Advancing congestion pricing: a new report

By Michael Brenneis

A new ENO report on congestion pricing suggests that having a clear purpose and vision in place before implementation is the key to success. In addition, placing revenue as the primary goal, and sending that revenue into general funds, is largely unsustainable. The technological issues are largely solved, and pricing is generally seen as proven to control congestion. According to the report, the main barriers at this point are political, and poor communication hinders implementation. Success requires bold leadership, community involvement at every step of the process, and a focus on equity.

Is this discussion necessary now that the pandemic has effectively eliminated congestion from our cities? Comments from Martha Roskowski on a recent ENO webinar on the report indicate that it is. How we use our public rights-of-way will continue to be an important consideration, and pricing of existing capacity is one option for better meeting transportation demands and local community goals. Transit ridership may take some time to rebound once more people return to work—with commuters seeking the isolation of single-occupancy cars over shared rail and bus service, a strategy which was initially recommended by new CDC guidelines, but recently updated to improve guidelines for those who can’t or don’t want to drive. But cities are here to stay; their benefits outweigh any risks, and urban roadways can’t accommodate more peak hour driving than they did prior to the pandemic. A demand for safe cycling infrastructure and accommodation of walking and other active transportation modes is also likely to continue after the pandemic abates. Road space is a finite resource, benefitting most users when distributed fairly, and not preferentially to motor vehicles.

The webinar also points out that it is important to undertake the necessary analysis to determine whether the current system is fair. The answer to, “Who is driving to what jobs?” may be different in each city. The best policies will tailor pricing implementation to specifically address local impacts, and the accompanying report suggests tying revenue into climate, public health, and equity goals, and involving community groups from the beginning of the decision-making processes. Sometimes those opposed to changing the status quo use “fairness to the poor” to shut down the conversation. But rather than subsidize single-occupancy vehicles for the underserved, revenue can supplement or subsidize car sharing, transit, and active modes.

Forming coalitions with private and non-profit entities is essential, since, in many cases, public agencies are not permitted to advocate. Maximizing the number of drivers who must pay, while not penalizing the most vulnerable, will benefit the underserved most by improving transit and lowering emissions.

The U.S. seems to have difficulty imagining how international lessons might be applied here. In the U.S., transportation alone cannot solve our equity issues. The more robust social safety nets of many European countries do not leave equity to be addressed by the transportation system. But our system could be transformed to stop causing harm. Emissions exposure, crashes, limited access to destinations, and the suburbanization of poverty are symptoms of transportation inequity.

This report focuses on how policy could be developed in order to implement congestion pricing, rather than the specifics of how implementation might take place. The authors lay out a plan: engage all stakeholders—especially those currently underserved by current practices; document the inequity of the current system—and the effect pricing may have on metrics of interest; tailor pricing to the needs of specific locations; judiciously limit exemptions; and most importantly, have a compelling goal and a clear vision of the purpose behind congestion pricing implementation.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.