Congestion Pricing Fracas Shows Lamentable Ignorance of Facts

Photo: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography
Photo: ##http://orangephotography.com/##Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography##

You’d think the Tea Party had descended on San Mateo County, what with the piqued rhetoric in the media over San Francisco’s congestion pricing study. I don’t like to invoke Sarah Palin’s jargon, but I keep coming back to her horrible phrase “lamestream media” when I see yet another story that paints San Francisco transportation planners as greedy car-hating vampires and gets the facts on the pricing study so terribly wrong.

Take John Horgan, a columnist for the San Mateo County Times, who calls San Francisco the Boondoggle by the Bay and the Duchy of Dysfunction, while lamenting that the poor “plebians” on the other side of the city’s “moat-like pay gate” should boycott San Francisco businesses and frequent those in San Mateo if the pick-pocket plan ever passes..

Running with a similar trope, Mike Sugarman of CBS 5 calls the proposal a “border war,” while erroneously painting a scenario where he drives across the charging zone line, forgets something back in Daly City and ends up paying $12 for crossing the line four times (in each of the four pricing zones being studied, a daily charge to a driver would be capped at $6). Sugarman then sticks his microphone in the face of a bunch of drivers and asks them if they would pay for something they currently get for free. Hmm, can you kids guess what the answer is going to be?

You have to wade through 2:20 of bad reporting to get to the first two factual items in Sugarman’s piece, when he says San Francisco is only studying congestion pricing and it wouldn’t go into effect before 2015 at the earliest.

Ken Garcia at the San Francisco Examiner takes the crusade on factual reporting even further, misrepresenting almost everything about the congestion pricing study, conflating the various options for congestion zones into one big tax-happy, driver hating city of lunatics. And on a stylistic quibble, I don’t think Garcia could have stuffed any more puns into his day-after Thanksgiving report (see Jon Stewart’s recent bit on media abuse of puns), from trotting turkeys to gravy to squash and communal platters. If the Examiner had editors, they could have trimmed several hundred words worth of fat from that holiday bird and left us merely with specious claims about money grubbing supervisors “taxing” the “privilege” and “pleasure” of driving.

Northeast_cordon.jpgA London-style cordon encompassing the northeast section of the city. Cordon boundaries would be at 18th Street to the south and Guerrero and Laguna Streets to the west. Image: SFCTA.

This recent round of press attention started when the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) held a media breakfast on November 10th to update transportation reporters on the agency’s priorities and projects for the coming year.

As we have written before, according to the models run by the SFCTA, without any action, traffic in San Francisco during rush hours will get significantly worse as the region grows, leading to an increase in traffic related costs. The SFCTA predicts a 20 percent increase in traffic delay in San Francisco by 2030, rising to 30 percent by 2040, or the equivalent of adding 40,000 more vehicles per day in the already busy downtown.

In response to this expected traffic growth, the SFCTA has proposed several pricing options, including a London-style cordon that would use transponder (such as FasTrak) and camera technology to charge drivers crossing certain streets during the peak periods. SFCTA staff would prefer a northeast cordon, where the charge boundary would be at 18th Street on the southern border and Guerrero and Laguna Streets on the western edge.

In the cordon scenario with a morning and evening charge of $3 (with a maximum of $6 daily) the SFCTA predicts raising $80 million net for transit and non-driving mobility options like bicycling and pedestrian improvements, with traffic reductions of up to 12 percent, emissions reductions up to 16 percent and transit speed improvements of up to 20 percent.

The day after the November 10th press briefing, the three other reporters present wrote stories on the SFCTA’s plan to present its board of directors, who are the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with an update on the progress they have made and to ask permission to continue studying further, including the possibility of a pilot.

Cue the madness.

Though none of the stories misrepresented the facts, the Chronicle story led with a first sentence that said congestion pricing could cost drivers $1,560 a year (writer Rachel Gordon presumably multiplied 260 work days per year times $6 to get that figure). Unfortunately, the article posits the four pricing scenarios being studied, but doesn’t make clear that they would not be simultaneously enacted (which Garcia concludes in his op-ed).

