Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Valuable Lesson in Efficiency

On a recent trip to London, I rented a car and experienced a valuable lesson in efficiency and environmental friendliness. A few years ago, city leaders decided that a toll should be levied on drivers who enter the city center as a way to alleviate gridlocked traffic, air pollution, and of course to raise additional revenue. Dubbed a “Congestion Pricing" scheme, any vehicle entering a designated area must pay a daily toll. The toll is paid online, and can be purchased for a single day, or in multiple day blocks. A sophisticated network of cameras placed around the perimeter records all vehicles entering the zone, and then compares license plates numbers with a comprehensive database of vehicle registration data. If your toll was not paid, the city will know, and failure to pay the toll that same day or soon after results in a hefty fine.

Although I had to part with a considerable chunk of change, the London experience triggered a slight smile, because I was so awed by the efficiency of it. It brought to mind the ancient system of toll collecting we have in many places back home. Like my fellow New Yorkers, I have grown accustomed to gridlocked traffic approaching toll booths around highways, bridges, and tunnels. Even for those of us with a wireless payment device like EZPass, traffic is still heavy. Besides the time delay factor, many other negative consequences surround toll booths. Noxious fumes from idling 18 wheelers prompt me to close the window and blast re-circulated air conditioning. And, I inevitably notice the swanky office building of the local transportation agency, typically a modernist wonder of architecture that would make Frank Lloyd Wright proud, replete with sweeping expanses of tinted glass, grand entrances, and landscaping suitable for a botanical garden. Finally, I am on my way, braving through a potholed, rusted bridge or tunnel, ostensibly because the transportation agency is perpetually cash strapped.

How many billions of dollars are wasted through this scheme? Think of all the lost time opportunities for delivery trucks, salespeople, professionals, and countless others. Think of all the money funneled into redundant transportation agencies. And think of the environmental damage produced from idling traffic. In a time when our government’s deficit is growing at a startling rate and massive federal stimulus packages increase federal spending even further, wouldn’t it make more sense to consider cost reductions in areas that are wasteful, inefficient, and harmful to the environment all at the same time?

Our government would be wise to borrow some ideas from across the Pond.