Congestion Pricing has been in the news a lot recently. As it’s increasingly being embraced and debated by policymakers, planners and others, let’s take a look at what’s been happening around the world, and check up on where things stand in NYC.
London recently saw the ten-year anniversary of its Congestion Charging scheme. Within a defined zone, drivers are charged 10 pounds (about 15 U.S. dollars) for driving between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The scheme has been very effective in reducing congestion in the zone initially. Travel speed boosts of 15 to 20% were posted for cars and buses in the early years of the scheme, whilst overall congestion in the zone was reduced by 30%. In other words, cars and buses are travelling faster and are spending significantly less time stuck in traffic.
Interventions in the streetscape, such as road diets that benefit pedestrians and cyclists, and traffic disruptions caused by the extensive construction activities the city has seen, have had the combined effect of cutting back some of these gains. Yet, the benefits of the scheme are solid. Bus ridership has reached a 50-year high, with 30% more service and 20% less waiting since a decade ago. Both were made possible by improved traffic speeds within the congestion charging zone and with the additional funding from the scheme that flowed towards public transit. The number of bike trips rose 79%, whilst travel fatalities and injuries were the lowest on record in 2011. The congestion charging scheme stands its ground, and isn’t likely to be modified or dismantled anytime soon, whilst Londoners and visitors alike enjoy a safer and more livable city. Following the success of the policy measure in London, Stockholm has also introduced a congestion pricing scheme.
Back to the U.S. In Chicago, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is now considering a flexible form of congestion pricing. A CMAP study on the effects of enacting a variable toll on the region’s express lanes, found that travel times on these lanes would decrease by up to 66%, whilst travel times on other lanes would fall by 24-33%. The scheme would charge motorists $1 to $4 to use the express lanes during rush hour, depending on the speed of traffic, making it a very flexible traffic demand management tool. Minnesota enacted a highly similar scheme in 2005 in the Minneapolis metropolitan region. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a similar scheme called “Metro ExpressLanes” was introduced on November 10 of last year. Participating motorists pay anywhere between $0.40 and $1.25 per mile to drive on a selected number of the city´s express lanes. The results have been impressive: 1,300 vehicles per hour use these express lanes (above the expected 700 per hour), and travel speeds on these lanes have averaged out to 60 mph, compared to 20-25 mph in non-tolled lanes. Out of the estimated annual revenue of $18-$20 million, $10 million is projected to fund mass transit along the corridors.
In New York City, the debate on whether to implement some form of congestion pricing has been dragging on, without many results. In fact, this indecisiveness has allowed Los Angeles to fund the scheme with federal money that once was earmarked for New York. The Metro ExpressLanes program is funded with grant money that the City of New York was forced to return after the State Assembly failed to embrace congestion pricing in NYC by a federal funding deadline in April 2008. An attempt to revive road pricing a year later in the form of bridge tolls also failed to win legislative support in Albany, leaving NYC deprived of a congestion pricing plan for the second time around. Sam Schwartz (engineer and former NYC traffic commissioner) even calls the lack of congestion pricing NYC’s biggest transportation problem. Meanwhile, mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christie Quinn recently said that she doesn’t anticipate the congestion pricing proposal to “come back around in any way”.
Maybe not all is lost yet. Speaker Quinn still supports congestion pricing, and Azi Paybarah showed us recently that popular support for the proposal greatly depends on the way it is framed. Whilst polled NYC residents showed a 40% support for a “charge” on driving in certain parts of Manhattan, 60% supported congestion pricing if the money it generated was used to improve mass transit. It all depends on how you frame the question, and what aspects of the proposal you emphasize.
Given the recent surge of congestion pricing schemes in other cities, it’s clear that they are an effective traffic demand management tool. And with the right proposal, that should include clear language about funding mass transit in NYC, the support might even be there for it. It looks like the proposal could gain new life in NYC. Let’s hope local and state politics don’t stay gridlocked on the issue as NYC is getting a new mayor in office.