This post by Matt Yglesias on toll roads reminded me of an interesting article in the Sun Sentinel a couple of months ago about the I-95 express lanes in Miami. Yglesias states:
But as “everyone” tries to crowd onto it traffic moves slowly and some people will want to exchange money for time by taking the toll road. And at any given time of day, there’s got to be some price at which the tolled road will be uncongested.
I wholly agree with that, yet it doesn’t work if the driver is making confused decisions like in the case with the I-95 express lanes. The express lane price varies depending on the congestion in the express lanes, however, drivers are assuming the price is instead based on the free lanes. Therefore, headaches ensue when drivers pay the max price of $7.25 only to become stuck and watch free traffic whiz by. Possible solutions:
Remove the max price of $7.25. Obviously if the lane is becoming congested at this price, it’s not high enough and consumers are willing to pay more. There will be a price where confusion about whether the price signals congestion in the free lane or express lane is irrelevant. It will become solely a decision of “if I want to drive faster than I have to pay this price” and without a low cap congestion should disappear.
Perhaps there are barriers to removing the $7.25 cap or for whatever reason it doesn’t fly with the decision makers. The next possible solution would be to reverse the couterintuitive pricing. Drivers are naturally going to assume the express lane is faster and that pricing is based on congestion in the free lanes and that’s a reasonable assumption. Hell, they don’t call the lane “express” for no reason. Put sensors in the free lanes and base pricing on the congestion in the free lanes which is the intuitive assumption most drivers make.
As it stands now the tolls essentially give the driver the decision of paying $5-6 to drive on a congested express lane or pay $0 and take a random chance on congestion. Assuming the driver is not confused about the pricing basis, it seems to me that this decision will do little to alleviate congestion as drivers will invariably pick $0 and the free lanes will congest quickly. Meanwhile, the prices will drop in the express lanes as congestion clears up, only to be quickly filled again. It seems that congestion would occur in a back and forth manner between the express and free lanes. If you insist on basing pricing on the congestion of the express lane and insist on keeping a cap, then at least randomize the prices for each car. Make the decision for the driver to be: 1) Pay $0 and have a random guess at congestion in the free lane or, 2) Pay a random price between $0.25 – $7.25 to drive in the express lane. This system will work itself out through time since most of the drivers are daily commuters. If it burns your craw to be hit with a random $6 toll when the free lane is moving at the same pace or faster than you’re not going to be apt to take many chances with the express lane. However, if price is not a big factor for you and you’ll pay for speed then the express lane is going to work out for you in the long run because you are not price conscious. Those are the drivers that would naturally be in the express lane without a price cap. Random pricing is the simplest tool to improve congestion in both lanes.
I don’t pretend to be a traffic expert by any means and I realize that there are a lot of variables to congestion. However, the system that the state currently has set up seems counterintuitive and ineffective, which leads to frustration among the users of I-95 like myself. The article is almost a year old and it’s been a while since I’ve taken I-95 during any type of peak time, so hopefully there has been changes for the better but I wouldn’t bet on it.