COVID-19 Lessons for Congestion Pricing

Travel within major U.S. metropolitan areas has all but stopped with at least 20 percent of the population under virtual lockdown. Various anecdotes and new analyses show that with so little movement, once-ubiquitous traffic congestion is all but eliminated.

It may thus seem like the wrong time for cities and regions to continue to pursue congestion pricing strategies. Prior to the current public health crisis, serious proposals and studies were underway in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. New York is set to roll out the first congestion pricing program in the U.S. next year. Decongesting Manhattan is the primary goal with the revenue being allocated toward the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in the anticipation that better service will attract more riders. We know traffic will come back to New York post-coronavirus, especially if commuters adopt new fears of shared transportation modes. Possible shifts toward driving would only compound the beating transit agencies are taking during the shutdown due to lost revenues.

Given the unprecedented economic crisis, it is natural to assume there is no appetite for additional taxes, fees, or charges. People are already hurting and policymakers are frantic to provide relief. However, the reasons those places were pursuing pricing will not disappear once the crisis abates. Cleaner air, better access, and a more efficient network will remain top priorities in these and other places. These things may even be higher priorities if traffic congestion surpasses levels seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For its part, the federal government should get out of the way and allow New York’s congestion pricing plan to move forward. Progress is currently stalled due to federal delays in approving the use of tolling on federally-supported roads, like some of those in and around Manhattan. The COVID-19 pandemic will surely slow down progress as all parties shift focus to disaster relief. But the nation’s largest metropolitan economy should not miss the opportunity to maintain economic competitiveness due to obstructions from Washington.

This public health crisis has altered life in the United States in the immediate term. Among its myriad indirect effects, it has shown is how fixing metropolitan traffic congestion could have a profound influence on critical national priorities like increased safety, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and better local air quality. New data clearly shows eye-popping drops in nitrogen dioxide from vehicles. Car crashes and roadway fatalities are plummeting as well.

Of course, these effects are present now due to the cessation of travel and it is dubious to refer to these trends as a “silver lining” given the severity of the virus. But they do demonstrate the kind of change that can happen with bold action.

The positive effects cities are now witnessing with respect urban mobility are the same trends that manifest in places with congestion pricing. Pricing policies have been replicated in cities around the world because they work. COVID-19 should not derail plans for it in the U.S. and should, in fact, strengthen the reasons for doing it.

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