Drive time redefined

An otherwise typical California town we’ll call Santa Rosita is horne to one of the nation’s most unusual movie theaters. Until a few years ago, the Bijou was no different from any other small-town theater. It was trying to survive on modest ticket sales as the area’s last outpost of a vaguely Art Deco Hollywood culture that has largely disappeared.

But things changed when the elderly owner died and his widow announced she was going to sell out to a local real estate developer who planned to convert the Bijou into a combination private gym and office building.

That was before the prospect of losing its only traditional movie theater created a groundswell of dismay throughout town. It reached the point that the municipal government was pressured into buying the Bijou from the widow to keep it open.

In a burst of civic enthusiasm, the town government proceeded to eliminate admission charges. Henceforth, the mayor proclaimed, the Bijou would be free to everyone “just like a city park or swimming pool.” Needless to say, this free movie policy led to a considerable change in the Bijou’s attendance patterns. Virtually no one goes to the movies on weekday afternoons anymore. Even on weekday evenings, it rarely has more than a handful of customers.

But on weekends when local schools and most businesses are closed, things change dramatically. The Bijou is full of people, with many more lining up outside.

When the Bijou shows an especially popular film, the line begins forming well in advance of the noontime opening. Santa Rosita’s police department even has to assign several of its all-too-few police officers to control the crowds.

This seems like a ridiculous way to operate a movie theater. Theaters everywhere else charge admission. To maximize box office revenue, they even charge higher prices when demand is highest. This tends to spread out demand by encouraging some moviegoers to attend on weekdays, when tickets are cheaper.

But the Bijou has no tickets. Access to its seats is free, in the sense of not charging an admission fee. But it’s not free if you factor in the hours moviegoers have to wait for seats on weekends when everyone wants to see free movies.

Ridiculous as this sounds, it is exactly how most American highways operate. Access is free to motorists regardless of time of day or day of the week, despite the fact that we pay for access to every other transportation mode.

Free, that is, in the sense of not charging motorists for each mile they travel. Like the Bijou, it’s hardly free if you factor in the time motorists spend traveling that mile during periods when bumper-to-bumper traffic reduces average speeds to about 10 mph.

Until fairly recently, the logistical problems of charging motorists directly for highway use made the idea impractical. Fortunately, new technology is eliminating that excuse.

Vehicles can now be equipped with simple electronic gizmos that respond to radio signals from roadside transceivers. This enables the road’s central computer to identify the vehicle, measure the distance it travels and charge the owner’s computerized account appropriately according to whatever per-mile rate  is in effect when the trip is made.

The rate can vary depending on the type of vehicle (more for heavy trucks that wear out pavement faster, less for compact cars), time of day, (more during rush hours, less when demand is low), the amount of pollution each vehicle generates, or even actual demand at the time of travel.

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we can now price access to highways just like we price access to movie seats (except at the Bijou). At the same time, this technology might just provide a fair, user-funded way to pay for much-needed upgrades to tired transportation infrastructure that limits the nation’s economic growth. 

originally published: July 9, 2011

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