Freeways, New and Improved!

Freewaysby Michael Brown

Urban freeways provided unprecedented mobility for decades, and helped the United States sustain a strong economy throughout those decades.  But their success eventually became their demise.  They enabled far-flung lifestyles, which induced demand and congested them faster than we expected.  At first it was cheap and easy to convert medians and shoulders to lanes. Unfortunately that enabled even further driving from the next wave of fringe residents. Now it is getting too expensive to expand, and we know that congestion will return soon anyway.

But hey, we’re Americans! Big things are what we do!  Yes, the spirit is able, but when we think about that federal debt clock getting close to $20-trillion, a small voice inside gnaws at us, “You already spent all the money, and your children’s money too. Fort Knox is full of IOU’s to who-knows-who?  Even if you can get another loan from China – they’re figuring out that you’ll never pay them back – how can you do this in good conscience?”  And we respond, “But how can we not?  Mobility is life!  Mobility is the economy!  We can’t earn the money we need to get out of our debts if we can’t get around!”

There Are Solutions!  Before you get liquored up at the “Build-Your-Way-Out Bar & Grill” once more, READ THIS!!  Earlier articles in this series articulated the benefits of two freeway optimization strategies – congestion pricing and preventive ramp metering (sometimes called “Managed Motorways”).  Either system can optimize traffic flow (i.e., eliminate mainline congestion), but both come with negative side effects and political hurdles.  That’s why there are few examples!  HOT lanes are the baby steps we’ve been able to make because they’re politically acceptable.  But the bang-for-buck of HOT lanes is much less impressive than pricing or preventive metering.

Combining Win-Lose, Lose-Win, to Get Win-Win

Congestion drags the economy and creates frowny-faces. I believe that with congestion pricing, virtually everyone comes out a winner in some way. There are huge wins for sustainability and everyone has the option for fast travel at any time of day. But paying to access a freeway is also a visible loss to everyone, and that makes the strategy politically problematic.

Preventive metering also has positive economic effects — new efficiency means things will move!  But traditional activity centers may continue to lose out to the fringe because the preventive metering of Managed Motorways tends to reward long trips.  That could accelerate sprawl and increase Vehicle Miles Traveled, making its positive effects more temporary than pricing. More on that momentarily…

This article articulates a way to combine these separate ideas to get the benefits of pricing and metering without the negatives, resulting in an “advanced new formula” for freeways that can potentially support 30-50% more peak-period traffic without any new lanes!  This advanced formula could guarantee high speeds, but also counteract the sprawl caused by high speeds. This idea requires very little construction to implement on existing freeways, and in contrast to congestion pricing, which requires 100% of people to pay for a 5 p.m. drive, this hybrid system can be free to many and maybe most users at 5 p.m., making it more politically practical.

But wait! There’s more!  The first region to implement this new concept will become billionaires! Not only will they free themselves from billions in “Big Dig” construction debt, but they will also gain a major competitive advantage over other states worth billions in higher Gross Regional Product.  As mentioned in Who Wants to Be a Billionaire, we used the EDRG’s Transportation Economic Development Impact System, or TREDIS, to test this concept for Salt Lake. That effort suggests that the 30-year accumulated societal value of time saved could be over $50-billion, and the value of more and better paying jobs could be around $12-billion.  But before introducing this new concept, first consider its cousins which have many positives, but also many negatives.

Cousin #1:  HOT Lanes.

Freeways2Earlier in this series, I pointed out that when freeways are overwhelmed, they will lose 30-50% of their throughput – dropping from 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane (their maximum potential) down to 1,500 vphpl or less in actual measured flow.  That was the case with SR-191 in Riverside, California, which reported average speeds of 15 mph, and average throughput of only 800 vphpl prior to adding HOT lanes.  Afterwards, the HOT lanes achieved 65 mph speeds and throughput of 1,600 vphpl, a tremendous improvement!  Eighty percent of low-income residents had a positive opinion of the project, since they did pay for the fast lanes sometimes and were grateful for the option.

