Congestion Pricing is Not the Answer
Congestion pricing has been a popular idea to discuss ever since London began to charge different rates in the city center to drive a car. Initially, this seemed like a particularly interesting idea, and the thought that drivers would pick up the cost (both direct and indirect) of a city full of cars, looked to make a lot of sense.
But thinking through the real issues a bit further reveals a more concerning outlook on congestion pricing, who it affects, and its overall outcomes.
Congestion pricing favors the rich
This is one of the most commonly cited complaints against congestion pricing. Since it is obviously a price set not based as a percentage of your income, but rather a flat rate per car, the amount this will hit those who have less money will inherently be substantially higher as a percentage than those who have more. It makes the city more elitist: You can only drive there if you can afford it. While there are doubtless many who think that’s not a bad thing (it will reduce crime too, right?), given the wealth discrepancy in the United States, this seems to pose some profound implications as to who is able to drive in cities. Favoring the wealthy inevitably risks to turn cities into elite country clubs for those who can afford it. Losing the rich cultural and economically diverse fabric of cities should be a concern to all of us.
Congestion pricing ties transit funding to the wrong source
Most congestion pricing models put forth a solution to the aforementioned problem by hoping to link transit funding to the money made through congestion pricing. In theory, this would allow us to build better infrastructure to accommodate those in lower income brackets, thereby allowing the rich to drive and everyone else to have better access via public transit. This presents a few problems.
First, public transit infrastructure faces many strong hurdles, particularly in the United States with our spread-out suburbs and exurbs. Serving a suburban population with public transit is one of the hardest challenges urban planners face, and one that has not been successfully accomplished yet, although there have been many models (e.g., park & ride).
Second, even if we were to assume that we could magically create an effective public transit system to serve these populations, there’s an issue of development time. Building public transit infrastructure takes time, particularly on the scale necessary to provide service to a suburban community, of which we’re talking. Let’s imagine each line of transit is designed, planned, constructed, and opened in just 10 years. In order to start to serve suburban populations, we’d be looking at a minimum of one decade, with many more decades before we can have any sort of comprehensive system in place. In the meantime, those who can’t afford to drive into cities are stuck. 10+ years of paying congestion pricing while waiting for public transportation infrastructure simply doesn’t make sense for most families with jobs.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, if transit funding comes from congestion pricing, there’s an inverse relationship between the funding goals of the two models. As fewer people drive, transit also gets less money. This creates a conflict of interest, and could easily lead to misaligned outcomes. For example, a well-meaning, but funding-tied, politician might opt to fund more transit improvements that have the least impact on the total number of cars driving into the city. This would keep the congestion pricing income high, maintaining transit funding at the same levels. Should decisions be made to better serve populations that currently drive, the cost of that infrastructure would not only be limited to standard construction and operations, but would also lead to decreased funding.
Focus on Urban Quality of Life first
At the core, congestion pricing just doesn’t address the real issue of our urban quality of life. Even despite the discussed drawbacks, if congestion pricing is implemented, it may serve only to cut overall traffic congestion in a city. It has very little impact on a larger region, and it also does nothing to look at what we’re doing with the space.
So if we back up and look at the problem congestion pricing is trying to solve, a deterioration of urban quality of life from the automobile, there are many other ways to drive this change. Instead of looking for quick solutions, focusing on the core of the problem helps us understand how we might push forward:
- Reduce Parking
This has been discussed time and time again, but one of the greatest costs to an urban environment is parking. The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup looks at the cost to every resident for providing free parking in real-estate valuable areas, as well as the impact on traffic in general. Time after time, studies show that reducing the overall number of parking spaces, reduces the overall number of cars that are on the road.
- Repurpose traffic and parking lanes for other transportation methods
By reducing the overall ability for cars to move around, you decrease total traffic flow. This can have the effect of increasing congestion temporarily, but creates an immediate benefit for other transportation options. Unlike congestion pricing, which promises to provide future funding for transportation, repurposing traffic lanes for transit creates an immediate, positive benefit for alternative methods of mobility.
- Improve outdoor and urban streetscapes
One thing that has been shown over and over is simple makeovers of streets can improve the total number of people that are interested in spending time outside of vehicles. Nobody wants to walk through or catch a bus in sketchy parts of town.
- Reclaim streets and put high value real-estate on the market
Streets along parks, waterfronts, or high pedestrian areas can be closed off (or decreased) to car traffic, and this space can then be sold to real-estate ventures for creation of retail that suits the particular area. For example, a waterfront highway can be closed off, with some of the land sold by the city to cafes and restaurants with patios over the water (see images below of Paris’s vision). High pedestrian zones can sell space for restaurants to open up outdoor seating where previously parking or a traffic lane was located. This income can be reinvested in street redevelopment or transit, aligning the funding sources correctly.
These models offer the same ultimate benefits of congestion pricing—reducing overall car traffic and decreasing pollution in urban centers—while having a direct correlation with improved quality of life, better multi-modal transportation options, and more economic opportunity. And without the drawbacks of congestion pricing.