It's Time to Embrace Congestion Pricing

An ambitious new transportation plan for DC announced last week includes a massive public transit expansion, additional subway line, and beefed up network of bike lanes. But the proposal that's getting the most attention is the introduction of congestion pricing. Yes, DC wants to charge cars to enter its downtown. And more cities should.

As part of moveDC, the plan by the city's Department of Transportation, cars would pay a "cordon charge" to enter the busiest area of the city. The zone where cars would have to pay is called the "Central Employment Area," where the most people are going to work each day. You can see it here shaded in purple.

It's Time to Embrace Congestion Pricing

While this sort of charge has been proposed for a few places in the United States—most famously, a plan by Michael Bloomberg for Manhattan which was revived earlier this year—so far, no city has stepped up and accepted the challenge. Which is a shame, because this kind of plan could be helping to build better public transit systems across the country.

Where congestion pricing has worked to great effect is London. Here's how it works: Cars entering the city's Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ) between 7:00 am and 6:00 p.m. must pay a fee (which is going up to about $19.25 in June). You only have to pay it once per day (even if you leave the zone and come back in), and if you live within the zone, you get a 90 percent discount. Think of it like getting a ticket: The charge is enforced with cameras that read license plates, and your plate can be registered to pay the fee automatically or get sent the amount to pay on a case-by-case basis. If you don't pay, you could end up paying a fine of about $217. Electric and electric hybrid vehicles don't have to pay at all, which creates an incentive for people to buy more fuel efficient cars.

It's Time to Embrace Congestion Pricing

It's Time to Embrace Congestion Pricing

Numbers of cars (top) and bikes (bottom) counted at various areas across London in 2008. A red dot means a decrease in cars or bikes since 2001, and a blue dot means an increase.

Launched in 2003, London's is the largest and most successful congestion zone in the world. As you can see from the vehicle and bike counts taken in and outside the zone in 2001 and 2008, the number of cars counted in the zone, as well as in the surrounding area, went down, while the number of bikes went way up. It's estimated that the number of vehicles in the zone have decreased by 30 percent, and air quality improved significantly as well. In addition, the charges have raised over $2 billion—and here's the real beauty of the whole operation—almost all of which has been pumped into transit improvements.

Why the same concept would work so well in Washington DC is mostly because it shares so many traits with London: Namely, a mostly self-contained central business district that's largely (not all, but largely) home to government and financial buildings where more people work than live. Plus, the zone is well-served by the Metro already as well as the Capital Bikeshare system, giving people plenty of ways to get to and from work if they don't want to drive. One big criticism stopping congestion pricing in other cities is that workers simply don't have enough alternative options without their cars. In DC, by and large, they do.

It's Time to Embrace Congestion Pricing

Signs warning motorists they are entering London's congestion zone, photo by Mariordo

In addition, part of moveDC's plan would redesign roadways in and around the zone to help facilitate movement and enforcement, including adding flexible toll lanes to nearby highways, where rates and capacity would fluctuate based on how busy they are. In essence, the entire downtown area would be re-engineered to improve vehicular flow based on traffic patterns throughout the day. If the city is already "full" of cars, it would cost more to enter, which would prevent drivers from taking their vehicles into an already gridlocked area.

But this isn't just a great idea for DC. Although many American cities have added tollways or express lanes which commuters can pay extra to use, no metropolitan area has been brave enough to attempt to deter cars from entering its downtown. It's not only a smart move to reduce traffic—it's also a symbolic move. This is a way for a city to tell its residents that it values their health and well-being over the construction of freeway overpasses and parking lots. Plus congestion pricing has been proven to dramatically change commuter behavior over time, while at the same time funding even better transit service, which American cities desperately need. It's a win-win idea.

Congestion pricing isn't without its downsides. First and foremost, as I mentioned before, a city must already have a robust transit system to even consider it, which only a handful of American cities do. Some claim that it doesn't end up reducing air pollution or traffic in a significant way. Other concerns are more about the economic impact that would come with restricted access to a downtown. One of the biggest reasons Bloomberg's plan for Manhattan failed, for instance, is that the scheme was said to unfairly target business owners who must make their living using cars within the zone. Paying $10 a day, for example, could be financially catastrophic for a deliveryman. Plus, let's face it, we're Americans, and we're used to having every right to drive our cars wherever we want, for free. But an important thing to remember is that congestion pricing also alleviates traffic for those who choose to keep driving. For those who want to pay the price, drivers will be rewarded with shorter commute times and fewer cars on the road.

The city council is voting on moveDC's plan on June 27, but thanks to the way DC works, the mayor also has the power to approve the entire plan without council input. It's a brave transformation for the city that would position DC as a leader when it comes to transit and traffic, so let's hope he has the sense to do so. And that more cities follow suit. [Greater Greater Washington via Streetsblog]

Top photo by mayhem