Time is the most precious resource of men and women, and even older children. This is why it is disturbing that so much time is wasted through bad policies of the public authorities that manage infrastructure.
I have been bothered for many years by the tendency of local and state authorities to repair roads only during weekday daylight hours. Presumably, that saved money through the avoidance of overtime and double time pay for night and weekend work, but it usually added many hours to travel times because of the huge traffic jams that were created during the most congested times. Even modest estimate of the value of the time of those caught in traffic holdups would have easily exceeded the extra pay required to have work at night and during weekends when traffic is much slower. Fortunately, recognition of the importance of the value of time has apparently increased in recent years since much more repair work now takes place at night and on weekends.
Yet few other efforts are being made to reduce the time lost due to heavy traffic on roads in major, and many smaller, metropolitan areas. Traffic has grown in virtually all cities, with consequent greatly increased delays during commuting and other times. Moreover, heavy delays are no longer found only while entering the central city in the morning and leaving it in the evening, as delays are also common while exiting a city in the morning and returning in the evening during the increasingly common reverse commuting. The solution is not mainly new urban highways, which are expensive to construct and disturb the functioning of local communities, but through pricing traveling on roads that already exist in order to economize on the time of commuters and other travelers.
One important way to price roads and reduce the time of those caught in traffic delay is to introduce "congestion tolls" that vary with time of day and extent of the traffic. London, England has been using congestion tolls for several years to reduce the heavy traffic during weekdays into and out of the center of London. Despite some grumbling, this toll system has been successful, and is being extended to other parts of London where congestion is also a serious problem. Mayor Bloomberg of New York has proposed similar tolls for entry into the busiest parts of Manhattan, but so far his proposal has been blocked by the state.
The opposition to traffic congestion charges is not based on concerns about the feasibility of such a toll system since London and several other cities have successfully demonstrated that modern electronic transponders make congestion charges easy enough to use and enforce. Much of the reluctance comes instead from opposition to higher taxes in cities already burdened with heavy taxes. Reductions in other taxes could offset a congestion tax to keep total city tax revenue unchanged, but experience shows that every new tax is usually only partially offset by reductions in other taxes, and that total tax revenue in fact increases. Perhaps such opposition could be blunted if New York explicitly offered to combine a road congestion tax with compensating reductions in its local gasoline taxes to keep unchanged the total tax revenue collected from drivers. Congestion tolls are more effective than gasoline taxes in reducing traffic during periods of heavy traffic since gasoline taxes do not raise the cost of driving by more during periods of heavy traffic. Congestion tolls are probably also more effective in reducing local, although not climate-damaging global, pollution.
Similar reluctance to price the time of travelers appropriately is seen in the growing delays in air travel. The Joint Economic Committee has estimated that the total cost of United States air traffic delays in 2007 may have been as large as $41 billion. Almost a third ($12 billion) of that is due to the value the Committee places on the 320 million hours spent by air travelers during these delays. As Posner indicates, $12 billion may underestimate the true time cost since it neglects factors like the cost of missing connecting flights. On the other hand, it may overstate the true cost of the time involved since the Committee values this time on the average at about $38 per hour, or almost $80,000 per year for persons working 2000 hours. That valuation would be too high if persons caught in traffic delays use their time to work on their computers or read for pleasure.
A new airport runway is almost finished at O‚ÄôHare airport. However, before building new runways, busy airports, such as O‚ÄôHare, Kennedy and LaGuardia, and Los Angeles International, should start charging much more for the use of existing runways, and for take off slots during the busiest hours of travel. This would cut delays, and the time and other costs caused by delays, by inducing airlines to shift some of their departure and arrival times away from the busiest and most expensive times. To be sure, as Posner indicates, there is a coordination problem among the different airports connected by air travel. Still, a city would encourage more travelers to use their airports if they priced takeoffs and landings better, so that travelers would spend less time in delays, and airlines would spend less on fuel, and the personnel used during delays.