But the Riverside example has several problems, which are observable from the photos below and their own data. While an improvement from 800 to 1,600 vphpl is very impressive, why didn’t they get to 2,000 or 2,100, given that the opportunity is about 2,200?  There won’t be much elbow room at 2,100, but a freeway lane can carry that much without breaking down.  In the photo, you can see the free lanes are clearly overwhelmed, while the priced lanes are relatively empty (presumably not higher than 1,600, but visually this looks to be even less than that).  This suggests that they are not trying to maximize throughput, but may instead be trying to maximize revenue to pay for HOT lane construction.  Or maybe they are trying to guarantee great service – “elbow room” to those who pay the high fare.  When facing imminent failure, the system cannot remain free without failing.  But if your goal is maximum throughput, then you also cannot charge too much or the lanes end up with low flow because few will pay the excessively high price.  With high prices, you create Lexus Lanes that don’t need as much elbow room as you are creating.


Downside to HOT Lanes: High Cost, Modest Value:  Another problem with HOT lanes is that you have to separate fast lanes from slow lanes.  That often requires barrier separation, more shoulder space, and managing access to the fast lanes separate from access to the rotten lanes.  All of that adds up to unnecessary costs relative to other options.  But perhaps the greatest problem is that the very creation of HOT lanes is a de-facto admission that the remaining lanes will have only the throughput and speed of a much cheaper signalized street. Perhaps that’s part of the reason some cities are able to replace freeways with boulevards and not notice much change – their freeways were just massively expensive boulevards anyway in terms of how they functioned at critical hours.

Upside to HOT Lanes: Politically Possible!  The real virtue of HOT lanes is their political middle ground.  Americans are accustomed to paying for great products and services in most environments, but it is not our tradition to pay for freeways at 5 p.m., even if that would make them fantastic!  However with HOT lanes, Americans appreciate the option to choose whether to pay for great speeds, or whether to keep their money and instead tolerate congestion and lost time.

HOT lanes provide a politically critical choice, which is why they have been built, even though more efficient and more sustainable concepts have not.  HOT lanes introduce congestion pricing without straying too far from the status quo, and for that I say “Hooray for HOT lanes!”  But I am optimistic that there is a political pathway to achieve lower cost and higher efficiency, and at the same time create choices without straying too far from the status quo.

Cousin #2: Distance-Based Congestion Pricing

In this system, transponder towers are set up every few miles, spanning all lanes on the freeway. Each vehicle then carries a card, or conceivably a phone app that can be read by the tower, and users are sent a bill at the end of the month.  Computers measure how close we are to 2,200, same as with preventive metering, but instead of restricting access by slowing meters, they discourage access by raising the price, which starts out as free and increases only as high as necessary to avoid exceeding 2,200.  Some travelers then will choose transit, some will travel at free times, and some instead will use parallel routes.  But even parallel routes should end up with fewer vehicles.  Today many are already bombarding arterials because they can’t fit on the freeway. But when the freeway has higher throughput, by definition that means that the number attracted back to it will exceed the number diverted to arterials.

Upside of Pricing: Curbs Induced Demand:  Speed causes sprawl and induced demand. Congestion may dampen that, but how many of us really want the “benefits” of congestion?  If you had to pay for each mile of peak-hour freeway use, how many would still live 50 miles from work even at high speeds?  Pricing creates the “benefits of congestion,” and also the “benefits of speed.”

Upside of Pricing: Low Cost, High Return:  Pricing the entire freeway has a lot of advantages over HOT lanes.  There is no special construction to separate fast and slow traffic, and all lanes will have maximum throughput instead of just one or two. And the effect on the economy will be worth billions.

Downside of Pricing: Politically Impossible?  Unfortunately it also sets up a political hurdle in that 100% of users have to pay something to be there at 5 p.m. no matter how far they are going, and that makes it very hard to convince people that the benefits are worth the new cost.  It may be true that this new cost offsets additional gas-tax hikes that would have occurred otherwise, making net taxes the same. But people can see this cost more readily than they see gas taxes.  It may be true that the economy will gain billions, but economies are affected by hundreds of variables and it will be hard for people to trace benefits back to this one variable, since many other factors are always at play in a dynamic economy.  On the other hand, it is very easy for people to see that they get a bill every month for their 5 p.m. freeway usage. Even if benefit vs. cost is 10 to 1, it’s hard to see the ten, and easy to see the one.  That means there may not be a practical political pathway.

