Overdue and Overlooked: Congestion Pricing

January 9, 2019

While no silver bullet will fix the woes of urban mobility and access, transportation economists believe that congestion pricing strategies come close. A number of U.S. cities and metropolitan areas are exploring the idea of charging a fee for driving on the parts of the roadway network used the most as a way to reduce demand, curb emissions, and encourage non-single occupancy vehicle modes of transportation. The charges can provide a hefty revenue stream to support better transit, biking and walking, and can address the deeply regressive nature of traditional transportation charges.

Congestion pricing is deployed in two main ways. Global cities like Singapore, London, Stockholm, and Milan most commonly employ cordon charges, which assess a fee to drive in a defined area of the city center. These strategies have reduced demand and encouraged people to seek alternative routes, travel at different times, or choose ways other than single occupancy vehicles to get places. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of private vehicles entering Central London decreased by 39 percent while the number of bicyclists increased by 210 percent between 2000 and 2016. Seven years after the charge was implemented in Stockholm, traffic volume within the toll zone decreased by roughly 16 percent and over five percent outside the zone.

So far, no U.S. cities have implemented cordon charges. New York City has tried twice to implement such a program and it has been proposed in several other cities including SeattleLos AngelesWashington DC and San Francisco.

The other form of congestion pricing—more common in the U.S.—is a charge in the form of fees or tolls on discrete corridors, or on parts of roads such as high-occupancy toll lanes. In these cases, motorists are charged if the vehicles don’t have a certain number of occupants. Such lanes function today in San Diego, Minneapolis, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City. A new project in Northern Virginia charges solo drivers to use the express lanes, with prices varying on demand, and provides significant resources to directly support improved public transit and non-motorized transportation projects. From the revenue generated in 2018, $7.2 million was expected to go toward new or improved bus service in the region, and $2.6 million toward improved access to park and ride lots, bus stops, and train stations.

Congestion pricing is timely today given policy priorities to reduce traffic and increasing urgency around climate change. Transportation agencies see it as a way to address growing funding gaps and it could be a gamechanger in reducing emissions. Pricing strategies can also help reduce potential impacts of zero-occupancy autonomous vehicles in the future. However, the concept is not well understood by the general public or most elected officials.

Therefore, this month Eno will launch a project to evaluate best practices in congestion pricing techniques. For this project, we will produce a report on the dynamics and needs in leading U.S. cities to help grantmakers and others make strategic, leveraged investments to support local efforts. Since we know that any pricing strategy needs to address equity issues up front, the project will develop a set of principles to ensure that congestion pricing projects help build strong, sustainable and more just communities. The project, supported by the Summit Foundation through their Sustainable Cities program, will also lay the groundwork for a convening and study tour with key city and philanthropic leaders.

We believe congestion pricing is a big and powerful idea and, of course, with all big ideas comes pushback. The aim is to understand the dynamics in the U.S. cities that are most serious about the idea, so we can help foundations invest strategically to support the efforts and provide allies with better tools.

Martha Roskowski is the lead investigator for the project. She is currently a Principal with Further Strategies, which provides consulting services to accelerate change in the mobility space.

Brianne Eby is a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation.

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