Fueled by members of the San Mateo political class taking opportunistic pot-shots at the study, especially Daly City Councilman David Canepa, the salient number has become that $1,560 driving tax.

“It’s making people crazy thinking this is just a money grab,” said Tilly Chang, SFCTA deputy director for planning. Chang said the SFCTA has met many times with San Mateo county officials and staff, explaining the various scenarios under study and emphasizing the benefits. “We really want to have a more thoughtful and informed conversation so that we’re listening to each other and hear each other. They’re missing the point that this is a shared regional problem.”

In my conversations over the past year with the SFCTA planners doing the study, they made it clear that the most effective pricing zone option for reducing downtown traffic, speeding up Muni and raising significant money for improving city streets is the northeast cordon. They noted that the southern boundary option would not have the desired traffic reduction in downtown because 70 percent of the peak period drivers to the northeast cordon are coming from a San Francisco address to begin with. True, San Mateo drivers don’t pay tolls to drive into downtown San Francisco like Marin and East Bay drivers do, but they represent only a small fraction of traffic in the target pricing neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most disappointing piece of disinformation came from Adrienne Tissier’s op-ed in the Examiner yesterday. Tissier is a San Mateo County Supervisor and is about to become the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region’s transportation and planning authority. In her op-ed, Tissier plays up the same tax-hungry bogeymen as the columnists, but she also makes the irrational assertion that congestion pricing will increase traffic by encouraging peak-hour commuters to travel at different times.

Um, Ms. Tissier, this is exactly the point of congestion pricing: it reduces peak period traffic and encourages some people to choose a reasonable transit alternative, which according to the SFCTA, includes 80 percent of those currently driving downtown. If this is Tissier’s attitude for San Francisco, I fear for the region, where she will be presiding over the recently announced target of reducing greeenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2035. No serious planner believes this can be accomplished without adequate pricing of driving.

“We understand that we’re a culture addicted to our cars,” said the SFCTA’s Chang when asked to explain why this issue has blown up in the press. “We know from any 12-step program, there’s anger, denial and blame and then you get through to acceptance and understanding the issues and the problem and maybe then the acceptance needed to make a change.”

“Doing nothing is just going to relegate us to a region in decline,” she added.

  • Mission Mom

    What about Southern Gateways + thoughtful parking pricing (to achieve 85% occupancy rather than 90% + occupancy we have in some neighborhoods now)? People are accustomed to paying for parking.

  • Congestion pricing is expensive to implement and obviously makes people crazy. Why not tell them you’re going to take away their guns while you’re at it.

    There is an easier solution (as many have pointed out): focus on parking. If people have nowhere to park or if parking is seriously expensive, they won’t drive.

    1) Take away on street parking gradually from the congested areas.
    2) Increase price of city parking spots and garages in congested areas.
    3) Tax all private parking spaces in congested areas (because they induce congestion.)
    4) If area is still congested, redo steps 1 – 3 until it isn’t.

    BUT, (and this is a large BUT) do this concurrently with making transit safe, reliable, frequent, and pleasant to use. Do this concurrently with creating a bicycle network in the city that is safe and pleasant for people from 8 to 80 to use. Do this concurrently with a huge PR campaign to get people in the suburbs to take BART or Caltrain to the city. (Many people seriously have no idea how to use public transit or where it goes. I’ve met people from Marin who honestly didn’t know that are MUNI stations underneath Market Street.)

  • This is what happens when you have a city like SF that connects with counties like San Mateo, which do not connect well with SF via transit.

    Don’t expect any leadership from Adrienne Tissier. She is only in politics to make money for her clients in her other job as a political consultant.

  • Tim

    Congestion Pricing is a bad idea, and so was your analogy on Border Wars. It’s more like class-warfare. Your rich you can pay the toll, your poor you can’t .

