Date: January 31, 2019
Notes from the Policy Field provides write-ups of policy-oriented events in Washington, D.C.
Written by Reeve Jacobus, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
America’s transportation infrastructure is often discussed at length during elections, but the country’s roads and bridges have yet to see the necessary large-scale investment and are in serious need of repair. In the meantime, The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project held an event in January titled Expanding Opportunity at State and Local Levels Through Evidence-Based Policy Making to examine transportation and other state and local issues through an evidence-based lens.
The morning began with a conversation between Politico managing editor Sudeep Reddy and the former Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper. Two roundtable discussions followed; the first covered a more general discussion about how to improve the analysis that goes into state and local policymaking, while the second covered transportation and housing policy. Brown University economist Matthew Turner’s presentation and accompanying paper, Local Transportation Policy and Economic Opportunity, submitted a number of recommendations for bringing the transportation systems of American cities into the 21st century.
One recommendation centers around the challenge of connecting Americans in poverty with employment opportunities with regards to transportation. People experiencing poverty spend a higher percentage of their income on commuting than other workers. Transportation mobility is a part of the equation for attaining economic mobility. Turner provides two policy improvements that state and city policymakers can use to create a more accessible and affordable transportation network: improving bus systems and implementing congestion pricing.
Let’s Talk About Buses
Although high-speed rail and autonomous cars are most often mentioned as the future of transportation, Turner contends that improving bus transit systems is an undervalued solution. With the onset of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, low gas prices, and cuts to transit services, bus ridership declined by 5 percent from 2016 to 2017.
In order to improve bus transit for residents, cities should recognize the potential of buses to better connect residents to employment and opportunity. Turner proposed creating dedicated bus lanes and modified traffic signals that give buses the ability to transport passengers quickly and efficiently.
Another proposal from Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn at CityLab aimed to involve those who know the system the best: bus drivers. Levy and Goldwyn interviewed 373 bus drivers to better understand what drivers felt could make the bus system operate more effectively. Drivers proposed off-board fare collection, better traffic enforcement, and dedicated lanes as possible policy tweaks.
Improving bus transit isn’t a silver bullet, though. A major downside to buses is congestion. Like cars, buses get stuck in traffic, which can stifle routes and increase wait times. Outside of creating dedicated bus lanes, there is another way to address congestion: taxing it.
Congestion Pricing Works
Turner offers congestion pricing as another option for policymakers to consider. This would charge toll fees to cars that drive on overcrowded city streets during rush hour. The motivation for this type of tax is evidence that congestion is destructive. For example, a recent study by the Partnership for New York City estimated that traffic congestion could cost the city upwards of $100 billion over the next five years. Whether the detrimental impact comes from the cost of travel time or the operating costs, cities cannot afford that type of loss. Increasing the price of rush hour driving means freeing up packed city streets, increasing public transit ridership, and increasing revenue.
Although cities like London, Stockholm, Milan, and Singapore have used congestion pricing to decrease traffic and raise revenue, no American city has implemented it. Some communities have experimented with types of congestion pricing, such as Northern Virginia’s variably priced lanes, but none has implemented a wholescale scheme yet. New York City was the latest to try in 2008, but the proposal never came up for a vote in the state legislature.
The Intersection of Transportation Policy and Social Policy
Creating effective transit policies can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, inaction will lead to more transportation poverty for people with low incomes. On the other hand, policy solutions to generate less congestion might be regressive and affect those same lower income commuters disproportionately. Finding a middle ground will mean happier commuters, safer cities, and better environmental outcomes.
Scholars have estimated that our reliance on motor vehicles costs as much as $3.3 trillion annually. Regardless of what policymakers decide, they should understand that investing in public transportation systems and getting people out of cars will increase opportunities for working Americans and simultaneously save money.