To Drive or Not To Drive: Two South American Countries Consider Congestion Pricing

By Drew Reed
on 01 October 2012

Source: The Big City

This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)French

© Alex E. Proimos Buenos Aires Traffic Congestion

© Alex E. Proimos
Buenos Aires Traffic Congestion

Whether they own a Prius or a Hummer, a Porsche or a Pinto, or anything in between, car owners all over the world can agree on one thing: they don’t want to pay to use the roads they drive on. User fees like toll roads, congestion pricing, or others, are almost always met with scorn. Some of the best know examples of this have been in London and New York, where despite the transit friendly culture the measures have been met with controversy. Not surprisingly, similar proposals made in more car-oriented cities have gone down in flames.

The core rationale for user fees on roadways generally falls into two categories. The first is the idea that, since roads are expensive to build and maintain, the people who directly benefit should help to pay for them. While no form of direct payment for roads is ever going to be immensely popular, this idea is generally well received. People who feel their tolls are being used for something are likely to quietly accept them.

The second rationale for road user fees is that they should be used as a mechanism to promote driving patterns that utilize limited road space and car-related infrastructure in heavily urbanized areas more efficiently. This is often met with outrage. And despite the potential benefits of such measures, some of this outrage is understandable. When people have to pay for something, they like to know what it is they’re paying for. Congestion pricing struggles to convince people it needs to exist. For as much as everyone likes to complain about traffic, they have trouble accepting that they are part of the problem, instead embracing solutions that only apply to everyone else.

This equation changes slightly when applied outside of car saturated first world countries. A recent congestion pricing project in Santiago, Chile, calls for pay centres placed to cover all vehicle entrances to the business district on the eastern side of the city, and charge a nominal fee to all vehicles entering the district that don’t belong to residents or workers (see this write up [es] for more information).

A similar thought process is being applied on the other side of the Andes, where the government of Buenos Aires, Argentina has proposed higher tolls on the City’s freeway system during rush hour. Although this has been proposed to help raise funds for the freeway system, Buenos Aires’s Chief of Government Mauricio Macri has stated explicitly that the program is also intended to reduce traffic during rush hour [es].

What was the reaction to these proposals? The Chilean proposal has yet to get beyond simply being a nifty set of photoshopped Google maps, and if it goes any further the reaction is likely to be along the lines ofwhat transit specialist Louis de Grange predicts [es]:

Though congestion pricing may well be, in specific cases, a useful tool to manage traffic, to think that it is the solution for Santiago’s congestion problem is probably erroneous. In fact there are various cases in which it simply isn’t convenient to implement such a system, since the social benefits that it generates are less noticeable than the costs of implementing and managing it. Moreover, congestion pricing does not eliminate congestion; it only reduces it, hopefully to a socially optimal level.

In Argentina, plans for the new toll structure quickly turned into something of a political football (or perhaps, fútbol, since this is Argentina). The proposal was attacked by supporters of Marci’s chief political opponent, President Cristina Kirchner, who complained it was an unnecessary burden on middle class users of the freeway system, neglecting to consider how to encourage middle class users to use the transit system. Macri, quick to tout his business background, doubled down on the “government should act like a business” aspect of the plan. Lost in the debate was any attempt to find a solution that was anything more than a plank in either side’s political platform.

What is the main difference between the debate over congestion pricing in countries like England or the US versus countries like Chile or Argentina? Quite simply, congestion pricing in Chile or Argentina is shunnedbecause people feel that they should be driving much more than they currently are. Driving is, of course, a symbol of progress, and anything that gets in the way of this keeps countries from clawing their way upward on the world stage and hurts politicians’ re-election chances. This doesn’t happen as much in England or the US since it would be difficult for people to drive any more than they already do. In these countries, congestion pricing measures are opposed because people see free access to highways as the norm, and any attempt to encourage use of other forms of transit or even a more strategic use of the same mode of transit is seen as a strike against the middle class or worse, an attempt to “make us act poor”.

The unfortunate part of this is that in South American countries, where the 1920s era dream of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” was never acted on with the same immense government spending as in the more industrialized countries, there is a greater opportunity for sustainable urban reform since car-based infrastructure, political blocs, and social patterns aren’t as well established. Unfortunately, trends in these countries seem to be going in the opposite direction.

Time will tell if congestion pricing in some form will take hold in Latin American countries. Until then, they can take heart in the fact that they’ve been able to challenge the first world in an area where until now it’s always had a monopoly: complaining about tolls.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specializing in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Image via Alex E. Proimos