  • It seems like any congestion pricing program is bound to fall short until Caltrain is electrified and extended Downtown. The current transit infrastructure is too limited to form a viable alternative for most commuters compared with BART in the East Bay and even commuter buses and ferries in Marin.

  • Hey Tim,
    Welcome to Streetsblog, our comment policy is here: http://sf.streetsblog.org/about/#who
    We moderate them heavily, especially when you call people names.

    The border war analogy was not mine; it was CBS’s.

  • Greg – I don’t agree that SF is not connected to SM County via transit. BART and Caltrain are pretty damn good. It probably takes me less time to get to Stanford than for you to get downtown from the Sunset.

    Remember this congestion pricing is only for *peak* times. At Peak, Caltrain has 6 trips per hour (higher frequency than the BART branches) and express trains (and the only thing stopping that from being all day long is money for labor and train maintainance). The connection to downtown from Caltrain is not prohibitive – the backup to the 4th and 6th street ramps off of 280 is more time consuming than the MUNI runs.

    It can be made much much better but those who complain it’s unusable are setting an artificially high bar because they don’t want the bar to be met.

  • I think the SFCTA trying to say that fixing congestion is a way to fix transit speed is a bit disingenuous. The way to fix transit speed is to build physically separated transit lanes and implement signal preemption. Then the speed of other traffic becomes irrelevant.

    If you want to address private vehicle congestion, a much better approach is to just put a large annual road use fee on each parking space in the congested area. Then spend all the money from the fee on road maintenance for the area, where the city is desperately short on funding anyway, and the users have nothing to complain about since all the money is going directly back for their own benefit.

  • Sethro

    Before criticizing other journalists about getting their facts right, take a look at yourself.

    “Take John Horgan, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News…”

    John Horgan has never worked at the San Jose Mercury News. He is a columnist for the San Mateo County Times and had been for many years before the County Times was purchased by the Mercury News Group.

  • Robo

    It won’t be effective unless Octavia Blvd is included. Our central neighborhoods are traffic sewers for drivers in the western neighborhoods who don’t want to deal with 19th Ave. Make it expensivve to get on the Fwy and they’ll re-think heading east to go south

  • @Sethro, thanks for clarifying. I’ve updated to reflect that.

  • Great work, Matthew!! Thanks for alerting us to the impending Tissier regime of dunces.

  • J

    Lesson for progressives everywhere: If you want congestion pricing, you better get out there and aggressively set the tone. Cries of “class warfare” allowed Republicans to successfully cut taxes for the wealthiest 1% and suburbanites to kill congestion pricing. To pass congestion pricing, you must get newspapers to write articles on successful trials, get out correct information, and market to the very poor who ride transit and would benefit. The standard mode of proposing a good idea and sitting back while it is debated will not work here. It will get crushed by bad info, like it did in NYC.

  • Matt

    Congestion pricing is a great idea that makes classical economic sense. But it suffers from really bad PR that could backfire by making shoppers boycott San Francisco. That’s why I think we should drop it.

    There are ways we can obtain the same effects without making it seem like the City is building a curtain around itself. A comprehensive plan to raise parking taxes and build (and heavily enforce) transit-only lanes would have a similar effect — buses and trains can zip through traffic quickly, the City will raise money to repair roads, and drivers will have to wade through heavy traffic because they were too narrow-minded to understand CP.

  • If congestion pricing is to be politically successful, I do think that there needs to be adequate transit alternatives. My girlfriend used to live in Pacifica where it would take an hour on SamTrans just to get to BART, versus about 5 minutes of driving. I understand riders have parking garages available at BART stations, but that’s not a sustainable solution and these municipalities need to think more seriously about removing barriers to convenient transit options before they point fingers.

