Could Congestion Pricing Work Here?
by Sumner Brown
Nothing spoils Belmont’s small town atmosphere as much as our traffic. Residents complain it is terrible, getting worse, and they feel they can’t do anything about it. In fact, anger about traffic congestion dominated recent Planning Board meetings on Belmont Day School’s request to add a new driveway off Concord Avenue. In the future, perhaps in my lifetime, there is hope in technology-enabled solutions.
Consider congestion pricing, made possible by technology such as Fast Lane. It’s working in London and other European cities. There is no fundamental reason why congestion pricing could not soon be used in every town in Massachusetts.
Belmont Day School Traffic
The Day School, a private elementary school located on 11.8 level acres on Concord Avenue, proposes adding a new building and a new driveway on Concord Avenue. Neighbors fear increased traffic congestion. On weekday mornings during the school year, cars carrying young children turn up Concord Avenue from Wellington Lane toward Belmont Day School. Often the traffic coming down Concord Avenue in the other direction is backed up to a standstill, waiting to get through the light at Pleasant Street an eighth of a mile away.
I am interested because I regularly cross Concord Avenue at Wellington Lane by foot, last year more than 200 times during the morning rush. Frankly, the stalled traffic made my pedestrian crossing easier: look for no movement ahead, make eye contact with a driver, and then run between stopped cars. I also noticed the traffic was not much better during the summer, when school was out and summer camps were operating.
How much does Day School traffic actually impact Concord Avenue congestion? On May 1, I took pencil, paper, and clipboard to Day School Lane and counted cars during morning rush. Between 7:30 and 9 AM that day, about one in six cars travelling on Concord Avenue toward Belmont Center came from Day School Lane, and as many as one in four during the worst quarter-hour period. Depending on how you look at this, Belmont Day School traffic causes drivers to wait at the Pleasant Street light for four cycles instead of three.
I conclude that even if Belmont Day School moved to Weston (as it has considered), eastbound Concord Avenue traffic over Belmont Hill would still be terrible, now and in the years ahead. The problem is just the total number of cars trying to drive into Boston every day. Drivers continually adjust to find their best route; if Concord Avenue traffic became slightly better without the school, then other motorists would arrive to replace Day School vehicles, and you might still wait four light cycles at the bottom of Concord Avenue.
Depending on how you look at this, Belmont Day School traffic causes drivers to wait at the Pleasant Street light for four cycles instead of three.
The Planning Board for some projects requires a traffic demand management (TDM) study, with ways to mitigate traffic to and from the proposed development. The Day School had a consultant conduct such a study, and now plans to follow TDM recommendations that include carpooling, school-operated buses and vans, consider staggering class start times, or other remedies. These mitigations ought to be popular with the school’s parents, too, and may well decrease total vehicle trips to the Day School even as the enrollment increases (about 45 new students are expected) with the new building.
Except for traffic, Belmont Day School is considered an excellent citizen. While schools are exempt from property taxes, it educates 61 Belmont students (270 overall) in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, thus saving the town about $600,000 on school expenditures. Many Belmont children learn to swim at summer programs there.
Besides the dominant topic of traffic, the Planning Board also heard a range of concerns, including for the tranquility of the cemetery adjacent to the proposed new school driveway and the effect on stormwater in that vicinity of Wellington Hill. On July 10, the Office of Community Development agenda includes the design and site plan improvements for the gymnasium at the school.
Why Belmont Traffic Got Worse
My father-in-law worked at one company at one location for about thirty years. He built a house within walking distance of where he worked. If you work in Boston or Cambridge today, you probably cannot afford to live close to where you work in a house where you would feel comfortable raising children. If you do find a house close to where you work, you are unlikely to keep that job for as long as you wish. The high price of real estate and the “gig” economy, where, increasingly, jobs are short-lived or temporary, conspire to make commutes long, and a great many of these commutes seem to cut through Belmont. Typically people are so desperate to solve their housing and employment problems that they do not realize how grating their commute will be.
Traffic congestion is an example of a failure of a market economy to find a comfortable solution.
