Curing Congestion Variable Toll Pricing Gets Cars off the Road

Across the country, air quality in big cities suffers from an onslaught of daily commuters in cars. Some government officials are tackling traffic congestion head on. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a congestion pricing plan last year that would have discouraged automobile use and encouraged commuters to bike, walk or use mass transit. Bloomberg’s plan, stillborn amid fierce turf wars, would have charged a fee to drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan during its heaviest times of use. It was modeled closely on London’s highly successful pricing plan, put in place in 2003.

According to the mayor’s congestion scheme, part of PlaNYC, the revenue collected would be used solely to fund expansions and improvements to the regional transit system. Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit group whose mission is to “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile,” strongly supports the initiative. “A congestion pricing plan is the most cost-effective way to jump-start transit improvements and reduce traffic congestion,” says Wiley Norvell, the group’s communications director. But commuters hated it, as did the general public: According to a Quinnipiac poll in 2007, almost two-thirds of New York City voters opposed the plan.

Congestion pricing plans are already in place across the country. On Los Angeles’ private 91 Express Lanes, the tolls increase gradually during peak hours to almost $1 per mile. But while congestion pricing eventually reduces gridlock, drivers are quick to fight the rate increases. Observers in Houston blame heated opposition for Harris County canceling a price increase on the Westpark Tollway.

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal was rejected by state legislators last July, causing the city to miss a deadline to apply for federal funding—as much as $354 million if the plan is enacted. “Congestion pricing didn’t fail on its merits and flaws, but on the politics of Albany,” says Norvell.

New York’s plan may be revived. Proposals on the table include restricting cab hailing to designated taxi stands and barring cars with certain license plate numbers from entering Manhattan on specified days. Bloomberg claims his plan would bring a six percent reduction in traffic, and serve as a model for clogged California cities.

Before it instituted congestion pricing, London was plagued by gridlock, poor air quality and hazardous streets. But since the implementation of a $13 charge during peak traffic hours, the plan has significantly reduced traffic congestion, improved bus and taxi service and generated a substantial amount of revenue, according to a recent study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Two-thirds of Londoners now approve of the charge, and the pricing plan is scheduled for expansion into West London.

A 2006 congestion pricing test—dubbed the Stockholm Trial—produced similarly promising results. A Swedish report concluded that travel times fell significantly during the test period. Emissions of both carbon dioxide and particulate matter were reduced, access for bus service to, from and within the inner city improved and travel by public transport increased by approximately 4.5 percent.

Though improved public transportation plays a role in ensuring a pricing plan’s success, Stockholm’s report shows that, on its own, expanded public transport has little effect on travel by car.

“It is only when car travel becomes more expensive in the form of higher costs or longer travel times (traffic jams) that public transport can increase its market share to a considerable extent,” stated the report. In short, a congestion pricing plan simply cannot work without some sort of financial incentive.

New York is already the least car-dependent city in the U.S., since 72 percent of trips in the city are five miles or less. In fact, results from the New York Bike-Share Project (an experiment that ran for five days last summer, allowing bikers a free 30-minute bike rental) confirmed that New Yorkers would be willing to use bikes if they were more available. David Haskell, founder of the bike-share project, says that hundreds of people expressed strong support.

Bike-sharing has taken off in Europe. This past summer, Parisians parked more than 10,000 bicycles at 750 stations, and plan to almost double that number in 2008. The program, called “Velib”—short for free bike in French— allows riders to take bikes from one station and drop them off at another for a small fee. Other successful bike-share programs can be found in Barcelona, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Frankfurt.

Economists and environmentalists agree that it’s simply not possible to maintain clean air and gridlock-free streets with one person per vehicle. If that means making drivers feel the pain, the long-term gains are worth it.