Takeaways from a European Congestion Pricing Study Tour

In the United States, congestion pricing continues to garner considerable attention from policymakers and transportation advocates. New York is famously working to roll out their initiative in 2021. Major studies are underway to study the policy’s application in Los Angeles and Chicago. Outside of the three largest American cities, places like Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, DC all have some kind of policy exploration underway to pursue their own congestion pricing strategy.

And for good reason.

The idea of charging drivers to travel into busy areas, or use busy roads, at certain times of day is a viable, powerful, and sustainable approach to address issues of urban mobility and access. Indeed, it has worked essentially every place it has been tried and has the potential to advance sustainability and equity goals in the United States. When done right, it can reduce the negative social, economic, and environmental externalities associated with driving and traffic congestion. It is proven to significantly improve mobility by providing better transit, walking, and biking options. And it can generate substantial revenue to support those goals.

That’s why Eno and a group of partners recently facilitated a study tour to examine congestion pricing in action in London and Stockholm.* Those cities employ cordon style pricing, which assesses a fee on motorists that drive in a defined area of the city center, similar to what officials are planning to do in New York. Both cities coupled the charge with vastly improved bus service in advance of the policy’s rollout to accommodate the expected shift from driving to transit.

On the tour we met with officials responsible for developing and implementing the schemes (their term) at the time, as well as a range of civic, corporate, academic, and nonprofit leaders. We learned how the strategies evolved over time to reflect, for example, changing technologies, and how they align with other efforts to lower vehicular emissions and support sustainable modes of transportation. The intent was to help participants tailor programs and accelerate progress back home through relationships built on the tour. To that end, tour attendees also learned from one another about shared and unique challenges in their cities. Connections made on the tour can lead to future sharing of best practices, as the participating cities continue to develop their congestion pricing policies.

One big takeaway: there is no one key to success. In London, the plan needed the unwavering support of the new mayor Ken Livingstone in order to keep it from unraveling before it even got started. Stockholm benefitted from a unique governing coalition in the national legislature to overcome initial opposition from that city’s new mayor. The plan then had to survive a public referendum to keep it in place. Governance and institutional strictures are certainly different between Europe and the United States, but congestion pricing is nevertheless a major political lift.

Another difference in this country is our cities’ strong focus on social equity and inclusion. It is natural to assume congestion pricing is regressive. Road pricing has historically charged everyone the same and those unable to avoid paying the charge are unfairly burdened. Here the US and European lessons diverge. In London and Stockholm, robust public transportation already serves lower income households. So in those cities any strategy that boosts transit by providing more service and allowing it to run more freely helps low income travelers. (Those countries also have relatively strong social safety nets overall.) In the US, low income households suffer from lack of access to public transit and from a system that is inherently inequitable. Here, congestion pricing can be a tool to actually correct those biases if done right (i.e. if coupled with investments in public transportation).

Related, both London and Stockholm were focused on addressing very specific crises, not on raising revenue. London needed to address crushing traffic congestion that was impeding the ability of the city to grow economically. Stockholm was focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. Contrast the continued popularity of both programs with Gothenburg, Sweden. Officials there put congestion charges in place to generate funding for an expensive suburban rail tunnel. While the program is successful at raising money for the project, it is bitterly unpopular.

The New York congestion pricing program aims to address a clear crisis: the poor state of the city’s transit system. It is expected to generate $1 billion annually for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and while the strategy’s ability to raise revenue was the prime mover to getting it in motion, there is a rational nexus between the revenue raised (from the charge) and how the money is spent (on the transit system, to provide commuters with reliable non-tolled transportation options). Los Angeles initially considered congestion pricing as a way to pay for the acceleration of transportation projects in advance of the Olympics there in 2028. They are now instead pursuing it as a way to address congestion and provide alternatives. Chicago’s mayor suggested congestion pricing as a way to plug a budget hole in her city’s budget. Our experience from the study tour strongly suggests this is the wrong approach.

Eno will codify the discussion and learnings on the trip to refine a draft set of congestion pricing principles for cities to consider as they pursue their own strategies. Look for a repository of related resources on congestion pricing on our newly-redesigned website.

* The study tour was a broad partnership effort. The Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Delivery Associates, hosted delegations from seven American cities. The Summit and Barr Foundations supported the Eno Center for Transportation to organize the tour.

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