Americans Abroad

Over the past few months a group of 10 US transportation experts from USDOT, six state DOTs and a private-sector consultant, engaged in a fact-finding mission re what the rest of the world is doing re road pricing. They called their project: “International Scan: Reducing Congestion and Funding Transportation Using Variable Road Pricing” and visited or examined the usual suspects: Germany, London, Netherlands, Singapore, Stockholm, as well as the Czech Republic, newly added to the slowly growing list.

Last Wednesday, 2010.02.03, the group presented a 90-minute webinar, which I recommend to road-pricing newbies. The recording of the webinar will be posted here by 2010.02.10. In Europe, where I have focused much of my work in the past seven years re road pricing, I have more than once heard the comment that "Americans do not learn from us". That is clearly not true in this case (as an American, the criticism had rankled me).
Something new that I learned from the Webinar: “Singapore estimates that the gas tax would need to be raised by $3 to achieve the same traffic reduction results as a $1 increase in their electronic road pricing system due to transparency of the charge.” This is not surprising in principle, but it is in scale. I wonder if any economists can comment?
There is a lot to learn from the European experience. We can learn about behavioral effects, expected decrements in bad things and increments in good things, about the quicksand of referenda (although our own Johanna Zmud can teach us as much), we can learn about expense, courage and complexity and perhaps something about attitudes (although that is blunted by our poor comparative record on fuel taxation so Americans' entitled attitudes toward "paying differently" will be harder to crack than the Europeans’ (except for the Brits')).

But there is also a lot not to learn. We should not copy any European system wholesale -- in fact, I hope no EU jurisdiction does (although Gothenburg threatens a carbon copy of Stockholm), as each of the current examples has flaws (the London Congestion Charge), each had specific constraints (the Swedish tax law), specific geographies (the most successful was a peninsular island, the most scared is below sea-level), specific leaders (Livingston), specific types of government (Singapore) and specific and twisted deployment histories (Czech Rep and Germany).

It is also the case that the technology developed by 2009 is far more economically efficient and effective, such that if re-done using what is now available, London would not likely be using fixed-position cameras (not because of privacy, since they already have cameras galore, but because those cameras robbed TfL of system flexibility, extensibility and scalability. It is known that Singapore is looking to upgrade (for the second time!) to a newer technology. One cannot make this claim about Stockholm, because it is their atavistic tax laws that chose cameras (only their 2nd best technical option at the time and now their 3rd best), nor would Germany’s system be very different from what it is, except it would be less expensive -- but that is always to be expected.

As an example of cross-fertilization of ideas I wrote How to toll a country for free for the Czech Republic. It's an extension of the some forward American thinking out of the FHWA in the face of the two most difficult American stumbling blocks to TDP road use charging (variable VMT charging): hyper-dependency on the automobile and a badly-misshapen fuel-tax policy history.

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