Behind The Velvet Rope: Social Class Segregation in our Transportation

I was recently contacted by Nelson Schwartz, a reporter from the New York Times. He is doing a series of articles:
and a book about what he calls “The Velvet Rope Economy.”

In his words, this is “The proliferation of class-segregated, but side-by-side experiences — like Discovery Cove and SeaWorld, or the priority and regular lines at the airport.” He reached out to me because he identified me as an expert on this topic as it relates to transportation.  In short, are toll lanes a sustainable solution or will they become a scarce resource available to an ever-decreasing portion of our population?
Essential Need or Luxury?
As Schwartz has written, some experiences, like a visit to SeaWorld, flying on an airplane, or going to a music concert are discretionary expenses. It is generally considered acceptable to have such stratification of these luxuries in our lives.  But the same is not true for essential needs, and getting to work is not one of those luxuries.  Basic transportation is a necessity and transportation solutions should not cater to the rich while leaving middle and lower-class citizens immobilized.

Creating Scarcity
The capacity of the toll lanes is fixed — about 1,500 vehicles per lane per hour.  As traffic reaches this threshold, the speeds in that lane drop below 45mph. To compensate, the toll price increases, deterring any more people from entering the lane.  However, as population increases, there will be a greater demand for that lane capacity, even if it is tolled. In order to limit each toll lane to 1,500 people per hour to keep speeds at or above 45mph, the toll prices must go up.  It is inevitable that toll prices will become less affordable to accommodate the growing population, eventually catering only to the elite class.
Will Carpool for Food blur

False choices?
Most legislators recognize that toll lanes are a regressive tax, but don’t realize just how incredibly regressive they are. The people who are most able to afford to live in Bellevue and Kirkland, near where they work, are also the least likely to need to use the toll lanes. If they do use them, the prices for that short segment rarely exceed $0.75. Meanwhile, the people who must live farther away to find affordable housing must also pay the highest tolls, which reach $10 mornings and evenings every day.  So while someone commuting from Kirkland may never pay a toll and someone commuting from Woodinville using the tolls would average about $1 each way for $400/year, someone commuting from Mill Creek to Bellevue leaving at 7:00am every morning and returning home at 4:00pm using the toll lanes would pay $5,000 per year in tolls.  While WSDOT won’t disclose the data, based on the pricing data they have reported for each segment of the toll lanes, an estimated 80% of toll revenue is taken from Snohomish County residents.

Ironically, tolls also increase the demand for housing in Bellevue and Kirkland, making housing there even more unaffordable and further ensuring the poorest will pay the most in tolls.

In my conversations with government leaders, those who are pro-tolling generally tolerate this poor-tax dismissively, saying, “People have a choice to not use them.”  But when one trip in the toll lane can cost as much as an hour in wages for some people, there is no real choice at all. This lack of choice is made worse by the fact that most low and minimum-wage jobs have rigid work schedules with little tolerance for tardiness, so employees (who already live far away from their jobs) do not have the option of traveling during less congested hours.

Discretionary vs. non-discretionary spending
Some will argue in defense of the tolls citing the proverbial single mother (or father) who needs to pick up her children from daycare on time or be charged a late pickup fee. So now she is forced to choose between paying that fee or paying a toll??  For anyone having to make that choice, the money will not come from their discretionary spending budget.  We often hear of poor people having to make the choice between paying their heating bill, buying food or buying medicine.  Now they must add paying a fee to get to work to their list of non-discretionary expenses.
Even if that single parent could afford the maximum toll at $5,000/ per year today, that price won’t last. It has already been determined that once the tolls lanes are extended throughout the region, the price cap will be removed.

Where have toll lanes been successful?
The toll lanes on Interstate 405 are still only a test study and must be voted on by Washington lawmakers to be made permanent.  This toll lane experiment is being repeated across the country, driven by politicians and state DOTs based on information from private tolling companies.  If success is defined as efficiently providing an overall improvement to the majority of society, then congestion pricing has failed in making a positive impact on people’s mobility These failures are easy to find.  There is no price limit on the toll lanes that recently opened in Washington DC on I-66. They already surpass $50.  How many hourly wage earners can afford that?  There is no evidence anywhere to suggest tolls in Washington state will produce different results.

Does congestion priced tolling make commuting more predictable?
One of the claims WSDOT makes is that congestion pricing would make travel more predictable.  By design, toll prices fluctuate with congestion.  Since toll prices are directly linked to congestion, they are equally unpredictable.  As a result, not only are drivers unable to predict how long their commute will take, but they don’t know how much their trips will cost either. .  Thus, congestion pricing has only added another level of complexity and unpredictability to commuting.  To the people too poor to use toll lanes, crippling traffic congestion is their only choice, day after day.  To the wealthy, toll lanes can be used any time at any price.  But to those in the middle — those who can only afford it at lower prices, but not at higher prices — the tolls are a double punch of unpredictability in their commutes.

