Congestion Pricing - Description


Congestion pricing is a concept from market economics regarding the use of pricing mechanisms to charge the users of public goods for the negative externalities generated by the peak demand in excess of available supply. Its economic rationale is that, at a price of zero, demand exceeds supply, causing a shortage, and that the shortage should be corrected by charging the equilibrium price rather than shifting it down by increasing the supply. Usually this means increasing prices during certain periods of time or at the places where congestion occurs; or introducing a new usage tax or charge when peak demand exceeds available supply in the case of a tax-funded public good provided free at the point of usage.

According to the economic theory behind congestion pricing, the objective of this policy is the use of the price mechanism to make users more aware of the costs that they impose upon one another when consuming during the peak demand, and that they should pay for the additional congestion they create, thus encouraging the redistribution of the demand in space or in time, or shifting it to the consumption of a substitute public good; for example, switching from private transport to public transport.

This pricing mechanism has been used in several public utilities and public services for setting higher prices during congested periods, as a means to better manage the demand for the service, and whether to avoid expensive new investments just to satisfy peak demand, or because is not economically or financially feasible to provide additional capacity to the service. Congestion pricing has been widely used by telephone and electric utilities, metros, railways and autobus services, and has been proposed for charging internet access. It also has been extensively studied and advocated by mainstream transport economists for ports, waterways, airports and road pricing, though actual implementation is rather limited due to the controversial issues subject to debate regarding this policy, particularly for urban roads, such as undesirable distribution effects, the disposition of the revenues raised, and the social and political acceptability of the congestion charge.

Congestion pricing is one of a number of alternative demand side (as opposed to supply side) strategies offered by economists to address traffic congestion. Congestion is considered a negative externality by economists. An externality occurs when a transaction causes costs or benefits to a third party, often, although not necessarily, from the use of a public good: for example, if manufacturing or transportation cause air pollution imposing costs on others when making use of public air. Congestion pricing is an efficiency pricing strategy that requires the users to pay more for that public good, thus increasing the welfare gain or net benefit for society.

Nobel-laureate William Vickrey is considered by some to be the father of congestion pricing, as he first proposed it for the New York City Subway system in 1952. In the road transportation arena these theories were extended by Maurice Allais, Gabriel Roth who was instrumental in the first designs and upon whose World Bank recommendation the first system was put in place in Singapore. Also by the Smeed Report, published by the British Ministry of Transport in 1964, but its recommendations were rejected by successive British governments.

The transport economics rationale for implementing congestion pricing on roads, described as "one policy response to the problem of congestion", was summarized in testimony to the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee in 2003: "congestion is considered to arise from the mispricing of a good; namely, highway capacity at a specific place and time. The quantity supplied (measured in lane-miles) is less than the quantity demanded at what is essentially a price of zero. If a good or service is provided free of charge, people tend to demand more of it – and use it more wastefully – than they would if they had to pay a price that reflected its cost. Hence, congestion pricing is premised on a basic economic concept: charge a price in order to allocate a scarce resource to its most valuable use, as evidenced by users' willingness to pay for the resource".

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