  • i’ll stick to my tired, old critique — calling it ‘decongestion pricing’ or something else that is actually meaningful to people would help a lot on the PR front.

    right now, ‘congestion pricing’ == ‘war on drivers’, whereas ‘decongestion pricing’ would == ‘yay for drivers!’.

    imagine the tv spots – “Never sit in another traffic jam again. Decongestion pricing is coming to SF in 2015.”

    drivers would be going ape****. they’d be screaming, “Why do have to wait until 2015??!!”

    granted, ‘decongestion pricing’ is not the catchiest phrase, but it’s a heck of a lot more accurate and meaningful, not to mention more-easily-digestable and saleable, than ‘congestion pricing’.

    we should have learned this lesson years ago, but i guess we feel the need to make it as hard as possible on ourselves. weird. at least NYC sucks as much as we do at this.

  • How will truckers and tourists just passing through the area be charged? No one has explained that yet.

  • Scott: Cameras.

    I do agree with some comments above that a better strategy would be to make driving in SF slightly harder.

    -Market rate parking
    -Give Muni buses and rail exclusive lanes, enforced by cameras.

    And then toll the highways, not the local roads.

    Will people get off the highway and try to avoid the toll by driving around it? Sure. But using chicanes, traffic circles etc you can work to keep the local roads only useful for local traffic.

    Some people will still decide that a 10 minute detour driving at 25mph is better than a $3 toll…..but an easier and more logical choice would be to take the train.

  • noah

    Ah, the facts.

    See, the facts are unimportant. Facts are boring. Facts might even be socialism in disguise. No one wants to hear about facts. Progressives would do well to learn this. We can use our Special Insight, and our Research, and our Science and our Logic, and it will all be for naught.

    Because, at the end of the day, facts can be crushed with fear and confusion. Facts are neutered with gotchyas and zingers and “Likes” and careful video editing.

    Seriously, congestion pricing might be smart, but it simply can’t be sold. Next there will be an article about how we should go metric or something.

  • i cruised up the 101 today from SJ to Millbrae — never stopped once, barely even slowed down — it was awesome. i’d gladly pay for the ability to do that again.

    Decongestion pricing — the end of traffic.

    or maybe:

    Decongestion pricing — the end of traffic jams.

    …based on Salesforce.com’s “The End of Software” saying.

  • ZA

    If there’s any justifiable criticism against placing a charge on congesting vehicles in the NE quadrant of SF, it has to be that it will probably have limited positive impact (on its own).

    Consider:

    – North Beach, Chinatown, and the Embarcadero … parking is already poorly available and expensive, but that isn’t stopping very many cross-town drivers or out-of-town combatant drunks.

    – Tourists will continue to flock to this area, and will probably use vehicles during the off-peak hours.

    – MUNI service through this area has either maxed out (thinking of the 30-Stockton), or been cut back (thinking of the 1, for example).

    As for cost to business and commuters – that’s mostly nonsense, since existing high downtown prices (parking & sales tax) aren’t keeping East Bay and Marin County shoppers away, even in a recession; or keeping frequent SF-to-downtown drivers from choosing that method.

    In short, congestion charging as proposed, is affordable – which means it’s not much of a behavior changer on its own.

  • JK

    Milan calls its congestion pricing “Ecopass.” Maybe that or “GreenPass” or some enviromental type name would sound better to SF area voters. “Congestion pricing” is a bad name and should be dumped. One key fact to convey to local media is that there are already successful road pricing schemes in place across the world. We know it works in London, Singapore, Milan, Stockholm. In London in particular, pricing has been closely tied to improving bus service; more bus funding, less traffic.

    Really, parking reform and road pricing go together. By itself, parking pricing will never be enough to significantly reduce driving. The vast bulk of parking is off-street. Most of it is free, because employers provide it as a form of compensation and merchants add parking costs into all purchases. The result is that even if you tax off-street parking at a high rate, a chunk of that tax will be passed onto non-drivers.

    People are right that there will be organized opposition to road pricing. There always is, and it will include the parking garage industry, the Teamsters, civil service (teachers, cops and firemen typically drive more than the overall workforce), and suburban motoring constituencies. Nobody wants to pay for something they currently get for free.

