Congestion Pricing, San Francisco

The Price Is Right

London Central Zone
Courtesy of Transport for London.

C.W. Nevius from the Chron is on a roll, but if he doesn’t catch himself soon, he might just roll right off a pier and into the Bay. This past summer, in his piece on the F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line, Nevius explains that the “cardinal sin” of public transportation is that it becomes “too popular.” That may be a pretty nice problem to have, but wait: now, we learn in Nevius’s latest stab at transportation “journalism” that it’s actually transit — and not, say, people driving — that generates traffic. But let’s back up for a moment. The SF County Transportation Authority recently released the results from its study on implementing congestion pricing in San Francisco. There is no doubt that the Bay Area region has a severe congestion problem, earning the dubious honor of being the second most congested region in the nation, after Los Angeles; and some of the most heavily trafficked Bay Area freeways are those that connect downtown San Francisco to the East Bay and the Peninsula. According to the SFCTA study, there are some 4.6 million daily trips to, from, or within San Francisco, and at peak times, only 40% of those trips are made on transit. By the year 2030, there were will be about 382,000 new daily trips in the already-congested downtown area, and several downtown-adjacent neighborhoods are planned to grow taller and denser in the next couple of decades, including Rincon Hill, Transbay, Mission Bay, and the Van Ness corridor. Left to its own devices, traffic congestion will worsen in time; it is a difficult problem that requires a multipronged solution. One obvious component to that solution, as Nevius rather brusqely points outs in his column, is to provide better transit that lures drivers away from their vehicles. But cities throughout the world, including London, Rome, and Stockholm, have experimented with another technique: congestion charges, designed to give drivers incentive to leave their cars at home when traveling to crowded downtown districts.

The Nevius piece is, to be frank, a bit of a mess. To buttress his position against congestion pricing — a position apparently formulated on the basis of one conversation he had with students — he barely gives any consideration at all to the success that congestion pricing has already enjoyed around the world; he also downplays the revenue that might be collected from such a program. Would you indulge us while we add a few details that Nevius omitted? London, which has become the poster child for congestion pricing, commenced its charges in 2003 and expanded its congestion zone in 2007; the charges are assessed throughout daytime hours, not just at peak time. Congestion decreased by 30% in the first year of the program, and a net decrease in congestion has persisted despite a more long-term background trend that favors increased congestion. In 2006-07, the program generated £123 million in net revenue; reliability of bus service improved; and carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 16%. Another case study is Stockholm, which implemented congestion pricing in 2006 as a trial run, and then a voter referendum approved continuing the program. Stockholm is a closer comparison to San Francisco than London is, in terms of both population and rail transit coverage, and the Stockholm pricing program fared quite well. Congestion decreased by 22%, carbon dioxide emissions in the inner city were reduced by 14%, transit ridership increased 6%, and $50 million of net annual revenue was generated.

Courtesy of SFCTA.

Here in San Francisco, the SFCTA’s congestion pricing study contemplates a $3 fee, charged only at peak traffic times (weekdays, 6-9 am and 3-7 pm), although several scenarios were studied. Under the less desirable “gateway” alternative, there would not be a cordon-based charge (i.e. a charge to enter a crowded downtown zone, as London has implemented), but instead just a charge at key entry points to the city, including from the south, where Peninsula and South Bay drivers are currently spared payment of bridge toll. The SFCTA also considered a relatively confined Downtown Cordon, which includes the Financial District and adjacent neighborhoods; this cordon could also be paired with the “gateway” alternative, so that regional commuters would be charged twice, but commuters within the city only once. The most ambitious plan under consideration was the Northeast Cordon, which comprises the entire northeast quadrant of the city, in the area bounded by the waterfront, 18th Street, and Divisadero-Castro. This zone includes many of San Francisco’s most congested streets, and it includes neighborhoods that will experience the most growth in upcoming decades; but it also has some patches that are not as well-served by transit as they could be. By contrast, the Downtown Cordon is well-served by transit, but it is also a rather small area, which reduces the benefits and could cause traffic impacts at the zone borders.

Implementing congestion pricing to remove automobiles off of San Francisco streets would shorten travel times and make Muni more reliable. But what’s even better is that depending on the plan that is ultimately selected, congestion pricing in San Francisco could generate some $35-$65 million each year. That money could be applied to many worthy causes, including (i) increasing frequency of transit service; (ii) enhancing streetscapes by providing pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and calming traffic; and (iii) implementing bus rapid transit on Geary and Van Ness. Which is basically the point: federal funding for new infrastructure is both needed and welcome, but the State has been continually withdrawing money from the public transportation fund — money that would otherwise be applied to system operations and maintenance. Little wonder, then, that local transit agencies find themselves in a bind, scrambling for funds. We should seek creative revenue streams, and new, independent sources of funding. Congestion pricing is one such revenue stream, and it’s a stream that will not likely dry up soon, even when many drivers switch to transit. In his column, Nevius inappropriately lays the blame on transit for “causing traffic,” without pausing to consider what Bay Area roads would look like without transit in place. But then he would also cut off an invaluable source of funding.

