab bag of terrible.
So, who the heck is on the roads and why?
“What really never changed” during the pandemic, says Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, “was the idea in people’s heads that ‘when there is a place to go, I drive there.’”
Manville, who spoke to me during a visit to his hometown of Reading, says there are a few reasons that the roads aren’t a lot better than they were in 2019, despite all the bond buying, corporate lawyering, and executive assisting going on from home.
First, he says, “it just doesn’t take that many people to screw up the road.” And there’s tremendous latent demand — especially in a place where the economy has been strong — for road space. So if a few people stay home, and traffic gets marginally better, others will eagerly jump into their cars to fill the void.
Second, Manville notes, “a road like 95 or 93, it’s not just a way to Boston. It’s a way to a bunch of other things.” And people use highways to go to the airport, a restaurant, the dentist, the supermarket. “Close to half,” Manville says, “and sometimes more than half, of the people in cars are not on their way to work or school in the morning.”
Indeed, one of the nice parts about working from home is that you can meet someone for lunch. You can pick up dry cleaning. You can get the kids from school. Just because your office is empty doesn’t mean your car is.
And many, many people never stopped commuting. It is pretty much impossible to deliver packages, stock grocery stores, help hospital patients, or clean offices from home.
Manville says he’s not surprised that our traffic is still awful. We remain one of the most congested metro areas in the country.
So, what should we do? Manville says it’s simple: Price the roads.
And the pricing has to adapt to demand, like the price of an airline ticket. After all, being on the road at 8 a.m. is a lot more desirable — and therefore should be a lot more expensive — than being on the road at midnight.
In essence, he argues, we need to treat these strips of incredibly valuable real estate like the limited resource they are. Roads are a public good, like water and electricity. But we rarely run out of water or electricity, because they’re priced. By contrast, we run out of space on the roads every single day.
Some Massachusetts lawmakers want to explore “congestion pricing” and have proposed a commission to study it, though Governor Charlie Baker vetoed the idea in 2021, believing that the pandemic might permanently alter the way we work.
Chris Dempsey, a former assistant secretary of transportation for Massachusetts, says that “of the 10 highest-population metro areas in the US, Greater Boston is the only one that doesn’t have any time-of-day pricing on its tolled roads... We owe it to long-frustrated drivers to explore the use of a tool that has reduced and even solved congestion in other metro areas.”
In Singapore, congestion in the central business district got so bad several decades ago that they turned to congestion pricing. Average speeds quickly rose to about 25 mph.
Several roads in Southern California price specific lanes to keep traffic moving at a brisk clip. And Stockholm and London have also adopted forms of congestion pricing, prompting both declines in traffic and — particularly in London’s case — a spike in mass transit use. (New York is also considering congestion pricing.)
Dempsey believes that traffic in Massachusetts will hold our economy back, and he worries that politicians may shy away from congestion pricing. “What I often say is that we’re 10 years away from a sophisticated road management system here in Boston. But 10 years ago, we were also 10 years away.”
But if we priced the roads, lessening congestion and — importantly — curbing the massive environmental impact of stop-and-go traffic, would the poorest people be hurt most?
No, says Manville.
Being caught in traffic, after all, is not free. It costs gas, and it costs time. If you work at a restaurant, you might lose an hour that you could have been making money. (This is also true for higher-income hourly workers, like lawyers.) And if you have kids, you might have to pay for an extra hour of nursery school, babysitting, or after school, because you were caught in traffic.
Manville argues that “the status quo isn’t fair.” Pollutants from traffic — which can increase the incidence of asthma, lung cancer, and low birth weight — tend to be most harmful to poor communities, which are often situated near highways. Both Manville and Dempsey also point out that some of the poorest workers don’t drive and are instead caught in overcrowded MBTA buses, fighting for road space with trucks and SUVs.
Still, if a banker is better able to cope with a daily $4 toll than a janitor, there’s a simple remedy. You’ve just collected a huge pile of money; distribute it.
Manville advocates finding an income level — maybe double the poverty level — and cutting everyone under that level a check, using the money collected by congestion pricing. It’s simple and low on administrative costs. If the family needs the money to drive, fine; if they can adopt mass transit instead, they can keep the money.
It’s one of those solutions that’s so wonky that mostly technocrats and Europeans have embraced it. But it’s smart. Good for your mental and physical health. Environmental. Progressive. A lot of things we imagine ourselves to be.
Now, Massachusetts has a chance to put its money where its mouth is.
Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.