Region Forward Blog

America is ready for congestion pricing

Jun 20, 2011


Americans shouldn’t hold their breath for congestion pricing at least according to Joe Peach at This Big City. Congestion pricing which involves charging a fee to enter part or all of a central city by car is aimed at encouraging alternatives to drive-alone commuting by making more climate-friendly modes of transport economically more attractive. It works. As Peach points out London launched congestion pricing in 2003 and it has had a major impact on reducing the amount of cars entering the central city.

“London’s congestion charge system charges private car users who enter the zone £10 ($16) per day between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday. The scheme has been a huge success resulting in a 20% drop in car use £120 million ($197 million) annual net-revenues and the fastest growth rate for the city’s bus system since the 1940s” Peach writes.

The environmental and climate benefits have been tremendous as well: “As a result of the congestion charge CO2 emissions fell by 16% within the charging zone with nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions dropping too. Functional benefits also exist. Average traffic speeds have increased by 37% with delays to private journeys decreasing by 30% and bus journeys by 50%.”

However as with cap-and-trade another market-based solution to a public policy problem it appears that congestion pricing isn’t likely to soon be adopted by many American cities. Despite its proven success no major American city has yet decided to institute congestion pricing – San Francisco is supposed to do so in 2015 – and only a handful of European cities have done so. However as Eric Jaffe correctly points out over at Infrastructurist America does have pricing systems based on similar concepts many of which are here are already or soon-to-be in place in metro Washington such as peak-of-the-peak Metro fares high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the Capital Beltway higher parking fees in high-demand areas.

The theory behind congestion pricing is not at all new to Americans; in fact it’s been the topic of many best-sellers on behavior in the past few years. Providing an incentive (or Nudging) is among the most effective ways to promote behavioral change. Rewarding a preferred choice – in this case taking alternative modes of transport into the central city – is perceived as less heavy-handed than an outright ban.

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