Cousin #3: Preventive Ramp Metering (Managed Motorways)

Another strategy is preventive ramp metering, which allows people to pay for access with their time rather than their money.  “But we already have regular ramp metering, so how is this different?”  When we flash the meters so fast that more than 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane end up on the mainline, even for just a few minutes, that will ruin the freeway for the next few hours and cause it to flow at just 1,500 vphpl or less, and at terrible speeds. We run meters too fast because people complain about the long waits and because we don’t want to create ramp queues so long that they would start blocking arterial streets.

Preventive metering solves the problem by adding more storage lanes to the ramp so that entering vehicles can be handled without queuing back to arterials. That, in turn, allows the meter to be set slower so that entering vehicles cannot exceed what the freeway can handle.  Computer systems measure how close we are to 2,200 at various points and automatically adjust meters to prevent going over that.  Yes, the public is going to point out that you are proposing to make long meter waits even longer, and they may doubt the purported savings will outweigh the increased ramp delay.  Counteract that with realistic “what you see is what you get” micro-simulations of before/after conditions.  Also, set up a tolled bypass lane so that people have an option for avoiding the wait.

Downside of Metering: Induced Demand:  While the metering of Managed Motorways will optimize freeway throughput and speed similar to congestion pricing, it may exacerbate sprawl, increase VMT, and induce demand because it rewards longer-distance trips.  Say you work 50 miles from home and regularly lose 60 minutes to congestion.  Suddenly waiting six minutes on the ramp is awesome because you lose zero minutes once you hit the freeway. But next year your fringe community gets a dozen new neighbors who are now willing to drive 50 miles to work> Before you know it you’re back to 60-minute delays plus another six minutes at the ramp.  In other words, Managed Motorways could end up increasing auto dependency by encouraging longer trips, and offering only minor incentives to use transit or travel at off-peak times.

So while heroic engineers can wave the flag and declare that they once again solved today’s problem, the problem will most likely be back.  Ramp wait times could eventually become very painful and officials may feel forced into either allowing the system to fail, or sponsoring one last “build our way out” double-decker Big Dig – also doomed to fail, and likely sooner than most would have thought.  The problem is Vehicle Miles Traveled, and we need ways to reduce it rather than increase it.

Downside of metering: Fails to generate revenue from those causing the problem:  Of course everyone occasionally contributes to freeway congestion at 5 p.m., but there are a few “power users” who are not only there every day, but they’re also going very long distances, creating a greater need to accommodate them.  Odds are it is less than 15% of us who are really there every day, and even fewer who are driving 30 miles or more. Congestion pricing is a well-placed user fee that asks those few who drive long distances at five p.m. take responsibility for their excessive contribution to the need for super-sized freeways. Ramp metering does not deter heavy users, but instead rewards them.

Downside of Metering: Unfortunately, it IS Politically Possible:  While there are negatives associated with sprawl and system longevity, Managed Motorways may at least be politically possible, where congestion pricing is much less so. That’s because preventive metering solves today’s problem with a low-cost concept very similar to the status quo – we already have meters, after all.  That makes it more politically possible, which is usually a good thing.  But it scares me because I worry that the public will easily gravitate to this in preference to Congestion Pricing, and hence incur the negatives of preventive metering while missing out on the benefits of congestion pricing.

That is why I am curious about a new concept that combines these cousins together.  I think it may be able to retain the good aspects of each, and also counteract the negatives.

