Should New York Look Abroad to Get Out of Its Traffic Jam?
Posted February 26, 2018 7:24 p.m. EST
The idea translates easily into any language: Charge drivers for using congested streets and watch them change their habits. It has become an increasingly attractive tool for major metropolises overwhelmed by the traffic strangling their streets.
But actually carrying out congestion pricing has been anything but easy — at least in three cities that are often cited as international models. In London, Singapore and Stockholm, the fees were met with skepticism and outrage by commuters and civic and business leaders, though they later proved effective in reducing traffic, congestion and air pollution.
As New York debates whether to join these cities after decades of stalled efforts, their experiences could provide a road map. Each city does congestion pricing in its own way. Singapore sets varying fees based on the road and time of day, and adjusts them in response to traffic conditions, with fees going up when there is congestion, and down when there is not. Stockholm also sets varying fees for a congestion zone covering the central city area, with the highest fees at the busiest times of day. But its system is less flexible than Singapore’s since those fees do not regularly fluctuate with traffic, and any changes require the approval of Sweden’s Parliament.
In contrast, London charges a simple flat-rate of $16 per day no matter how often a vehicle goes in and out of a designated congestion zone in the center of the city. In New York, a state task force has proposed a flat rate of $11.52 per day for passenger cars — and $25.34 for trucks — for entering a congestion zone in Manhattan that would stretch from 60th Street south to the Battery. Taxis and ride-hailing cars could face a separate charge of $2 to $5 per ride.
All three cities invested heavily in technology and infrastructure before they rolled out their congestion-pricing systems. Stockholm spent the most — $237 million — to set up a system of gantries and cameras in 2007 that register and identify vehicles by snapping photos of license plates, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group based in New York that has compared the three systems. London also relies on gantries and cameras that cost nearly as much, or $214 million, in 2003. Singapore’s project cost $110 million in 1998 and requires every vehicle to be outfitted with an electronic device that automatically tallies up the fees, according to the Transportation Campaign.
These startup costs were later recouped through the congestion fees, which have also raised millions more for transportation and infrastructure needs. London receives about $230 million annually in net revenue, while Stockholm’s system raises $155 million and Singapore’s generates $100 million each year, according to the campaign. New York’s task force estimated its proposed congestion plan could raise more than $1 billion annually for public transit. To encourage a shift away from cars, officials in each of the far-flung cities added new buses, bike lanes and other public transit services. As congestion pricing has settled in, many of the fees have gone up — more than doubling in London and drawing complaints in Stockholm that the system has become an easy way to raise money.
Other challenges remain. Even with the fees, London’s gridlock has returned, driven in part by an influx of Uber and ride-hailing cars that did not exist a decade ago. Singapore is working to make its system more efficient and less costly by turning to satellites to replace the physical gantries beginning in 2020.
For drivers in these cities, congestion fees have become part of daily life. That does not mean they like it. “It’s very frustrating,” said James Tan, 55, a businessman in Singapore. “I do try to avoid driving during peak hours. But if you have to drive, you have to drive.”
Singapore was one of the first cities to try congestion fees in the mid-1970s. Two decades later, it rolled out its current plan, the Electronic Road Pricing System, known to residents as ERP. Vehicles are required to have an electronic unit with a smart card, which registers a fee whenever it passes under a network of more than 80 gantries concentrated in the main business district and along major highways.
The fees range from 38 cents to $4.57, with no fees on Sundays and public holidays. A government agency, the Land Transport Authority, reviews the fee structure four times a year and decides whether to raise or lower the rates, and whether to add or eliminate gantries, based on traffic conditions. Guan Tai, 37, a bank employee, pays $1.50 in fees every weekday to drive his wife to work and to drop off their daughter at school. “I like the ERP because it does ease the traffic jams,” he said. “It’s expensive, but I would rather pay.”
But others chafe at all the fees. Taxis and ride-hailing cars also have to pay the congestion fees, which are passed along to passengers. Lawrence Phua, 39, who drives for a ride-hailing service, said some of his passengers have balked at paying them.
Lee Der-Horng, a professor of civil engineering at National University of Singapore, said that, if anything, the congestion fees could be higher. “It has been effective, but it can be even more effective,” he said. “Since the hardware is there, the government can increase the charges. But will they do it? There is a certain political price.”
Despite congestion pricing, traffic has continued to increase along with Singapore’s growing population of 5.5 million. The average daily traffic volume entering the city has climbed 22 percent, to 300,400 vehicles in 2014 from 246,000 in 2004, according to the Land Transport Authority. Still, the average speed during peak hours on expressways increased slightly to 39.8 mph (64.1 kph) in 2014 from 39 mph (62.7 kph) in 2004.
And more people also turned to public transit during that period, with an average daily ridership of 6.7 million passenger trips on trains and buses in 2014, up from 4.1 million in 2004. The Land Transport Authority said in a statement that while the system “has been effective in optimizing road capacity and distributing traffic demand,” the agency “needs to look ahead to find a more effective and responsive system to manage congestion, one that is less costly, more space-efficient and requires a shorter lead time to implement compared to the current gantry-based system, which is also coming to its end-of-life.”
The agency has also sought to reduce congestion by promoting public transit use and restricting the number of vehicles through a quota system, in which potential car owners have to first bid on a limited number of “certificates of entitlement” to buy a car.
