Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity


Stuart Cohen and Alan Hoffman

Year Published: 


Download the full report and toolkit

Download the worksheet

Report cover imageAmerica’s transportation investments and policies have helped to create—and reinforce—racial and social inequities. Meanwhile, in response to worsening road congestion, inadequate transportation funding, and the dire threat of climate change, regions across North America have begun implementing road pricing on highways in the form of tolls and express lanes. A growing number of cities are now considering “congestion pricing” programs for their downtowns.

Equity issues are often analyzed as part of road pricing studies for good reason: road pricing programs can burden low-income drivers with new costs, just when skyrocketing housing costs are forcing some to move out of transit-rich urban centers and rely more on private vehicles. Unfortunately, most equity studies have focused more on minimizing negative and disproportionate impacts than on using pricing to improve the equity of the transportation system. It is time to change that frame. We need to use the potential efficiencies of road pricing to solve several problems at once, and redressing systemic inequities needs to be at the top of the list.

If equity concerns and deep community engagement help shape road pricing and associated investment strategies, they can lead to faster and more frequent public transit, safer pedestrian and bicycle routes, and improved mobility and health outcomes for vulnerable communities. Discounts and exemptions for low-income households can create progressive pricing structures. Road pricing programs can help make transportation systems more equitable than they are today.

The goal of this report and toolkit is to challenge policymakers and equity advocates to act on this key proposition: that structural inequities in our transportation system may be remedied in part by effective, equitable road pricing.

The report looks at examples from cities in North America and around the world that have implemented some form of road pricing. These international examples are especially relevant to North American cities, including New York, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all of which are exploring downtown congestion pricing.

The report then examines a wide range of strategies to achieve equity outcomes, focused on affordability, access, and community health. It also looks at methods for achieving the full participation of vulnerable communities in the planning process.

Following the report is a companion toolkit, intended primarily for policy-makers and equity advocates who are actively considering a road pricing strategy. The toolkit may be useful to many audiences though, as it contains interesting and useful case studies and examples. Finally, TransForm has developed a stand-alone worksheet based on the toolkit so equity advocates can keep track of where they are in the process, and stay focused on planning and engaging.

We hope these documents offer a roadmap to ensure that vulnerable populations can derive real, tangible benefit from road pricing projects.