Copyright © 2007 by Crosscut Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles that comprise a Crosscut special report, No Exit: Pay Toll Ahead. Comments are disabled on this article. You can comment on the whole series here. Congestion pricing, in various stages and configurations, already exists in London, Singapore, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Orange County, Calif., San Diego, Rome, and several other Italian cities. New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and San Francisco are studying customized pricing strategies. From January through July of 2006, a version was tested in Stockholm, and, last September, some 52 percent of that city's residents voted to install congestion pricing permanently. London opted for a version of congestion pricing in 2003: The city demarcated a pricing ring around the central city. Some 350 new buses were added to London's already splendid public transport system. Initially, drivers paid 5 pounds to enter the city between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Today, it's £8 (about $15) and, after requests from theaters and restaurants, the hours are 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Hybrid vehicles receive a 100 percent discount. Because of these measures, private vehicle trips are down about 33 percent during charging hours. In the first years, bicycle ridership increased 23 percent to 24 percent. Now, says Booz Allen Hamilton transportation consultant Jack Opiola, "there are supposedly 43 percent more bike trips into London than before the pricing," and taxis, which just a few years ago skirted the city proper to avoid congestion, now zip routinely across downtown. Of that 33 percent drop in vehicle trips in London, Opiola says, about one third of motorists came into the city early, before the charges went into effect, and left afterward. Another third changed to public transport, inspiring a 14 percent increase in bus ridership. And the final third of the trips "disappeared," he says. Those drivers decided the trips were not necessary, or began organizing smarter commutes, combining several errands into one trip instead of driving into town on a whim whenever. Opiola is one of the principal authors of a report (1.1 MB PDF) for King County Executive Ron Sims that recommends congestion pricing be used for all major freeways in metropolitan Puget Sound. "I think that's what happens in a city when you put congestion pricing in," Opiola says. "The city is healthier. People think more about how they travel and when. They make smarter and better choices. They work at home or flex time more. And when you add all that up, you have a healthier transport system in a city, without having to put billions and billions of dollars into the system. In fact, you reach the nirvana of transport systems - a 'sustained transport system' where all modes are in balance." Because traffic problems here plague a region and not just a city, the plan Opiola designed for King County Executive Ron Sims is less an area-based system as London employed and more like Stockholm's approach. The choice, Opiola says, was dictated by the region's unique geography, with Lake Washington and Puget Sound mandating a north-south axis, and with floating bridges and ferries essentially creating east-west bottlenecks. For congestion pricing to succeed, it must be customized to not only geography but history and driver temperament. One-size-fits-all simply doesn't work. Since the 1960s, when these ideas first were touted, cities have used a variety of techniques to control traffic. Here are some examples:
- Early on, Athens developed a congestion pricing scheme that planners thought ideal and simple: On odd-numbered days of the month, only vehicles with license plates ending in odd numbers were permitted on the roads. Same idea for even-numbered days. At first, traffic in the Greek capitol improved. But then congestion grew worse and was soon as lousy as ever. What had changed? People simply bought second cars–and made sure the license on one was odd-numbered and even-numbered on the other. They drove the cars on the numerically appropriate days.
- Many years ago, Auckland, New Zealand, also tried a number-based plan, and it succeeded. Every vehicle was assigned a number – 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 – that corresponded to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Everyone was given a numbered placard and affixed it to their vehicle. Then, on Monday, all cars tagged with the number 1 were prohibited from driving. Same for the other vehicles when their number came up. Instantly, traffic was reduced by 20 percent. The system apparently worked quite well, but eventually it was phased out. There are people still around who remember when their driving days were numbered, and they say it worked extremely well.
- Opiola helped develop Singapore's congestion pricing plan. The city, he points out, has a limited land mass yet a seemingly unlimited number of cars, adding, "They knew that cars would overwhelm everything – if they let them." Singapore's congestion pricing program is therefore all encompassing. And no one is exempt, not even police. People buy "smart cards," issued by banks, and use them for everything: entry into the city, hot lanes, parking, buses. When placed in a vehicle's windshield, it is automatically read and debited by microwave antennae on gantries over the roadway. If the card is out of money, or if a vehicle runs the gate without one, other electronic sensors have already detected the offender's presence (even the type of vehicle), triggering cameras that photograph the car and its license plate. In Singapore, where gum-chewers can be arrested and littering can bring jail time, vehicular desperados are few. Singapore charges vehicles twice – on roads approaching the metropolis and again when they come into the center of the city. When traffic speed dips below 12 kph, prices rise; when speeds go above 24 kph, prices drop. Officials examine traffic trends and pricing schedules every six months and adjust prices accordingly.
- Some Italian cities authorize certain institutions and businesses to grant their clients exemptions from congestion pricing fees. For example, hospitals can provide paperwork to patients traveling into the city, which permits free travel – on that day only – into town. Even some traditional craftsmen, such as high-end furniture makers, can offer these exemptions to customers picking up their custom dining tables.
- Recently, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a pricing system for vehicles entering Manhattan. For Seattle, Opiola suggests an electronic road-pricing experiment, much like Stockholm, which tried pricing from January through July of 2006 (and then voted narrowly to make the system permanent). There's no better time for such an experiment, he says quite passionately, "than while the Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn up." Revenue generated could either help pay for the costly construction or be invested in improving the ferries, the park-and-ride system, transit, and even bicycle commuting routes.