Efforts to find new ways to reduce traffic congestion have sparked some interesting ideas over the years, ranging from infrastructure overhauls to the influx of electric scooters that line the sidewalks in many major cities.
But imposing fees on drivers to enter the busiest areas of U.S. cities during rush hour — known as congestion pricing or relief pricing — is shaping up as one of the most controversial urban mobility initiatives.
Versions of the congestion pricing system, which seeks to encourage people to use mass transit, have operated in European cities such as London and Stockholm for years. Singapore was one of the first urban areas to enact such a system, launching its fee-based road initiative in 1975.
New York City is to become the first major U.S. urban area to try the idea. In 2021, drivers will start having to pay to enter Manhattan's central business district. Some details are being finalized, such as how much drivers will be charged to enter the fee zone. But many New Yorkers are already up in arms over the plan, with a poll by Quinnipiac University showing that more than half of the city's residents oppose it.
Critics of the plan have cited a number of concerns, from the additional financial burden it puts on drivers already experiencing economic hardship, to the negative impact it could have on local businesses in the fee zone.
And with Los Angeles exploring the feasibility of congestion pricing in some of its most highly trafficked areas, there's a strong possibility L.A. could soon follow suit. That could prompt other U.S. cities to consider similar systems, fueling more debate.
Still, urban planning experts such as Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, see congestion pricing as one of the most viable ways to address the growing problems associated with gridlock in cities such as Los Angeles. "One thing that I think people in my line of work generally agree on is that congestion pricing does reduce congestion. And that if you are serious about reducing congestion, you have to use some form of pricing," he said.
A study by the Southern California Association of Governments found that congestion pricing in West Los Angeles would cut the vehicle miles traveled by 21 percent in the area and vehicle hours traveled by 24 percent during peak travel times. The study also found that the potential pilot areas for the L.A. congestion pricing districts, called Go Zones, could save an estimated $4 million a year through reduced greenhouse gas emissions, taking into account factors such as rising health costs and the destruction of property, often attributed to carbon dioxide. The Southern California group also contends that congestion pricing could generate a net average of $69.2 million a year in revenue, which could go toward transportation improvements, pedestrian amenities and other economic development initiatives.
Congestion pricing in New York is reportedly expected to generate $1 billion annually in revenue, which will be used to help improve and make needed repairs to the city's ailing mass transit system.
Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive with the National League of Cities, a U.S. advocacy and research group, said it is important to look at congestion pricing in the context of how it can help enhance the livability of urban areas.
"Because of the broader mobility environment within cities, these types of tools give city leaders the opportunity to think for real how they can reduce congestion, improve air quality and help people to be able to get [around] better in these cities," said Rainwater, who also is director of National League of Cities' Center for City Solutions. "Ultimately, the level of congestion that we see in cities is a hindrance toward people having space for biking, walking and just being able to, frankly, enjoy the city the way they would like to."
But Peter Jones, a transportation and urban planning expert who teaches at University College London, noted the success and long-term viability of congestion pricing hinges on factors beyond charging drivers a fee to enter an area.
"Where it's been introduced, it's effective operationally, in the reduction of traffic. But, of course, it has to have some public political support, and that only tends to be in places where it can be argued that there are good alternatives," Jones said. "The other thing, in practice, the alternative to car driving only becomes attractive when the door-to-door travel times are roughly comparable."