Congestion pricing plan would reduce vehicles downtown by 15 percent
San Franciscans have a wide range of opinions on shelling out more money to drive through high-traffic parts of town.
That’s the upshot of a study from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA). The study found enthusiastic support for the environmental and livability benefits that would come with a congestion-pricing plan that officials estimate would mean 15 percent fewer vehicles on downtown streets. Others were concerned that the proposed income-based discounts didn’t go far enough, and that congestion pricing could hurt local businesses.
The findings will be presented, along with a discussion of three proposed plans, at a Nov. 12 Policy Advisory Committee Meeting, which is open to the public.
Those of you who have traded your morning commutes for Zoom meetings may ask why congestion pricing plans are relevant now.
While congestion evaporated at the beginning of the pandemic, traffic is already nearly back to pre-Covid-19 levels. Once the economy recovers, it could rise even more.
The aim of the Downtown Congestion Pricing study, which began in July 2019 and will conclude in spring 2021, is to determine if a fee to drive downtown could successfully counter congestion in San Francisco.
The city’s benchmark for a successful congestion pricing program is to reduce downtown car trips by 15 percent to get traffic moving, increase safety, clean the air, and advance equity. The absolute earliest that San Francisco could implement a program would be in two years.
Ask a transportation expert about the rationale for congestion pricing, and you will likely receive an enthusiastic mini-lecture from a microeconomic perspective.
“Congestion is simply what happens when the demand for mobility reaches the supply. Congestion is only solvable with economic tools,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, Director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) in a recent interview with Mission Local.
“The way we do it now, we let people use the streets for free and charge them to take the bus, so people do the free thing and drive, which makes sense, but it imposes a cost on society,” explained Nick Josefowitz, Director of Policy at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).
Congestion pricing is a way to internalize those costs – such as traffic, pollution, potential accidents, and disproportionate burdens on underserved communities – by changing people’s incentives with a small fee.
“We grossly mismanage our roads because we believe pricing roads is an affront to our personal liberty,” Tumlin said. “If we actually want to solve congestion, we need to charge the lowest price for our roads that eliminates the queues.”
The main objective of the fee is to incentivize drivers to shift to other modes of travel. But the revenue raised from the fee from those who still drive – estimated at $3 million to $60 million depending on the chosen scenario – would also be used to fund improvements in public transit.
Cities with existing, successful congestion pricing programs include Stockholm, Oslo, London, Gothenburg (Sweden), and Singapore. New York City will soon become the first city in the U.S. with such a system.
“If congestion pricing is implemented in some U.S. cities, it may help the conversation for other cities in the U.S. and begin to catch on as people become more familiar,” said Colin Dentel-Post, Senior Transportation Planner at SFCTA and manager of the study.
The table below shows the three scenarios that will be explored at the Nov. 12 meeting.
Send your feedback on the Downtown Congestion Pricing Program to firstname.lastname@example.org.