Like New York, London flirted with the idea of congestion pricing for decades before finally creating an 8-square-mile congestion zone in the center of the city in 2003. Ken Livingstone, the mayor at the time, was assailed for heaping misery on thousands of commuters. Opponents led by one neighborhood council even sued him, claiming unsuccessfully that the plan was against the law and would hurt the city’s quality of life.
Still, congestion pricing proved a success. Within a year, London officials reported that the number of vehicles entering the congestion zone dropped by 18 percent. Traffic delays were also reduced by 30 percent. The average speed of vehicles in the zone rose to 10 mph from 8.8 mph.
As a result of the reduced traffic volume and increased mobility, air quality has improved, showing a 12 percent reduction in emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from vehicles in the zone, according to London officials.
Vehicles entering the congestion zone are recorded by a system of cameras that snap photos of license plates. A flat fee of $16 is charged between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, up from $7 when the program began. Residents who live in the zone get a discount, as do owners of low-emission vehicles. Taxis, Ubers and other ride-hailing cars are exempt.
The city recently added an extra “toxicity charge” of $14 per day — on top of the $16 — for older polluting vehicles in the congestion zone, at the urging of Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. As a result, some drivers now pay $30 just to visit central London.
Even with the fees, congestion has returned. Uber and other for-hire vehicles surged to more than 87,400 cars in 2017, up from 50,700 in 2011. Delivery vans hog the curbs as online shopping has exploded. Cyclists are vying with motorists for more space. Caroline Pidgeon, the deputy chairwoman of the transport committee in the London Assembly, an elected governing body that acts as a check on the mayor, said that all these factors have led to a “perfect storm” of congestion.
As a result, traffic has slowed to 8.3 mph — even slower than it was before congestion pricing. “I feel that the congestion charge has not made any difference to London’s traffic,” said Jay Patel, 35, a pharmacy technician.
Richard Dilks, the transportation director at London First, a business organization, said the city needs a more flexible system with varied fees that are dependent on travel time.
Others have called for expanding the congestion fees to a larger area, though Maria Ludkin, the legal director of a trade union representing drivers of for-hire vehicles, said that would not reduce congestion and would just end up costing drivers more money.
The consensus is that something needs to be done. “We need much smarter real-time road pricing,” said Laurie Laybourn-Langton, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public-Policy Research. “As a first stab at providing a policy and system to reduce congestion, the charge was a great start.”
Transport for London, the agency that oversees the congestion zone, did not respond to requests for data and information about their system.
A congestion tax became permanent in Stockholm in 2007, following a six-month trial. Many residents and business leaders had opposed it, saying it would punish drivers and shut down stores. Those views quickly shifted, officials said. “Everything turned when the immense traffic effects were seen on the streets,” said Jonas Eliasson, the director of the city’s transportation department. “After the first few weeks, traffic didn’t return.”
Traffic entering the congestion zone started dropping immediately to about 350,000 vehicles per day in 2006 from about 450,000 vehicles per day a year earlier, or a 22 percent reduction, Eliasson said. “Remarkably, the number of vehicles across the boundary has stayed roughly the same ever since, despite fast economic and population growth,” he said.
As in London, Stockholm uses a system of overhead gantries and cameras to automatically register vehicles in a 13-square-mile congestion zone covering the central city and a major thoroughfare, Essingeleden. Vehicles are charged a fee every time they pass one of 18 control points between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. Emergency service vehicles and large buses are exempt.
The fees vary by the time of day, with a maximum of $4.36 at rush hour. There is a cap of $13.07 per vehicle per day. In 2020, the fees are scheduled to rise, and for the first time will include high- and low-season rates.
Fredrik Eriksson, 32, said he does not mind the congestion fees because his commute is now shorter. “It’s like paying for a first-class train ticket,” he said. “It’s a little more comfortable, and that’s what people want.” Some drivers have found a way to pass along the cost. Jakob Golonka, 35, a builder who commutes to Stockholm by car three days a week, charges his clients a little more to cover the tax.
There are fewer traffic delays now in the congestion zone. Before the taxes were in place, average rush-hour travel times varied widely depending on traffic conditions, and could be two to three times longer than off-peak travel times. Since then, the average rush-hour travel times have dropped by as much as half, and just as important for commuters, they have become more predictable — there is less difference now in travel times on “bad days” versus “good days,” according to Eliasson.
Daniel Hellden, a vice mayor of Stockholm who oversees the traffic division, said that congestion taxes have raised millions of dollars for building roads and highways, expanding the subway system, and making other investments in public transit.
Torbjorn Heierson, a regional director for the Swedish Association of Road Transport Companies, which represents the hauling industry, said that he has come to see the benefits of congestion pricing. “We are expanding public transportation so that private individuals can leave their cars at home and make room for the professional drivers who have goods to deliver,” he said.
But as congestion taxes keep going up, even some supporters have started to question whether the driving force now is more to raise money than manage traffic.
“We think that a congestion tax should be used as a tool to address congestion,” said Jessica Alenius, vice president of Bil Sweden, a car industry group. “Because what has happened in recent years is that the tax has been raised, and they announce another increase. And then it is being used for fiscal purposes — the aim is to raise money.”