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To Sell Congestion Pricing Plans, Don’t Mention Climate Change

Getting congestion pricing plans past the public opinion stage may require refocusing the conversation around how traffic flows will improve, rather than any potential benefits to the planet.

The on-ramp to congestion pricing is not paved with warnings about climate change.

“The dirty secret about climate — and maybe it’s not that much a secret — is that most people at the end of the day don’t care,” said Michael Manville, professor and chair of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Rather than talking up the virtuous language of reducing traffic, which translates to reducing greenhouse gas emission — however true — transportation officials need to emphasize the tangible and more immediate benefits of roadway charging. This equates to less congested roadways, said Manville during a panel discussion at the CoMotion LA conference in November.

Both the Los Angeles region and Bay Area in the San Francisco metro are studying various congestion pricing proposals. The proposal in the Bay Area would seek to place a charge on freeway use during peak travel periods. The funding generated would generally be directed toward transit and other transportation projects like improved and expanded biking infrastructure.

L.A. Metro has been involved in its own traffic reduction study, a largely conceptual idea aimed at looking at some of the most traffic-clogged parts of the region, and whether pricing and “reinvestment in transit was a solution,” said Mark Vallianatos, executive officer for the agency's office of innovation.

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) also considered congestion pricing when it updated its transportation plan, only to have it shot down by the public and politicians.

“The conversation became very politicized, and over the course of the few months as we worked toward adoption of that plan, there was a lot of our board members going on the news, writing editorials, doing all sorts of different things, coming out against it,” said Danielle Kochman, mobility planning manager at SANDAG.

And then, of course, there’s the proposal moving forward in New York City to charge vehicles traveling below 60th Street in Manhattan.

Selling these ideas to the public may require focusing on the negative — underscoring the collective despair associated with congested roadways and then point out the improved driving experience pricing will bring, said Kochman, offering up the Disney Lightning Lane as an example. In that instance, Disney theme park visitors buy a special pass allowing them to bypass long lines for certain attractions.

“There are real examples that aren’t related to government that helps people realize that it’s not just ‘evil government’ trying to charge you for everything,” said Kochman.

“It is helpful to remind people that in almost every other area of life, we count on pricing to prevent shortages,” Manville added, calling upon the Lightning Lanes as an example.

In Los Angeles, “We do not run out of automobiles. We do not run out of gasoline. We run out of road space,” he added.

The region needs to agree on what it wants out of congestion pricing. If, for example, money matters more than clearing clogged roadways, charge a low price to as many vehicles as possible, said Manville.

“And try and hide that price, so people almost don’t notice it,” he added.

If, on the other hand, the goal is changing behavior, design a system that makes people think about driving, its impacts, and possibly, reconsider it.

Transponders that flash how much was just charged from the driver, giving a “psychological nudge to say, 'maybe you should have walked or taken the train, or something like that,'” said Manville.

But ultimately, the region needs to craft a message around how driving will be improved, for those who choose to pay for it.

“The selling point to make to a region of drivers is, if we do this, driving is going to be great,” he added. “You want to meet people where they are. In California, people are drivers, and you meet people with that.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.