A New Kind of Freeway

There may be a way to combine distance-based congestion pricing with the preventive ramp metering of Managed Motorways to obtain the advantages of each and increase the political practicality of truly optimizing freeways in a way that supports both economic development and environmental sustainability objectives.  This is an idea that is just now becoming possible due to transponders and advances in system management technologies. Here is how it might work…

  1. freeways4Mainline Transponder Towers: Set up transponder towers every few miles spanning all lanes.  Have computer systems keep track of flow rates and ramp queues.  Charge nothing if flow rates are not in jeopardy (perhaps around 1,900 vehicles per hour per lane)  but as demand climbs higher, increase the price on all lanes as necessary to hover around 2,100 vehicles per hour per lane (95% of max).  Prices should vary probably by 10 or 25 cent increments, with towers spaced every two or three miles, and adjusted every 15 or 30 minutes. That creates more stability and predictability for users. All vehicles must pay if they pass under a tower.  If they do not have a transponder card (usually visitors), they could purchase a disposable card at a convenience store.  If a vehicle drives through with no transponder or mobile app, just send a bill to the address associated with the license plate.
  2. freeways5On-Ramp Preventive Metering: At on-ramps, set up three to five lanes so that vehicles can be delayed for four to eight minutes without stacking back so far that they would block the cross street.  Also set aside one lane as a toll bypass lane.  Use digital signs at decision points and mobile apps that say “$2.00 or six minutes” so that drivers can decide whether to use the freeway or do something else.
  3. If you wait, you get paid! All storage lanes on the ramp also would have transponder towers, but most pay you instead of the other way around.  Suppose that the wait on the ramp is six minutes and that the toll bypass lane is $2.00. If you decide to wait six minutes, then your tower gives you a $2.00 credit as compensation for your willingness to wait for six minutes rather than pay the toll.  In this case, $2 for 6 minutes is equivalent to $20 for 60 minutes, or $20/hour – well worth the wait for many people.
  4. Use your credits: Now suppose that the price to travel on the main freeway is 25 cents every two miles.   Your $2.00 credit offsets your travel for 16 miles. If you travel less than that, credits could roll over allowing you to travel further for free on another day.  This creates an incentive to live close to work so you can travel for free and accumulate credits for those times when you must travel further.  If you live far from work, that’s your freedom.  You get some credit for the first few miles, then after that you are buying the ability to travel fast, which is great if you can afford it – you couldn’t buy fast at any price before!

Each situation would vary.  In some systems you could probably travel just 10 miles for free, and in others you could travel 100 miles for free.  That is because maybe only the first 5 towers have a price, and the rest are all free even at 5 p.m., because they don’t have enough flow to trigger a need to price that section.

You could also potentially set up unique transponders that recognize special situations.  Express buses would by default have free passes.  Maybe tour buses could easily obtain free passes, or license plate software could detect that it is a tour bus, and not charge them. Registered car pools could also obtain free or reduced rate passes.  You could offer free or reduced rate transponders for low emission vehicles, low income residents, etc.  Perhaps you’d even want to charge double the normal rate for heavy trucks because they consume more capacity. That would help move even more trucking to off-peak hours.  It requires local debate on what the special situations should be, but they are possible, and that can help with political practicality too.

freeways6Less Need to Construct Commuter Rail

Most would agree that more of us should take the bus – perhaps so that the rest of us can drive!  But when “Express” Buses are caught in the same congestion, no one wants to use them.  In some regions, it seems the only option for providing high-speed transit in a freeway corridor at 5 p.m. is to construct parallel commuter rail corridors.  But that can be a multi-billion dollar effort.  Another great benefit of Optimized Freeways is that express buses then will be out of congestion, reducing the need to provide trains or bus lanes.

More Value from Existing Commuter Rail

For those that already have parallel rail, that is great!  Getting the freeways moving sustainably doesn’t mean you should scrap your rail.  After all, much of the strategy behind sustainable freeways relies on many people opting to use transit, and rail is a very attractive mode.  So take advantage of new opportunities to incentivize people to use your rail.  For example, a big political hurdle associated with this Optimized Freeway concept is that those of limited means, long drives, and fixed schedules will be hit the hardest by new 5 p.m. prices. Yes, they are more likely to want to take the train now, but the price of a monthly pass may be hard for their budget.  So help them out by directing some of the revenue from pricing to lower the cost of parallel transit.  Ridership then will increase significantly because (1) long drives at 5 p.m. now cost more than they did before, and (2) the train is now less than it was before.  This is a much more sustainable system than what we have today.

The Work is Hard, But the Pay is Good!

