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A simple plan

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When it comes to the slow commuter crawl, a Honda Odyssey minivan is about as good as it gets. The Odyssey is like a living room on wheels, with its big, comfy armchairs, multiple cupholders, CD changer and cassette, even a DVD player mounted behind the front seats. You just inch along in "Drive," lost in the music, trying to detect arcane Morse Code messages in the winking brake lights.

It’s definitely getting worse. Traffic congestion is no longer restricted to rush hours; it can occur any time of the day. Where do all the people come from at 2:30 p.m.? Commuters like me now spend about a fifth of our time on the road stuck in bumper-to-bumper jams, wasting 33 hours a year and 60 gallons of gas. Traffic on I-95 grows at 1.5 percent a year, and a highway built for 50,000 cars a day is handling 150,000. Driving habits are a big part of the problem. The number of car trips on major highways has increased 96 percent since 1968.

One city that has actually done something about the traffic problem is London, where a recent study indicates that traffic congestion can increase asthmatic symptoms in children by as much as 200 percent. On Feb. 17, London implemented a £5 ($8) congestion fee for private automobiles entering its downtown core. Mayor Ken Livingston’s policy, universally derided as disastrous by business groups before it was put into place ("Ken-gestion"), is now mostly hailed as a success. One pro-business association, London First, supports the fee, following a poll of its members in which 69 percent said the charge had no impact at all on their bottom line, and 22 percent said they’d been affected positively.

Approximately 110,000 motorists a day pay the fee, which is expected to generate £100 million ($166 million) annually. There are several ways to pay, including sidewalk kiosks that look like phone booths, the Internet, and cellular phone messaging. Remote video cameras record license plates and, if you avoid paying for a month, a $200 fine is imposed.

Almost immediately, private car traffic into central London dropped 20 percent, resulting in an increase in average traffic speed from 8 miles per hour to 11 mph. This factor alone may be good for business: On-time mobile consumers stop more places and spend more money. There were some teething problems, according to a report from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, including some false charges and an increase in traffic on peripheral roads.

Congestion pricing, which in some forms applies varying tolls depending on time of travel, is an idea whose time has come. Electronic collection systems like E-ZPass can assess tolls without drivers even stopping. They’ve taken the idea to heart in Singapore, Oslo and Orange County, Calif., where a congestion-priced privately run highway parallels the state road.

New York City has many parallels to London, including a similar amount of traffic entering its borders every day. Mayor Bloomberg is reportedly following the impact of the London plan closely. He should. Traffic congestion costs the city as much as $4 billion in lost productivity every year, the Washington Post reports. The Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, carried 426,000 people a day in 1907; now it carries less than half that many.

My Honda’s DVD screen and comfortable seats are no substitute for time that could have been spent at home or working. I want my life back, and I think I’m not alone.

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