Traffic congestion is an example of a failure of a market economy to find a comfortable solution. When I drive, I do not pay for the annoyance my car makes for others who wish to enjoy a free road without traffic. Every driver is irritated by other drivers, but fails to pay for, or even realize, his contribution to congestion.
Civil engineers and elected officials have tried solutions to traffic congestion and high real estate prices. The Long Island Freeway is a famous example. This road into New York City was designed to simultaneously solve a housing problem and a transportation problem. The result was that potato farms were turned into Levittowns as fast as the road could be built. More people with more cars made traffic terrible, and real estate prices rose.
People who live in Manhattan mostly have given up on car ownership. They do fine with subways, walking, bicycling, cabs, and ride-sharing apps. Traffic congestion in New York City is overwhelmingly from vehicles driven by non-residents. Congestion pricing was proposed. City residents were enthusiastic, but they needed state approval. They did not get it because drivers from Long Island wanted free use of city streets, and used their political power to block the city from implementing congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing as implemented in London is a fee that must be paid by any vehicle that enters some central portion of London between 7 AM and 6 PM, Monday through Friday. It works. It is popular. The fee, about $13, is high enough to change people’s behavior.
Belmont alone could not implement congestion pricing for Belmont. It would require the state to make it work. Will each town be taxing drivers from every other town? Yes, that’s the likely outcome.
The technology would be the easy part. Every vehicle that has a license plate would also be required to have an E-Z Pass or Fast Lane transponder. Enough vehicles now have these devices (which allow turnpike tolls to be paid without stopping) that tollbooths are rapidly being eliminated. Local towns would decide where to place their toll points, the hours of operation, and how much to charge.
The technology would be the easy part. Every vehicle that has a license plate would also be required to have an E-Z Pass or Fast Lane transponder.
Given how GPS works, we might not need any special toll points. Cross a town border or toll point, and you incur a charge. One policy might be to discount charges if one stayed on “designated routes” (such as Route 2 and Route 95/128). The fees collected could pay for school buses.
Considering that Belmont believes that most of our congestion comes from cut-through traffic, Belmont would expect to gain financially.
The fees collected could pay for school buses.
Perhaps the hardest part of congestion pricing for people to accept is that each of us, not just other people, contribute to traffic congestion. If congestion pricing comes to Massachusetts, it would be preceded by discussions of new taxes, cost, and privacy. Considering that Belmont believes that most of our congestion comes from cut-through traffic, Belmont would expect to gain financially. Some percentage of our town’s revenue would come from our congestion pricing tolls.
Cut-through Traffic Would Pay Most
Drivers cutting through Belmont would, we believe, pay most of these tolls. We would pay some of those tolls, but our property taxes would be less than if we did not have revenue from out-of-town drivers paying to use our roads. Of course, we would pay to pass through other towns’ congestion toll points during congestion hours as well.
Revenue is not the reason for congestion pricing. The goal is to change peoples’ behavior by a market mechanism.
The specific behaviors that would be changed are whatever happens when there is a cost that people can see when they contribute to society’s problem. Changes would occur. In our household, we would have paid for school busing and stopped driving kids through Belmont Center to school.
Congestion pricing is working in London. It could work in Belmont.
Sumner Brown is a board member of Belmont Citizens Forum.
The Nature of Traffic
When someone drives between two points, parallel roads present alternatives. A driver chooses a route based on factors that include congestion. If, say, Trapelo Road is compromised by construction, other routes look better and will get more traffic. I believe if Belmont would end its practice of charging for school buses, more children would take buses, and car trips to schools would go down. However, this would benefit people who go from Arlington to Watertown, and more of them would go through Belmont Center, so congestion would not be reduced by nearly as much as would be expected by the reduction of cars going to and from schools. This is why completely eliminating Belmont Day School traffic would reduce morning traffic by less than the 16% presently due to the school.
Don’t blame GPS navigational aids for the least obnoxious route. People have been searching for better routes for as long as there has been congestion. What is new is that drivers can now try unfamiliar side roads at a moment’s notice when they encounter unexpected traffic trouble, and then the side roads get more congested.