Rags to Riches stories usually involve a lot of hard work.  I am confident there are billions of dollars of benefits awaiting any region that can get their freeways running in a permanent, sustainable way.  But convincing your region to do what it takes to become billionaires will be a lot of hard work – at least a decade if you’re really fast!  That sounds silly – who wouldn’t want to be billionaires tomorrow, after all?  But even billionaires usually take a few years to get there.  At a rate of one convert at a time, it will take a long time just to convince “the insiders” in your region to sponsor studies to see if it might be true.  Then once enough of them are onboard, it will take years from there to complete those studies and to carefully craft a compelling message first for key stakeholders, and then for the public at large.

In crafting that message, it is important to note that there is no need for propaganda and deception to convince “the unenlightened masses to support what is best for them” – a tactic of which planners are sometimes rightfully accused.  It will likely backfire if it is delivered like that.  Just tell the story, both the good and the bad in powerful, succinct, effective ways.  Trust that if you became convinced, then there ought to be a way to convince others as well even if they know less than you about the subject. The process of discovering whether this idea holds water could reveal serious negatives that are hard to overcome. If so, don’t hide it.  Involving stakeholders also could create new ways of making it more palatable. Just tell people the good and the bad, and, hopefully there will be more upside than downside.  Then, hopefully folks will put down their  pitchforks to let you make your case, and eventually allow a small experiment in a limited part of the region.

Bottom line: The first region to break free of the pave-your-way-out cycle will not only enjoy billions in savings, but will also enjoy billions in higher economic productivity that comes from reliable high-speed mobility.  This sustainable new “Advanced Formula” for freeway optimization – a win-win hybrid of congestion pricing and preventive metering – may prove to have just enough political sugar to help the medicine go down.

Michael Brown is president of Metro Analytics based in Bountiful, Utah.

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6 responses to “Freeways, New and Improved!”

  1. I think it’s going to be awhile before people decide that dynamic pricing is a good thing for roads – if ever.

    It’s fine when buying airline reservations or seats to a hot music concert or sports venue – but messing with “free” roads that have already been “paid for” – once – is something akin to Un-American.

    People believe that they have the God-given right to drive anywhere they want at anytime they want and they see dynamic pricing as a “leftist” do-gooder plot.. to coerce people’s behaviors and use the money to fund hairbrained things like streetcars and trolleys and bike trails, etc.

    I heard through the grapevine that our friend Don is forming a group called Irate Citizens who are not going to take it anymore – ICWANGTA.. and they will begin a “freedom tour” of RoVa to let them know that not only is dynamic tolling the devil’s work but NoVa is not going to subsidize RoVa anymore no matter how many more ignorant kids they have that they can’t afford to educate and care for! They’re motto is ” Harry Byrd – Pay your OWN WAY”!

  2. Zilliacus Avatar

    Not far from Northern Virginia, on the other side of Washington, D.C., Maryland’s InterCounty Connector (ICC) (Route 200), is offering many of these benefits using advanced cashless toll collection (similar to the Transurban HOV/Toll lanes in Northern Virginia). There are E-ZPass toll collection gantries between every interchange, and toll is charged according to distance and time-of-day (tolls are highest during the peak commute periods).

    The ICC is doing so while serving about 50,000 vehicles per day, covering its operating costs and covering the debt that was issued by the state to build the road (see Washington Post story Title=”Low traffic on ICC prompts calls for lower tolls to ease congestion on local roads” and “laying lightly on the land” (the National Park Service uses this phrase to describe its parkways, but I believe it applies here as well).

    What the road is not offering (unlike the Transurban lanes in Northern Virginia) is free passage for HOV-3 vehicles, though there are new bus lines using the toll road 7 days a week.

  3. Zilliacus Avatar

    Wikipedia article about Route 200 Title=”Maryland Route 200″.

  4. ICC has variable tolls but on a schedule as opposed to dynamic.

    not sure what goes into the analysis that drives the decision to go with schedule-driven tolls rather than dynamic – and not sure how easy or hard it is for the ICC to change the schedule tolls – are they are variable message signs or on permanent painted signs?