Effective toll prices?
Currently, the maximum toll price is $10.  While tolls rarely go above $5 for people in Kirkland and Bellevue, they reach and sustain the $10 maximum in the morning and evening every day for people living north of State Route 522. The tolls are failing to meet both the federal and state laws pertaining to the speed requirement of 45mph at least 90% of the time in a 180-day period.  In fact, they have never complied with the speed requirement the entire three years they have been in operation. The study provided by University of Minnesota estimated the toll cap would need to be raised to at least $17 to price enough people out of the toll lanes to meet the minimum speed requirements and that this maximum must rise even higher in the future as traffic increases.

Meanwhile, tolling does absolutely nothing to improve the overall performance of the highway.  In fact, the purpose of the tolls, by design, is to push cars into the general-purpose lanes. The more gridlock there is in the general purpose lanes, the more throughput there is in the toll lanes. In other words, toll lanes enable the wealthy to buy their way ahead of those who can’t pay.

To use the velvet rope analogy, our freeway system is being modeled after the FastPass lines at Disney.  The Washington State DOT claims the general-purpose lanes have faster speeds because of the existence of adjacent toll lanes. The reality is that tolling does not make the general-purpose lanes faster any more than the FastPass line at Disney makes the general public lines go faster. Congested general purpose lanes simply make the toll lanes (or the FastPass line in our analogy) more attractive.

One Washington
The idea behind our taxing system is to share the burden, distributing it across our population so that no one group is overwhelmed.  Without this, there is no way we could have ever built a highway system across the state.   Long ago the people of Washington recognized this.  It is one Washington and we are all in it together and all benefit from having a statewide functional highway system.  Why then are we suddenly targeting a select group of people to stand and pay alone?

Building a dystopia of scarcity
Freeway capacity might be better-viewed like drinking water.  During a drought, water restrictions are imposed and they apply to everyone equally, rich and poor.  Being rich does not exclude anyone from doing their part at water conservation. In traffic terms, it should not free them from trip reduction policies.  Remember that scene in “The Titanic” when everyone was scrambling for lifeboats and the rich were given preferential treatment?  Is that really what we want?  Toll lanes create an express path into a future of more velvet ropes in our lives.  This stratification goes hand in hand with the increasing disparity in incomes.  This form of elitism is not sustainable and will ultimately have malevolent effects on our society and quality of life in ways far beyond just a slow commute to work.
To quote NY Times writer Nelson Schwartz, “With disparities in wealth greater than at any time since the Gilded Age, the gap is widening between the highly affluent — who find themselves behind the velvet ropes of today’s economy — and everyone else.”
Read this excellent OpEd in the NY Times to learn more details of the widespread nature of this attack on social equity.

The new Manifest Destiny?
The race is on to pave the way for these elitist lanes before the public realizes they are just selling snake oil.  Once high occupancy vehicle lanes are converted to toll lanes and bonds are assessed against the future toll revenue, the toll and bond companies will have a lock on their company profits for eternity. Once toll revenue is bonded, no actions will be permitted that would reduce congestion, as that would also reduce toll revenue needed to pay the bonds.  Washington’s DOT just released their plans to take away all of the carpool lanes across the state and turn them into lanes for the most wealthy, with double-white lines becoming the new velvet ropes.

You may live far from Puget Sound, but you need to be asking yourself if you support bringing toll lanes to your region. The case in Washington, if made permanent, would be used as another example of “success” for proliferation of toll lanes elsewhere. Now is the time to take steps to stop this experiment.

Express your support for ending the tolls.  Forward this article to your state legislators. Go here to get their email addresses.

If you are a state legislator, please work on bi-partisan legislation to stop this social inequity. There are better solutions available for funding as well as improving traffic flow and there are revolutionary technologies being developed today that preserve and protect social equity, increase mobility, and are adaptable to the needs of the future in ways that tolls are not.

  • Please call your legislators at 1-800-562-6000 and demand they end the tolls.
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2 comments on “Behind The Velvet Rope: Social Class Segregation in our Transportation
  1. transpengr says:

    Was out of touch during the fall and missed things like this. Excellent white paper! Some memorable takeaways are:
    “”People have a choice to not use them.” But when one trip in the toll lane can cost as much as an hour in wages for some people, there is no real choice at all.””
    “Basic transportation is a necessity and transportation solutions should not cater to the rich while leaving middle and lower-class citizens immobilized.”
    “This form of elitism is not sustainable and will ultimately have malevolent effects on our society and quality of life in ways far beyond just a slow commute to work.”

    What is bizarre about all this is the Democratic party owns the program.


  2. […] NPR recently interviewed Nelson Schwartz, New York Times reporter and author of “The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business”.  In his book Nelson examines the parallel but separate worlds of the wealthy vs the rest of us.   In September 2018 he interviewed me as part of his research on transportation inequities.  You can read my blog post about it here. […]


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