Trevors in Traffic: a PR strategy for congestion charging.

Congestion charging is, I think, an urgent public policy priority. But it is wildly unpopular. This post is going to look at how we can change the way people view congestion charging.

1. The Problem:

Congestion charging makes people very angry. Charging to use a road is widely regarded as “unfair” and it doesn’t seem to matter that society charges for lots of other necessities, including food and water.

Here is a tiny selection of comments from a really terrific recent article on the causes of traffic jams:

“Not only do voters not want to pay congestion fees because they’re now paying for something that was free, they also understand that they’re basically being punished for going to work. What if you make a low wage and already making ends meet, and now, you have to shell out an extra $X a month just to get to work? No, congestion fees won’t work.” – gfish3000


“The politicians, who don’t really care about serving the public, will get extra (congestion fee) $$ for NOT doing their job, namely, providing an infrastructure (roads) for us to go about our business.” – Force Meow


“The other thing is that making use of an automobile more difficult hurts the poor the most. I have a problem with that.” – Tim Johnson

These objections fall into two main categories: 1. congestion charging hurts the poor, and 2. congestion charging lines someone’s pockets.

These arguments may or may not be true, but refuting them isn’t the goal. Changing the dialogue is.

Here’s one comment I quite liked:

“soccer mom making me late for dinner so she can take snowflake to ballet practice can foot the bill” – Bob Dobalina

There’s some feeling there. Some hatred. Something we can use.

The reason congestion pricing is so unpopular is people imagine it applying to themselves. It’s only if you imagine it applying to others that you see benefits.

A PR campaign for congestion pricing would show the real reasons for a traffic jam, like this:


This would help drive home the point that a lot of trips are low value, and so even a small congestion charge would be effective in deterring them. Survey data on whether peak hour trips could easily be delayed would underpin such a campaign.

I can imagine a TV ad where a stressed driver is stuck in traffic. A counter clicks up the congestion charge from $0 to $1 in 10¢ increments and the cars around gradually disappear, leaving our busy mum to get home from work speedily.

Promoting the understanding of congestion charging is complex. People need to grasp the reasons for it. When they think about annoying traffic, it is probably easiest to call to mind times when they really must get to their destination, as on a trip to work. We assume everyone is equally frustrated. But commuting does not even account for half of trips.

“Commuting to work constitutes approximately 16% of all person trips and 19% of all person miles of travel. For roadway travel, commuting constitutes 28% of household vehicle miles of travel and, for transit systems, 39% of all transit passenger miles of travel.” (US DATA)

The case for congestion charging needs to be built from the very beginning. That means seeding the (true) idea that the road is full of people that needn’t be on it.

Much like the terrific 1980s behaviour change advertisements featuring Wallies with Water, we could have Trevors in Traffic – people who drive across town at peak hour to go to their beach house, or to listen to some drive-time radio, who get in the way of everyone else.

I remember reading about a behaviour change campaign to get kids to wash their hands. Rather than starting with facts about soap, they started with an ad that dramatised germ transfer. Everything the main character touched after leaving the bathroom turned green. Understanding the problem (even in a stylised way) came first.

If you can make people believe that a share of traffic doesn’t deserve to be on the road, they will be more open to hearing about a solution.

Building more roads will not solve congestion. It only moves congestion around. A scheme that targets the actual problem is an urgent priority before we waste more time and effort building bridges and tunnels.