Congestion Pricing, San Francisco

Congestion Pricing in the News

Awhile back, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who is also chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, proposed to adopt in San Francisco some variant of a congestion pricing plan that was implemented in London in 2003; namely, a plan to charge drivers additional tolls for entering congested downtown streets. In London, the tolls apply for drivers entering the rather well-defined area known as Central London. In San Francisco, the toll streets (or borders of a potential congestion pricing zone) are still being studied, but The Embarcadero and Van Ness Avenue are obvious choices. Both streets are not only chronically congested (the latter actually being U.S. Route 101, and a key regional highway link), but they also both form clear demarcation lines. Other streets being discussed include Broadway and Harrison, but first in line is the congestion associated with the Doyle Drive approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, a project which was awarded federal money to the tune of $158 million.

Congestion pricing is a topic I was meaning to bring up sooner or later, and I figured I might as well start now, since the local newspapers look like they are finally giving it some coverage. Right now, the city is still studying the possibility of implementing congestion pricing, but no well-detailed plan exists yet — so there isn’t a whole lot to say on this issue right now, except that I would most definitely support a congestion pricing project in San Francisco, for several reasons.

The Chronicle article I linked to above cited a statistic that out of about one million daily trips in and out of downtown San Francisco (they did not explicitly state what the boundaries were, but it seems implied that the boundaries were roughly Van Ness, Harrison/Central Freeway, and the Embarcadero) about 50% of those are car trips. The transit share is about 30%. This is clearly a situation we must seek to reverse, particularly for a city that alleges to be “transit first.” Increasing transit share involves many factors, but there are two basic, fundamental approaches, both of which can and should be used in combination to achieve better results:

  • Make it harder/less desirable to drive; and
  • Make it easier/more desirable to take transit.

Congestion pricing offers the promise of both of these. Obviously, additional tolls on popular streets makes driving less desirable, but even more importantly, the revenue generated from the congestion pricing tolls would go straight towards the SFMTA to improve Muni service. If Muni can substantially improve its speed and reliability, then we really have a chance of winning over “choice riders” who are currently driving downtown, rather than riding their local Muni line.

Tremendous growth is predicted for the downtown area in the next few decades, particularly South of Market. Currently, the Mission Bay, Rincon Hill, and Transbay developments get the most attention, but if the new Intercontinental Hotel which has gone up at 5th and Howard is any indication, that trend will likely spread west of the Yerba Buena/Moscone area. Traffic congestion on many San Francisco streets is generally not as bad as what you’ll find in the worst parts of New York and London, but there are some troublesome spots that need to be improved. Traffic is sure to increase once the new developments are populated, unless we take measures to promote transit in a concrete way.

Congestion fees are also being studied in a couple other U.S. cities, notably Washington, D.C. and New York City. Even in New York, this country’s most thoroughly transit-oriented city, the road towards implementing congestion pricing has been a rocky one — at first, it looked to be defeated, but then it made a resurgence. There is every reason to think that road will be at least as rocky here, where car culture is noticeably more prevalent and transit culture much less so, but the greater downtown area is set to grow, and we should begin finding congestion solutions now. San Francisco is the second densest city in the United States after New York City, and Bay Area traffic has once again been identified as the second worst in the country. This situation puts San Francisco in an ideal place to be a model as one of the first North American cities to adopt a congestion pricing plan. I look forward to following this story as it develops in the future.

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  1. Pingback: October 17 Meeting on Congestion Pricing « Transbay Blog - 15 October 2007

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