Solving Traffic Problems The Ancient Way

July 19, 2005, 12am PDT | Oded Roth
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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 http://www.transportationet.com, 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.

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