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William S. Vickrey, the Columbia University professor who won the Nobel Prize in economics Tuesday, has proposed practical solutions to transportation and utility problems that daily plague urban dwellers.
Professor Vickrey, 82, is the McVickar Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Columbia, his academic home for more than 60 years. The 56th Nobel laureate to have studied or taught at Columbia, he has concentrated on a handful of innovative proposals that were considered radical when they were introduced but now have become part of mainstream thinking. These include a method for pricing subway rides, a model for preventing traffic tie-ups at toll plazas and a way to tax income fairly no matter when it was earned.
He has advocated a sophisticated system to bill motorists for use of roadways at times of peak congestion, in which units carried in each vehicle would activate recording devices embedded in the road. In fact, Singapore has adopted a modified system of roadway user fees. Pricing of subway fares, electricity, telephone service and airline travel, too, would be more efficient if based on distance traveled or time of day or both, he has said.
Known among economists as "the father of congestion pricing," Professor Vickrey sees time-of-day pricing as a classic application of market forces to balance supply and demand. Those who are able can shift their schedules to cheaper hours, reducing congestion, air pollution and energy use -- and increasing use of roads or other utilities. "You're not reducing traffic flow, you're increasing it, because traffic is spread more evenly over time," he has said. "Even some proponents of congestion pricing don't understand that."
He has admitted that his ideas have sometimes not been well received by those who set public policy because, "People see it as a tax increase, which I think is a gut reaction. When motorists' time is considered, it's really a savings."
His first study of efficient pricing of public utilities in 1939 and 1940 was of the electric power industry for The Twentieth Century Fund. In 1951, he studied transit fares for Mayor William O'Dwyer's Committee on Management Survey in New York and in 1959 he presented to Congress a proposal to control the District of Columbia's traffic congestion with electronically assessed user fees. He has addressed urban planning problems in Calcutta with the Ford Foundation and in Buenos Aires and New Delhi for the World Bank.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1914, he received a B.S. in mathematics from Yale in 1935 and came to Columbia for graduate work in economics from 1935 to 1937, when he received the M.A. degree. His doctoral thesis, "Agenda for Progressive Taxation," written for Robert Murray Haig for a 1948 Ph.D., was reprinted in 1964 as part of a series of economic classics.
A conscientious objector during World War II, he spent part of his alternate service designing a new inheritance tax for Puerto Rico. After the war, he joined Columbia economist Carl Shoup on a team of economists who toured Japan in 1949 and 1950 to recommend reforms of the country's tax system.
Professor Vickrey began his Columbia career as a lecturer in economics in 1946. He joined the faculty as assistant professor in 1948 and was named associate professor in 1950 and professor in 1958. He was appointed Ford Research Professor from 1967 to 1968 and McVickar Professor of Political Economy in 1971. He was chairman of the Department of Economics from 1964 to 1967 and retired as McVickar Professor Emeritus in 1982. He maintains an active schedule on campus, where he continues his research.
He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences this year and served as president of the American Economics Association in 1992. He was elected a Fellow of the Econometric Society in 1967 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1979 for work in game theory and social choice theory.