Tolls, Yes; Speed Bumps, No

speedbumpHow about letting local neighborhoods charge tolls on outside drivers for the use of their immediate streets?

It is now technologically fully feasible with EZ passes or other devices. This idea occurred to me as I was thinking about a recent controversy in Montgomery County, Maryland over neighborhood speed bumps (or “speed humps” as they are sometimes called).

Speed bumps in Montgomery County, like much of the rest of the country, have proliferated — now totaling 1,200, amounting to one bump per 2.2 miles of road. While many neighborhoods like them, they infuriate others. They also pose problems for fire and other emergency vehicles. In 1998, responding to rising complaints, Montgomery County initiated a new policy to make it more difficult to use speed bumps. Since then, 388 out of 653 proposed speed bumps have been approved.

In this case, a request for bumps was made by the Springfield Civic Association and involves a section of Cromwell Drive in Bethesda that has become popular with harried commuters. A vote of the 38 households directly involved would be required, and approval would require an affirmative 80 percent supermajority.

Other neighbors who live close by — but not directly on Cromwell Drive — are protesting.  They find speed bumps annoying and time consuming. Under Montgomery County policy, such adjoining neighbors can have a say only if they are “landlocked,” having no other way to reach their homes other than using Cromwell Drive.  Technically, 50 percent of landlocked neighbors must also approve but Montgomery County in practice almost always ignores this requirement.

A much larger group of Montgomery County residents, the many commuters who are now using Cromwell Drive to avoid congestion elsewhere, have no official say at all.  The controversy prompted an editorial in the Washington Post, suggesting that Montgomery County revisit its speed bump policies.

A similar form of de facto street privatization, even more common, arises when long term (more than 2 hours) parking is limited to the neighborhood residents themselves. Empowering neighborhoods to control internal driving and parking is yet another form of sub-local governance: a rapidly spreading trend in American governance. The spread of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) is another example. An even more important example is the extraordinary spread of private community associations across the United States, which now house about 20 percent of all Americans (see my 2005 book, Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, and other articles).

On the whole, this privatization is a good thing. BIDs have contributed significantly to revitalizing many neighborhoods.  It needs to go further, however. A partial privatization may be an inferior solution.

Here’s my idea: instead of speed bumps, let neighborhoods charge tolls for using their streets. The neighborhood would want to set a reasonable speed to attract drivers, and would face competition from other routes. It could also impose a fine (collected electronically) on any driver whose rate of speed in the neighborhood was too high. Toll rates could also vary with the time of day.

Thinking about it, it seems a lot better and more effective way to control neighborhood driving, compared with speed bumps.