Paying for Congestion

London’s “red” mayor, Ken Livingston, was widely believed to have gone “too far” a year ago when he announced a plan to hit commuters with a special congestion charge every time they entered the central city.

The 5 ($8.90) charge was reviled by the business community at the time, and the opposition Tories still hate it. Conservative Party Shadow Transport Minister Damian Green opined, “The [London] Government has spent seven years waging war on motorists. A Conservative government would reverse that with a range of practical policy changes. We recognize that for tens of millions of people driving a car is a necessity, and should not be made a misery by government policy. We will be the intelligent friend of the safe and sensible driver.” Whole forums are still devoted to attacking the congestion charge.

But guess what? I’ve been to London, and I’ve seen how miserable the traffic can be. I’ve spent hours inching along in bumper-to-bumper gridlock worse than anything I’ve ever seen in downtown Manhattan. Before the congestion charge, average traffic speed had fallen below three miles per hour in the city.

Livingston’s modest goal in implementing the charge was to cut congestion by 15 percent and raise 130 million ($232 million) annually to help support the city’s public transit. Commuters are allowed to pay (in daily to annual installments) by telephone, by text message, by mail, through the Internet or in person at a retail outlet.

And guess what again? It works! According to the July/August issue of Britain’s Green Futures magazine, congestion is actually down 30 percent in the downtown zone. And there’s more:

"Drivers spend up to a third less time sitting at a standstill or crawling slowly along;

"Drivers make some 65,000 to 70,000 fewer trips per day;

"Some 50 to 60 percent of drivers are choosing public transportation rather than diverting around the zone or driving their cars at odd hours (the zone is active Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.);

"Bus speeds have climbed six percent, ridership is up 38 percent, and interruptions to travelers’ journeys are down 60 percent.

"The air is getting cleaner. In the city once famous for coal-fired “fogs,” there has been a 12 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions and diesel-related “particulates.” The main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, has been cut 19 percent.

London is not the only city to try this form of congestion pricing, which in the U.S. has mainly appeared in the form of a few turnpikes with variable toll amounts that are highest during rush hours. In Trondheim, Norway, drivers pay 15 kroner ($1.60) to visit the downtown area, and trucks pay double. The walled cathedral city of Durham, England collects 2 ($3.50) from motorists who come to see the historic cathedral and castle. Edinburgh, Scotland is considering a 2 charge.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. we’re bogging down in endless traffic, with no end in sight and a complete vacuum of leadership from the federal government. I wrote an entire book on the subject, Breaking Gridlock. A new study, the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report, concludes that commuters are losing 3.5 billion hours to congestion every year, up from just 700 million 20 years ago. As of 2002, the average urban commuter spent 46 hours a year stuck in traffic, compared to 16 hours in 1982. To find out the grim news about your own region, click here.

I took a look at New Haven, Connecticut, which has had only modest population increases since 1982. But freeway miles traveled have jumped from five million 20 years ago to 7.5 million today. Annual delays tripled. The average New Haven commuter lost nine hours in 1982 and 22 hours in 2002. New Haven commuters used four million gallons of fuel each year then; now they use 11 million.

Nationally, 30 percent of urban highways were clogged in 1982; today, 67 percent are. We’re entering the period of permanent gridlock, a concept I have to explain to very few of my urban motorist readers. Which cities are doing best with traffic? The hardest-hit cities economically, including Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland. “Unemployment is a great solution,” says Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America.

I’ve written extensively about solutions to gridlock. We can impose London-style congestion charges in our own cities. We can raise gasoline taxes, a sure route to political suicide but a good idea, nonetheless. We can apply congestion pricing, using electronic E-ZPass systems to prevent backups and vary toll costs. We can increase passenger train routes, and promote their use. We can begin fast ferry service in places where it works. We can create dedicated bus lanes (modeled after the system in Curitiba, Brazil, which carries 70 percent of all traffic) and beef up aging bus lines generally. We can stop subsidizing parking in corporate lots, or at least compensate public transportation users in a similar amount. We can give up our huge SUVs, which promote gridlock by their very lack of maneuverability and tendency to get in the way.

Despite the determined efforts to dismantle what little system we have left, public transportation works. According to the Texas report, if we didn’t have it, people would have spent another 1.1 billion hours on the road. Let’s be 100 percent car dependent, say critics like Wendell Cox, who try to stop any “smart growth” project. Cox says, “Transit serves only niche markets
.Smart growth is about incoherence
.Smart growth is not a vision
.Rather, smart growth is a delusion.” He says it would be cheaper to give commuters their own $55,000 Jaguar XJ8 than it would be to subsidize their rail fares (forgetting, of course, that it’s the Jaguar and its ilk that caused the problem in the first place).

When pressed, Cox presented his own vision of a transit utopia: Atlanta, already traffic-stressed to the max, criss-crossed with new double- and triple-decker freeways that block out the sun and dominate the skyline in a mighty roar of noise and exhaust smoke.