There was a point lurking in our discussion of road pricing from a couple of days ago, and Stephen Rees touched on it too, so I think it’s worth making the point explicit, if only to have it clearly set out in front of us.

I continue to think that when we’re talking about road pricing, we need to distinguish very clearly between questions about road pricing’s merits as transportation and land-use policy, and questions about its political feasibility.  On the policy side, it’s a good idea.  Of course, it’s not the only way to raise money while giving drivers incentives to get out of their cars.  So we don’t want to be monomaniacally obsessed with it, and ignore the rest of the menu of policy levers for making driving more expensive.  But still, it’s a good idea.  But on the political side, it’s going to be a very tough sell.  As Rees puts it, drivers think “we have already paid for these roads through our taxes – and that we are “entitled” to use them whenever and wherever we want to.”

So what’s the point of talking about road pricing if it’s a political non-starter?  Here’s Rees again:

The notion that road space at peak periods is a scarce resource that is either rationed by queueing (as we do now) or pricing is way beyond common understanding. Not that that could not be overcome. But again that would take time and resources.

This is exactly right.  And the point of talking about road pricing — of talking about why it’s a good policy idea — is precisely to start very, very slowly reshaping drivers’ understanding of their own road use.  I think drivers can understand that they’re already paying to use the roads, but that they’re paying with their time, rather than their wallets.  It’s just that most people have never heard it put that way before.  So the thing to do is keep talking about road pricing as one of a variety of good policy levers for managing transportation.  Of course, that discussion won’t necessarily make road pricing a political possibility, but road pricing won’t ever be a political possibility without first having this discussion.

That last point’s important.  It’s why I think overemphasis on road pricing’s political impossibility is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If all drivers ever hear about road pricing is that it’s so unpopular it’ll never fly, they’ll never come to understand why it might actually be a good idea.  So they’ll never have the chance to reconsider their own opposition to it, and road pricing will stay politically impossible, regardless of how good an idea it is.

Okay, that’s it on road pricing for at least a couple of weeks.   I swear.