Friday, September 19, 2008

"Pricing" v. "Tolling" v. Something Else: Does it Really Matter?

Shakespeare’s Juliet famously said, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Well, that “what’s in a name� issue has been the foundation of perhaps the most persistent debate in the history of road pricing or value pricing or congestion pricing or dynamic pricing high occupancy tolling 

The fact is, scores of different names have been applied to the concept of charging varying fees according to driver demand. Various names have gone in and out of vogue over the years, with each new variation promising to be more effective than the last. The most common Flavors of the Month right now seem to be “road pricing� and “congestion pricing.� But next year it could easily be something different.

I’ve been at this for a long time, so I can’t help but wonder: Does labeling matter as much as we pricing advocates think it does? After all, the history of public acceptance of road pricing tells us this: Consumers always are highly skeptical of the concept, whatever we call it, in the early stages. Pre-implementation, labeling doesn’t help minds. That initial skepticism only morphs into support after consumers can EXPERIENCE IT, whatever we happen to be calling “it.�

So, historically, it’s not the marketing label that changes citizens’ minds; it’s the experience. Moreover, some of the people I know who are most devoted to our Twin Cities “congestion pricing� project describe it with the four-letter word that sends chills up the spines of marketers, “T-O-L-L.� Gasp!

So I ask you, does labeling matter as much as we think it does? If so, what’s the best label?

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