    But, it’s politically possible to win. Congestion pricing passed the New York City Council, which represents 8.3 million people, but couldn’t pass the two house state legislature, few controversial plans can pass three legislatures. So, if NYC controlled its own destiny, it would have congestion pricing.

  • There is class warfare going on. On one side are American suburbanites who can’t imagine going anywhere without burning fossil fuel. On the other side are the majority of people in the world, who are being hurt or soon will be hurt by global warming.

    Here is one typical story from today’s news about the victims of this class warfare:

    Subsistence farmers in Mexico impacted by climate change
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101205/ap_on_sc/climate_mayan_village

    It is unfortunate that some people think it is more important for them to save a couple of dollars in toll than it is for the majority of people in the world to have enough food – and within a decade, global warming will increase food prices enough to cause hardship for the majority.

  • When you look at road pricing, we should all be able to agree that you can very easily convert all highways to tollways that pay for themselves: exits are regulated, there is massive precedent, it’s easy to do.

    The difficult part is always paying for local roads. Certainly the fairest system would involve tracking how many miles you drive over city roads and how heavy your vehicle is, and then dispersing per-mile-per-ton payments to all the cities you drove through. I think most people probably agree this is overly complex and the technology required to implement it would raise inescapable privacy problems.

    Putting a road-use fee on parking spaces is one of the easiest solutions. You are almost always using a local road to get to a local destination where you will park. Putting a fee on every space allows the cost of the local roads to be passed on to their users with extremely low administrative and compliance costs as compared to almost any other method: you do not need a large bureaucracy to resolve disputes around how many parking stalls there are in a garage.

    Congestion pricing falls somewhere in the middle in terms of complexity, but I think existing implementations show you have to invest a lot in one-time infrastructure to get all those cameras and readers up along these cordon lines that can cross dozens or hundreds of streets.

    So is this actually a significant enough improvement over a parking fee to justify this cost? I don’t see how it is – the only benefits I see are that:
    – You can tell precisely if a car has driven over the line, rather than having to rely on where the car parks. However, if you ever want to move the line, you will pay a large cost on infrastructure again, whereas with a parking fee you just adjust your zones and mail letters informing those affected.
    – You can capture people using local roads for through-traffic and thus never parking in your city. This is a complete non-issue in San Francisco as to drive through the city to another destination you have to use the Bay or GG bridge, where we already have infrastructure in place to collect fees.

    – “even if you tax off-street parking at a high rate, a chunk of that tax will be passed onto non-drivers”

    This is definitely a problem in medium density cities, and is something to be considered in other implementations, but I really do not see much evidence of this in downtown SF. In downtown SF (and our other job centers like Mission Bay) almost universally, if landlords charge a significant price for parking, tenants are passing it along to their employees rather than providing free parking. Given how prevalent this behavior is now, I don’t see why we should expect that a fee would not also be passed on to users.

    Indeed really the only places you see offering free off-street parking in congested areas are where they have, through some fluke, very low annual costs on that parking (for example a lot on owned land or underground parking bundled with their lease). This suggests even more strongly that if we did implement a parking fee, these exceptions would start behaving like all the other businesses which do pass along their parking costs.

  • He is a columnist for the San Mateo County Times and had been for many years before the County Times was purchased by the Mercury News Group.

    there’s no entity called the ‘Mercury News-Group’ — however, their parent company is called MediaNews Group. since we’re being all righteous about tangential facts and all…

    It seems like any congestion pricing program is bound to fall short until Caltrain is electrified and extended Downtown.

    decongestion pricing can raise money to provide alternatives to driving. i think people would be amazed by how a little bicycle infrastructure can ‘change the game’. and, what is the actual goal of congestion pricing? i know what i would want/expect it to do, but i don’t know if i’ve ever heard/read it anywhere else: 1) prevent traffic jams on the freeway, and 2) raise money to provide walk/bike/transit infrastructure.

