Guardrails on Priced Lanes: Protecting Equity While Promoting Efficiency

Research Team: Michael Manville (lead), Gregory Pierce, and Bryan Graveline

UC Campus(es): UCLA

Problem Statement: Congestion road pricing is the most promising tool that planners and policymakers have for combatting highway congestion and related problems including vehicle crashes and air pollution. But congestion pricing also raises concerns about fairness. While pricing can improve efficiency — by charging more for roads in times when more people want to use them — low-income drivers’ risk being severely burdened if roads are tolled. And because people of color are disproportionately low-income, tolls risk becoming a regressive burden that is uneven along racial lines. Governments across California are considering congestion pricing in various forms, and all are wrestling with the associated equity implications.

Project Description: This project examines if congestion pricing can be implemented in a way that protects vulnerable residents of California from two perspectives. First, the research team empirically estimated the size of the vulnerable population likely to be impacted if congestion pricing were introduced on California’s urban freeways. Results suggest that 13% of households, as a result of their low-incomes and current travel habits, might be unduly burdened by a freeway tolling program in California. Second, the research team considers ways to mitigate these burdens. In particular, freeway use is compared to use of other metered network infrastructure, like electricity grids or water systems. Assistance programs from these utilities provide a useful model for protecting low-income drivers from road prices, and further note that policymakers would be less constrained in progressively redistributing congestion toll revenue than they would be in redistributing utility revenue.

Status: Completed

Budget: $77,927