Will Congestion Pricing Unclog Our Streets?

Larger cities seeking to shift drivers out of their cars into transit have several options available. The three most commonly used incentives with the largest potential impacts are to subsidize fares, expand service or apply variations on congestion tolling. All are known to be effective, but how effective is each of these options comparatively?

In a study conducted by Chilean researchers at Diego Portales University and published in an upcoming issue of “Transport Policy,” fare subsidies and expanded service had little or no effect on changing behaviors, while congestion mitigation strategies emerged as the clear leader. “In cities that have implemented effective regulation of this type, the use of cars has dropped by an average of 20 to 30 percent while transit use has risen in similar proportions.”

Although fare subsidies and added capacity will continue to be essential to building ridership, congestion pricing is likely to become a more prominent tool in urban transportation policy.

It has been acknowledged for decades, and confirmed in my daily commute, that cities cannot build their way out of road congestion — traffic will always increase to overfill the capacity of urban roads. Incentives to use transit, at least in major cities, are just not enough to make a significant contribution toward a solution. Unless strong disincentives are implemented to curb automobile use, cars will continue to clog city arterial routes.

The carrot has to be paired with a stick. The problem with the stick — congestion pricing — is that every measure sounds draconian, anti-business and is hard on lower income populations. None of the following options sounds very attractive and have proven to be tough to sell: restricting traffic by classes on certain days or in specified areas of the central business district, very high parking rates, large tolls, expensive registration fees. Politicians seeking to be reelected would hardly rush to champion these solutions.

The upside of congestion pricing is it’s proven to work. London’s implementation has resulted in a 20 percent decrease in automobile traffic, reduced emissions, higher bus ridership and revenues to support transit. Stockholm reduced traffic by 18 percent, rush-hour delays have been cut in half and transit use has increased.

How will U.S. cities proceed? They will go slowly, both in implementing congestion pricing and, if you are driving, in getting other cars out of your way.