Solving Traffic Problems The Ancient Way

Many criticize the idea of charging money for the use of roads, which are widely considered a public good.  Yet inspiration for an equitable solution to this dilemma may be found in an ancient law that dispenses justice in a simple traffic conflict, writes Oded Roth in this week's Op-Ed.

 Oded Roth

Solving the problem of severe traffic congestion has risen to the top of the agenda in many cities. Undoubtedly, the precedent set by the City of London has encouraged mayors and local politicians to reconsider the idea of payment, or congestion charges, for participating in traffic jams. Yet many criticize the idea of charging money for the use of roads, which are widely considered a public good. Inspiration for an equitable solution to this dilemma may be found in an ancient law that dispenses justice in a simple traffic conflict.

Congestion prevents streamlining traffic in an efficient manner, wastes time, increases collision rates and creates a confluence of the annoyances of air pollution and noise. Measures taken to dilute congested traffic conditions would optimize the flow of traffic and promote efficiency.

Economic incentives may motivate some drivers to abandon their cars under congested conditions, thereby achieving the traffic dilution goal. Well known economic measures used to soften the demand of traffic include gas taxes, toll roads, parking tolls, congestion charges and transit subsidies.

Yet the idea of congestion charges is not widespread, due to political doubts regarding social and economic justice, rather than issues of traffic design or traffic stream engineering.

In other words, charging for the use of common property raises a socio-economic conflict. On the one hand, it is unfair to charge the public for the use of its own domain. This charge may be considered economic discrimination against the poor. Conversely, free consumption of public resources harms the efficiency of its use, and ultimately harms society as a whole.

Investigation of an ancient traffic custom may shed some light on the problem. In ancient Roman times, public roads were considered "Res Publica", or in the "public domain", the common property of all. A solution to the congestion charges conflict may be found in an ancient law related to a nucleus congestion problem -- a conflict between two boats or camels that had to pass through a narrow passage wide enough for only one traveler to pass. Understanding the solution to the nucleus conflict between two opposing interests may be the key to a multi-vehicle conflict that occurs under congestive conditions.

The ancient law solves the conflict in two stages -- the first step checks the relative, relevant conditions of the participants, and due to good manners and a hospitable attitude, gives way to the more heavily loaded vehicle, rather than to an empty one, or to the conveyance that has traveled a longer distance. If the relevant conditions of both vehicles are similar, then the economical solution follows -- to allow the two travelers to trade for the right of way. The one with the highest offer will pay the other for the privilege of the right to pass.

Once the solution of right-of-way scarcity conflict is understood, today's congestive problems may be challenged.

The first stage of the solution could be that preference be assigned to the most heavily loaded vehicles. Trains, buses, taxis or cars filled with passengers would thus deserve preference over unloaded cars. Only then would the second stage of the economic solution follow. It should be noted that in the current arrangement of congestion charges, a public authority or official licensee collects the fees, or receives a percentage of the charges. According to the aforementioned ancient law, the paucity of rights of way should be a basis for a free market of give and take among the road users, and not between the road users and higher authorities.

In this situation, modern technologies that enable monitoring traffic and charge individual vehicles may be used to develop elaborate free markets among those who wish to enter congested zones at hours of over demand. Fine-tuning traffic flow by negotiation and free will may be just, understandable and better accepted. Furthermore, free markets may supply clear economic signals regarding the public wishes toward urban planning, land use and modes of movement.

Oded Roth is the webmaster of, an author of the textbook (Hebrew): "Crossroads - law, traffic and transportation", and a guest lecturer on Issues of Law and Transportation at the Technion, Israeli technological institute.



The Singapore example

Singapore has had a quota system on access to downtown for decades, and auctions the right for cars to enter downtown at different times. Vehicles are classified by engine size, so more expensive cars tend to pay more. Car pools also get special treatment.

The money is spent on public transit and parking.

The Holiday of 2050

In the year 2050, a new holiday is celebrated. National Drive Your Car Day celebrates how "The Car Saved the World".

In that year, every modern household has at least one car and every housing complex has a garage full of them, but are rarely taken out on the road.

So, to celebrate how much the people of that day do so revere The Car, National Drive Your Car Day was instituted by President Chelsea Clinton, who drives her burgandy 1937 Nash outfitted with a Plug-in hybrid drive train (bio-diesel 40HP 3-cylinder IC engine, 100HP electric motor and 300LB Ni-MH battery pack). Some republicans chide Power-to-the-People Chelsea as a smiling bimbo, but the economy is good and there hasn't been a war or even a major regional conflict since long before she served as Vice President to 2-term President Vanessa Kerry.

wedge issue

The whole "congestion pricing is unequitable" is just a wedge issue. There are ways to make pricing equitable...we just never get ot that point because the issue is brought up and then everyone fights over charging in the first place. On the other hand, you can't just throw an extra charge onto driving an automobile without providing other viable means of getting around, it just isn't politically feasible. So, suburbs completely designed around the auto are SOL...unless they do something about the impossibility of getting from home to work to shopping without an auto.

21st Century

The use of toll roads peaked in the U.S. in the 19th century. We need a 21st century sustainable transport system that is affordable and doesn't depend on imported fuel. I think we should stop talking about congestion because it will always be with us and is a distraction from what needs to be done.

economic justice in transportation

Oded Roth is correct when he says that congestion pricing is viewed by some as economic discrimination against the poor (hence the common use of the term "Lexus Lanes"). But the real reason that congestion pricing is politically charged issue is that the vast majority of Americans feel that it is their God-given right to drive whenever and wherever they please, and they don't feel they should have to pay for it. Also, Roth fails to even mention the issue of public transit. In reference to congestion pricing on roads, he writes that "it is unfair to charge the public for the use of its own domain." Well, isn't public transit also part of the public domain? And don't transit users have to pay to use this public good? If anything is economic discrimination, it is providing free roads to those who can afford cars and the gas they guzzle, while making those who can't afford to drive pay to use public transit. The very politicians who routinely refuse to support funding for public transit are the same ones who claim that congestion pricing is unfair and discriminatory while they continue to support massive highway subsidies.

Toothy grins and smarmy smirks

How about we think of the automobile as a transportation monopoly? Or, how about automobiles as a Constitutional Inequity? In urban/suburban settings, cars make walking and bicycling dangerous. Yet constitutionally, gas taxes can only be spent on roads. Car-dependent development makes mass transit uncompetitive. Do cars therefore violate the legal order of free market capitalism? Are cars a disabiling addiction trafficked by unholy underworlders sporting toothy grins and smarmy smirks?

car pooling in Singapore

I refer to Martin's comment on The Singapore example.

Indeed there are demand management measures on Singapore's road network and private car ownership. However, car pools has not gotten any special treatment since the early 1980s. All private cars are treated the same (charged the same price) for congestion charging regardless of engine capacity or number of passengers. Perhaps the local authorities should streamline their congestion charging (and therefore demand management measures) by considering the benefits of car-pooling days of yore.

building block set

NEW! Build the world you want to see

Irresistible block set for adults when placed on a coffee table or desk, and great fun for kids.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

NEW! City Map Posters

Available in 9 different cities.
AICP CTP Storefont Display

The first online AICP* CTP exam prep class

Are you ready to take the AICP* Certified Transportation Planner exam?
Priced at $245 for May exam!