Why American Cities Can’t Control Traffic

Stockholm congestion tolls.

Photo by SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Brad Plumer notes a study of Stockholm’s successful congestion pricing scheme, which has managed to reduce traffic jams and gain the support of the city’s population. By contrast:

Congestion charges have had a hard time getting traction in the United States — the New York state government famously killed a proposal from Michael Bloomberg to put a congestion charge on Manhattan south of 60th Street. There are worries that it would be overly intrusive, or that it would unfairly burden the poor. One lesson from Stockholm seems to be that most of these complaints dissipate pretty quickly once the system’s in place — provided that it actually does what it promises to do.

Something I think it’s important to keep in mind here is the institutional design issue. The New York City congestion pricing plan got the support of the Mayor of New York and the City Council. Had it been imposed, I’m reasonably confident that New Yorkers would have learned to like it and/or that some specific issues would have arised that would have been addressed through modification of the scheme. But it was killed by the state legislature. In Stockholm, by contrast, the congestion charge was approved by the voters of the city and polling shows it’s popular among the city’s residents. The way the American political system operates, municipalities are generally subordinated to state- and county-level government in a way that makes it difficult to manage them sensibly.