Everyone complains about traffic. It takes too long to get where you need to go, and no one can provide a real estimate on the time it takes to get from point A to B in most major cities–and it’s getting worse.
But what if there were a solution that could not only help fix traffic, but also provide much-needed dollars for upgrades to subways, buses, and other parts of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, thus creating more sustainable cities?
Fortunately, this seemingly magical solution could already exist in the form of congestion pricing. Congestion charges can help drivers better get where they need to go faster, and the dollars collected can be used for public transit upgrades and maintenance–further alleviating the strain on roads by offering people real transportation options.
Done well, this type of system could also help get cars off the street, reduce traffic, and help the environment, thus making cities better for people.
Local leaders in America are exploring the viability of congestion charges in their communities. Yet, cities across the globe, including London, Singapore, and Stockholm, are already case studies in favor of congestion charges.
After London first implemented its congestion pricing scheme back in 2003, the city found that the number of private vehicles entering the city dropped precipitously, as many drivers began opting for public transportation. From 2002 to 2014, private cars entering the central zone dropped 39%. The current fee is around $15 to enter the 13-mile zone.
Congestion pricing works a few different ways. Most congestion charging programs identify a core part of the city, or specified zones within the city, and institute either a flat or variable rate fee on vehicles that drive into the specified areas.
With variable pricing, the goal is for charges to increase with traffic, thereby pushing some drivers off the road and making traffic flow more smoothly. Meanwhile, systems that charge flat fees generally seek to make costs high enough to discourage people from driving in the first place.
As anyone who has tried to move through the centers major metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles during rush hour can attest, the possibility of hitting speeds greater than 10 mph would be a welcome change. All systems use either gantry and camera systems to record license plates, or some version of transponders in vehicles (much like highway E-Z Pass collection systems).
Economists have long been advocates for congestion pricing because the systems attempt to properly price the use of our public roads, which are a scarce and overused good. By assigning a congestion price to road usage, people are more likely to make rational choices on how and when to drive.
And in fact, the implementation of congestion charges is one of the few policy areas that generally garners bipartisan support, with conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute echoing the sentiments of progressive leaders in cities like New York and Los Angeles. This is largely because the end results of implementing congestion charges have borne out their efficacy.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been controversy around congestion pricing. People have long since received a nearly free ride with cheap roads and parking–it is difficult for some when the true price gets added to the equation–so there is a need for education around innovation in road pricing.
We’re starting to see these conversations turn into reality in the U.S. New York City, in concert with the state, is set to implement a congestion zone in Manhattan. This isn’t the first time the city has tried to adopt congestion pricing, but now the mayor and governor are on the same page. With the just-passed budget, congestion charging will start in 2021 and affect all drivers south of 60th Street entering Manhattan.
Experts say it could bring in more than $1 billion a year, which will be funneled into badly needed public transit upgrades. Cities across the U.S. will likely be watching New York as they get closer to executing their own plans.
While there are no existing U.S.-based congestion pricing systems, we actually do have examples of choice-based variable pricing schemes that work in the U.S., only they are on highways not within our cities. In the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., regions, variable pricing provides drivers with the option to pay to drive in a lane not inundated by traffic.
The cost to consumers is not cheap–nor should it be–because the inducement must be real to keep traffic moving. An uproar quickly ensued in the Washington, D.C., metro area, when charges early on reached upwards of $40 to make it into the city from far-out suburbs. But that was what it cost to keep traffic moving. On the whole, this system is working as a promising model, and if anything, the situation in Washington, D.C., demonstrates the need for education around road pricing.
And beyond decreasing traffic and opening up a new funding pathway for public transportation, these charges could potentially help sustainably fund infrastructure. According to our research at the National League of Cities, infrastructure needs are consistently a top-ranked issue. Fifty-six percent of mayors raise it within their state of the city speeches—making it the second highest priority issue, coming in only after economic development—and 86% of cities report that infrastructure costs are increasing.
Frankly, the public good is served if it costs a lot more to drive and a lot less to take buses, subways, and rail. Cities across the country should experiment with what works to get the job done, and congestion pricing systems could be a valuable part of the mix, as local leaders continue to support a clean, green, option-rich transportation future that helps us all get around.
Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities Center for City Solutions.