    on the PR front, for many of the things we’re taxed for, we actually have some sense of the value in it for us. property taxes? ok – we got some land or a home and that’s a good investment for us, and we get write-offs, and we get to pay for a school, etc. booze tax? we get to get liquored up. nice. gas tax? we get some roads/highways/bridges/etc. congestion tax? we get congestion. wait. huh? what is a congestion tax/charge again? what is road pricing? no idea – sounds like a money grab. and that’s how we’re selling it, inaccurately. stupid and weird.

    these municipalities need to think more seriously about removing barriers to convenient transit options before they point fingers.

    decongestion pricing can raise money to provide alternatives to driving. it’s just one step in a multi-pronged approach to essentially ‘removing those barriers’.

    How will truckers and tourists just passing through the area be charged? No one has explained that yet.

    same as everybody else. either you have a smartpass thing, or you pay at the manual fare gates — done.

    Some people will still decide that a 10 minute detour driving at 25mph is better than a $3 toll…..but an easier and more logical choice would be to take the train.

    the thing is, if you actually do decongestion pricing right, then freeway traffic jams go away. so right now you might only be getting into/out of the city at 25mph or less _on the freeway_. if you charge the appropriate decongestion pricing rate, you’ll have no more traffic problems on the freeway, so you’ll haul ass and truly be getting something that is very very valuable to you as a driver — lots of your time/life back, an incredible decrease in stress, etc.

    and if you get off the freeway, your effective/average speed will be much less than 25mph, because of lights, etc. (i.e. freeway == free of lights/signals/stopping/etc., but only when there are no traffic jams). so the rate should not be $3 or $30 or 30 cents — it should be whatever it needs to be to keep traffic moving freely, and raise as much money for allowing non-car travel as possible. in theory, the best rate solution would be one that grows as you climb towards peak rush hour, then starts falling down again once peak rush hour passes.

    a set price would need to be indexed to inflation, probably. car traffic is going to continue to grow, so the price will probably need to be continually raised if we don’t build in an ‘auto-increment (and/or decrement)’ strategy. that’s why London and other cities had traffic levels jump again — the pricing is not flexible. if you concentrate on removing cars instead of preventing traffic jams, you’re focusing on the wrong thing, and you’ll end up with an less-than-optimal solution.

    and this revenue raising is _just_ for decongestion pricing. there are many other reasons why we should actually be charging cars for driving into the city — to try to recoup the tremendous costs they have for the city and her residents — costs born primarily by city taxpayers, many of whom don’t even drive. SF pedestrians and cyclists pay for the ambulances that collect them when commuters from San Jose drive into SF and run them over. sounds fair to me!

    but all of this cost-recouping car/driving/entry pricing is a whole separate issue from ‘decongestion pricing’.

    On one side are American suburbanites who can’t imagine going anywhere without burning fossil fuel.

    it’s not their fault. if they had a realistic alternative, many/most of them would use it, but corporations/planners have simply prevented alternatives to driving — even within most cities. SF is a slight exception in that we are probably not as car-dominated as most other American cities.

    congestion pricing will help provide alternatives to driving directly and indirectly. it’s _probably_ a good idea, imo. really, it just doesn’t seem logical to have traffic jams on the freeway. the extremely inefficient use of money/time/resources just seems like a bad idea for myriad reasons, not the least of which is global warming. take the money raised and put it into walk, bike, transit infrastructure, in that order, and we could probably see some ‘global warming prevention/slowing’ benefit from congestion pricing.

  • Nathanael47

    Good clarifications.
    It is frustrating to see so many people (especially journalists who are supposed to know better) with knee-jerk reactions (along with misinformation that justifies those reactions). Where is the enthusiasm for bold ideas?

    Rachel Gordon is the spelling I believe (her piece seemed pretty fair – presenting the idea in the least favorable lighting but at least not adding horns in photoshop)

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