How to Convince Your Mom that Congestion Pricing Is Good

by Michael Brown

Odds are if you show up at a family reunion and try to convince your parents and siblings that congestion pricing is good, you’ll be lonely pretty quickly. People want the freeways to work but they hate paying tolls! If you are reading this, then you’re probably part of the choir. My goal isn’t to convert the converted as much as to provide new arguments and sound bites when talking to others.

So, how do we reach others? Millions must be convinced to put down their pitchforks long enough to test the theory and decide for themselves if congestion pricing is worthwhile. Elected officials are afraid to take a position contrary to polls, and polls are overwhelmingly dominated by uninformed opinions.

Too many citizens “learn” the issues of the day in 30-second television spots. Even those who make an effort to stay well informed are not the best ones to ask.  There are many fine teachers, dentists, and doctors with intelligent opinions but if you ask them about Congestion Pricing, most would focus on a single point – “double taxation.” Because no one listens long enough for a good explanation, politicians conform to polls of the uninformed rather than risk trying to change public opinion.


This is the fourth part of a four-part series.

Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3        ◊       
Part 4

Geeks and used car salesmen

Congestion Pricing’s true believers are insiders who spend years exploring how market mechanisms can solve our transportation headaches. Typically, they are “nerdy engineer” types and Ph.D.’s at universities. They come up with great ideas but their main focus is convincing other geeks. Peer-reviewed articles loaded with incomprehensible equations and data may be good stuff and true, but the world will never move out of the congestion morass until the world “gets it” at the lowest-common- denominator level of things that matter to them.

Many geeks know Congestion Pricing is worth billions but they’re poor at delivering the message personally. So they set aside “public awareness budgets” that are embarrassingly tiny relative to the potential payoff. That’s like hiring a used car salesman to deliver the message. That approach may persuade a few but it won’t convince your mom – it won’t even reach your mom. Great ideas need great enlightenment efforts.

congestion_pricing2Evangelists and professional marketers

When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they actually had a hard time selling it. Everyone was intrigued, of course, but few understood how it could help them in a way that was worth the price. The airplane seemed like an exciting new toy that could kill you! So the Wrights became evangelists. They met with government officials and anyone else with the means and potential motive to buy, and sold them hard on dozens of potential uses. Now we could scarcely imagine the world without planes.

Think of the Bible. Many find it very difficult to read and hard to get excited about. But some people are very passionate about the bible, and very gifted at translating its meaning to large crowds. Congestion Pricing and Freeway Optimization have been peddled mainly by geeks and insufficient public awareness efforts. Are we really surprised that people are skeptical?

Gifted evangelists are essential but so is “Hollywood.” By that, I mean it takes people who have figured out how to sell stuff to people. We need marketing artists who can place an object in the hands of a big star, then watch that object fly off the shelf in the following month. For ideas worth billions, we should spend millions to attract the top-notch marketers, and give them a budget to craft emotionally persuasive visuals and sound bites.

Suppose you are a government official who has spent a career studying the good and the bad of freeway optimization and have concluded it is a great project concept worth a lot more than it costs. You may be reluctant to spend public funds on advocacy. It is controversial after all, and advocacy seems like propaganda and social engineering. So don’t let it be propaganda or even advocacy. Engage “Hollywood” not to manipulated people with one-sided arguments but to shortcut the learning curve. If people learn both the good and the bad honestly, they still may be skeptical but should be willing at least to support limited experiments.

congestion_pricing3Words Matter

Part of the trouble with congestion pricing is that the first ones to invent it called it congestion pricing! Congestion and pricing are both negative words that no one likes. Of course the pricing is to cure congestion, but the immediate first impression is that the government is just here to take more of your money. It is not intuitively obvious that pricing optimizes freeway flow – both speeds and 30% more throughput per hour.

As noted in part 1, preventive ramp metering can also optimize flow. So I prefer to not focus on “congestion pricing” as the only means to the goal. I think it is the best means because it catalyzes sustainability better, but people will listen for longer if they realize there are other ways.

If we focus on “Freeway Optimization” and its sustainability benefits, people may start to see that generating money for infrastructure is incidental to the real purpose of pricing. It is about using the free market to allocate a limited resource and get things moving again without getting mired in Big Dig debt!