Congestion pricing, a type of road user charge system in which a flat or variable rate fee is charged to vehicles that drive in a specified area or zone within a city, is a controversial topic for city residents. Many supporters argue that it can help lower emissions while providing resources to improve public transit. Opponents say that it’s unfair to tack on additional costs to drivers.
New York City became the first US city to approve a congestion pricing plan earlier this year. The plan will go into effect in 2021 and will charge a toll to anyone driving below 60th street. The full pricing regime is still being ironed out by city officials. A growing handful of international cities have already implemented congestion pricing programs.
To explore new city-led solutions, the National League of Cities (NLC) has released a guide which encourages cities to consider congestion charging systems. The guide argues that congestion pricing can help improve public life for city residents in addition to being a much-needed revenue source.
According to NLC data, in U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 or more, 91 percent of residents commute by car. In mid-sized cities it hovers between 86 and 87 percent, and in large cities, that number drops to 78 percent. Even among the 15 largest cities, only five have comprehensive transportation systems. The guide breaks down how much congestion pricing costs drivers in five case study cities and how the resulting revenue could be used to fund infrastructure.
There are still several issues to contend with when it comes to congestion pricing, however. Low-income residents could be hit hard by daily fees for driving. The New York plan is currently considering exemptions for residents of the tolling zone that make under $60,000. The fees will also likely be passed on to taxi passengers and show up in delivery costs, which could have a real impact on residents as the popularity of services like Amazon Prime grow.
For large metro areas like New York, officials in the tri-state view the congestion pricing plan as unfair given that residents from nearby states including New Jersey and Connecticut already pay a toll when they enter New York. A congestion fee would be added on to that upfront cost.
The NLC guide points to future growth as an issue that overrides some of these immediate concerns. The rise of self-driving cars is likely to increase the number of vehicles on the road at any given time, especially if they are used in service to ride-hailing apps. The guide argues that congestion pricing could keep those vehicles in less crowded areas until they’re called rather than seeing them drive around until a fare is available. Variable pricing models could also help keep costs manageable for different types of residents in congestion zones.
The full guide is available here.