    In some respects – I think – the ICC was predicated, premised like the Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond was – in that both anticipated future growth.. and demand….

    and what we are seeing is variances between what is projected and what turns out eventual when a road is tolled. When a new road is not tolled – it goes from zero to crowded in no time.. but put a toll on it – and it changes the game – which tells me that there must be a lot of trips that are not truly economically necessary or so marginal that just a toll makes them uneconomic.

    I drove with a friend from Fredericksburg to Dale City on a Thursday in the morning hours after rush hour was over. The traffic is very different from the way it is at 6am. For one thing, a lot more 18-wheelers who must avoid rush hour like the plaque and time their trips to occur outside of rush hour.

    The HOT lanes on I-95 are very, very close to operation.. finishing touches now.. before they go live ..

    these are – as Jim opines – a “managed” operation rather than a set and forget toll operation. There is a LOT of time and effort spent on monitoring traffic flow .. counting and deciding when to up the toll… monitoring of HOV to catch violators – from which I understand is not a tiny percentage problem but bigger and if not continuously detected and enforced would seriously damage the financial viability of the operation… perhaps compare it to shoplifting at a store that makes pennies on the dollar.. and pilfering and shoplifting can damage their profit margins..

    A LOT is riding on the I-95 HOT Lanes. If they do not have success.. if they end up a marginal operation – it may well kill the momentum of thinking managed lanes are the way we do future roads – that it’s not a automatic solution to congestion – at least not as one element of a regional network.

    The problem is – in any region – what one road does or not – does not necessarily result in impacts to the region – good or bad… but more localized.. i.e. how will the mainline “work” on the regular ramps and surface streets not directly access to/from the toll lanes?

    I don’t think we’re going back but how we go forward is still “under investigation”.

    Finally, the thing about the HOT Lanes – that fascinates me is that unlike the ICC which had a long and wide history of public involvement and controversy – the HOT lanes were not really perceived by much of the public – including commuters -with the exception of the sluggers.

    Notice down our way about the impending operation of HOT lanes – reveal in survey’s – was that about half the people even knew about them and even the others that knew – did not really understand how they would work and more often than not agnst from those opposed to tolls in general – than somehow the HOT Lanes got slipped under the radar and that govt pulled a “fast one” on them, even spawning a nascent “kill the HOT Lanes” movement until they realize that ship had long since sailed to be replaced with active grumbling about government out of control – which is hilarious and ironic coming from a commuter crowd that is largely govt or govt-contractor employees!

  5. Zilliacus Avatar

    larryg wrote:

    ICC has variable tolls but on a schedule as opposed to dynamic.

    But the toll collection hardware and software can be “flipped” to dynamic tolling should the MdTA decide to do so.

    For now, the brand new I-95 Express Toll Lanes north of Baltimore (run by the same agency as Md. 200) are not dynamic.

    not sure what goes into the analysis that drives the decision to go with schedule-driven tolls rather than dynamic – and not sure how easy or hard it is for the ICC to change the schedule tolls – are they are variable message signs or on permanent painted signs?

    See above.

    Yes, the toll to reach at least two destinations is shown (on variable message signs) ahead of every entrance to Md. 200.

    In some respects – I think – the ICC was predicated, premised like the Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond was – in that both anticipated future growth.. and demand….

    Only at the far eastern end, near I-95 and U.S. 1 in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Most of the rest of the communities along Md. 200 between I-370 and I-95 are built-out.

    and what we are seeing is variances between what is projected and what turns out eventual when a road is tolled. When a new road is not tolled – it goes from zero to crowded in no time.. but put a toll on it – and it changes the game – which tells me that there must be a lot of trips that are not truly economically necessary or so marginal that just a toll makes them uneconomic.

    There was little experience with performance of roads with variable tolling (dynamic or schedule-based tolling), because such roads did not exist nearby. They do now.

    But Md. 200 is carrying around 50,000 vehicles per weekday (maximum peak-period toll to go the entire 18+ miles is $4.40 – significantly more if a vehicle does not have E-ZPass, but unlike the Transurban lanes, an E-ZPass transponder is not legally required – vehicles without them are sent a bill in the mail).

  6. Zilliacus Avatar

    Washington Post story on Maryland’s I-95 Express Toll Lanes here.

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