Car vs. Bus
Courtesy of Treehugger.

The Bay Area, perhaps just as a matter of necessity, has already proven itself to be open to managing congestion, as in 2004, when voters approved Regional Measure 2, raising bridge tolls to fund projects aimed at reducing congestion. Congestion pricing involves a higher charge, but it is another technique in that vein. It should not be viewed as punishment for drivers; rather, it is perhaps best understood as a fee to use street space during peak hours, when space is in the highest demand. City streets are a valuable resource, but their capacity is finite, and a driver occupies more space than a pedestrian, bicyclist, or transit rider, as depicted above. Our roads are grossly underpriced, and so they are also overused. Congestion pricing would help achieve a better balance of uses on our most congested streets, which could then be made more livable, accessible, and pleasant — not just for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders, but also for drivers. It’s a sensible way to mitigate congestion, while capturing a new revenue stream to apply to transit.



7 thoughts on “The Price Is Right

  1. Eric – thanks for the in depth rebuttal of the Chron piece. I read it yesterday and had many of the same thoughts, but you of course added in the research to back up my thoughts.

    I really think the key fact that Nevius is missing here is that we have not been sinking money into transit – the state’s been taking away money and is likely to take away more. Without steadier revenue streams, as would be gained with congestion pricing, I fear that transit service will decline, even as demand increases.

    Even though Measure VV passed, AC Transit is already talking about potential service cuts if the state takes away further transit funding (which looks very likely). We have to reprioritize funding for transit, quickly.

    Posted by Becks | 5 December 2008, 10:39 am
  2. Oh, Chuck! Whatever will we do with you?!

    An important part of the congestion pricing argument that is too-often missed is that it allows drivers and pedestrians alike to make more informed economic decisions about their transportation choices.

    Driving a car costs the city money that walking or even taking the bus doesn’t. Charging to mitigate those costs is simply an acknowledgment of that reality. Just as any business owner or head-of-household has the right to refuse to pay the way for a freeloader, so can a city refuse to continue to subsidize a behavior choice like driving.

    Nobody is creating this fee, the City is just passing the bill to the people who use the service.

    Posted by Josh | 5 December 2008, 12:41 pm
  3. Well honestly, I agreed with a couple of Nevius points. Most importantly: we need to make it easier to make transit the preferred option. Congestion pricing is one side, and transit frequency is the other. Perhaps most important of all is a regional transit vision, instead of a local or city plan.

    Posted by Jame | 6 December 2008, 1:33 am
  4. Jame has a real good point. At 9pm last night the next inbound T train was 45 minutes away. Unusual? No. The MUNI system is plagued with inconsistencies and delays. We hailed a taxi instead.

    There are simply too many transit agencies in the Bay Area that fight for the same state and federal attention and dollars. I understand that there are local and regional needs, but something must be done to combine interests whenever possible to prevent duplication or competition.

    For example, BART to SJ versus Altamont commuter rail. The latter is pretty much in place and can be upgraded for far less cost than the former. Then there’s the Central Subway project. We know today that there is need for an additional Transbay BART/HSR tube. Simply design the new tube to bring capacity to the developing SOMA area, the transit-heavy area east of Van Ness and the Geary/19th Ave. corridors. We need to make it fast and efficient, something MUNI will never be able to provide with 1-car trains sharing the roadway with traffic. Surface is simply not fast even with signal priority (which MUNI never seem to use on the T-line).

    Bottom line is that I want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible and with minimal transit system transfers.

    Posted by Mark | 6 December 2008, 9:40 am
  5. Consolidate transit agencies all you want, they still won’t have enough money to do what you expect of them.

    Congestion pricing will provide an additional $30-60 million per year for transit programs (not chump change), plus it will reduce costs by lessening congestion that busses and street cars now have to muddle through. win-win.

    I honestly don’t get why Nevius framed the column (note, NOT an article) as ‘this would be good but transit needs more funding,’ when one major reason for doing this is to increase funding for transit!

    It can be so frustrating sometimes

    Posted by Josh | 8 December 2008, 12:54 pm


  1. Pingback: Rescue Muni » Blog Archive » Nevius: Traffic Isn’t The Problem, Transit Is - 8 December 2008

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