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William S. Vickrey, the noted Columbia University transportation economist, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors accorded an American scientist.
Dr. Vickrey, the McVickar Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Columbia, was one of 60 new members elected April 30 during the academy's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Members are chosen "in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research," the academy said. Thirty-seven current and emeriti Columbia faculty are members. Professor Vickrey, who taught at the University for 35 years before retiring in 1982, remains active on campus.
In dozens of speeches, papers and reports, the Columbia economist has proposed practical solutions to transportation and utility problems that daily plague urban dwellers. He 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. 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 travelled 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 said in a recent interview. "Even some proponents of congestion pricing don't understand that."
His ideas, he admitted, usually are not well received by those who could institute such changes. "People see it as a tax increase, which I think is a gut reaction," he said. "But when motorists' time is considered, it's really a savings."
Born in Victoria, B.C., in 1914, he received a bachelor of science 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 1947 Ph.D., was reprinted in 1964 as part of a series of economics 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 in a team of economists who toured Japan in 1949 and 1950 to recommend reforms of the country's tax system.
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 the Mayor'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.
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, professor in 1958 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 was elected Distinguished Fellow of the American Economics Association in 1978 and president in 1992. He was elected a Fellow of the Econometric Society in 1967 and received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Chicago in 1979 for work in game theory and social choice theory.
The National Academy of was established by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on scientific and technological matters.