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Posts from the "Congestion Pricing" Category

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Studies Show Car Traffic in San Francisco is Dropping

Car traffic at Mission and Third Streets has declined by 7 percent over the last few years, according to SFCTA counts. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Car traffic has dropped in San Francisco in recent years, despite an economic boom and a growing population, according to studies by the SF County Transportation Authority.

A newly updated study (reported by SF Weekly) by the SFCTA counted fewer cars at 11 of 15 intersections during evening peak hours this year, compared to earlier counts taken between 2009 and 2012. Driving speeds, meanwhile, are “increasing moderately.”

As SF Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi pointed out, the data fly in the face of anecdotes from drivers — who almost universally feel that car congestion is always getting worse. And given the city’s booming economy, population, and construction in recent years, that’s one scenario that certainly would have been plausible had the 20th-century status quo continued.

“Anecdotal evidence is hard to counter,” Eskenazi wrote. “But what statistical evidence does exist flies in the face of your well-worn anecdotes.”

SFCTA transportation planner Dan Tischler acknowledged that, despite the somewhat limited scope of the study, all of the evidence available indicates that San Francisco commuters are driving less, and likely switching to other modes to get around.

“We are not really sure if traffic conditions are worse now than they were a few years ago, but we do have strong evidence that transit is playing an increasingly significant role in handling growth in travel demand,” said Tischler.

Most importantly, Tischler noted, driving speeds have largely remained flat, or even increased slightly, from 2011 to 2013. That contradicts any notion that fewer cars were counted because congestion is causing them to moving through more slowly. (Slower speeds would actually increase throughput, since cars follow one another more closely at slow speeds.)

“Lower traffic volumes, combined with higher speeds, indicates that lower traffic volumes may be due to less demand rather than too much demand,” Tischler said.

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A Reminder: Congestion Pricing Will Save Lives

The Department of Public Health estimated in 2011 that a $3 congestion fee would prevent loss of life due to air pollution and traffic violence.

Congestion pricing resurfaced this week thanks to an SF Examiner article that was picked up by several other media sources, rightly framing it as a way to save lives.

The Examiner highlighted a Department of Public Health report from 2011 [PDF], which estimated that in 2015, if drivers were charged $3 for heading into downtown SF during rush hours, pedestrian injuries would be cut by 5 percent citywide, and 9 percent within the fee zone in the city’s northeastern quadrant. For people on bikes, those numbers are 2 and 3 percent, respectively.

Hyde at Turk Street. Photo: ibtsteward/Flickr

As we’ve written, congestion pricing is a crucial tool to make streets safer for walking and biking and allow transit to move more efficiently, all while raising a sorely-needed $60 million per year for transportation improvements to make non-driving options more attractive. Cities like Stockholm and London have reaped major public health and economic benefits from their congestion pricing programs.

But the SF County Transportation Authority, which completed a study of congestion pricing scenarios in 2010, quietly shelved the idea after it was met with fierce political opposition. If San Francisco is serious about achieving Vision Zero — an end to traffic deaths within ten years — however, congestion pricing must be revisited as part of the strategy sooner rather than later. The life-saving benefits have been demonstrated in London, which implemented a fee of roughly $15.60 to drive into or within the charging zone between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays in 2003. London saw its lowest annual traffic fatalities on record in 2011.

The current administration seems to be in no rush to back congestion pricing. A spokesperson from the Mayor’s office told the Examiner that it is not a priority for Ed Lee. “There are more effective pedestrian safety measures Mayor Lee believes we should fund and prioritize before pursuing so-called congestion pricing, which is more a regional traffic-management proposal,” he said.

Supervisor Jane Kim, a leading proponent of Vision Zero, told the Examiner that the city should revisit the idea, while Supervisor Scott Wiener said he opposed it until the city first takes other steps to enforce traffic laws and redesign streets.

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Don’t Widen 101: How SM County Could Move More People With Less Traffic

San Mateo County agencies are studying the “Planned HOV” scenario for Highway 101 — a road widening — even though the “Optimized HOT” scenario is much cheaper and more effective. Image: TransForm

San Mateo County is poised to spend more than a hundred million dollars on an expansion of Highway 101 while passing over more effective, less expensive options to improve people’s commutes.

Even as total traffic volumes have remained flat over the past decade on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is conducting a $2 million study of expanding the highway with new carpool lanes. But highway expansions of already very large highways are simply not effective.

“If we had unlimited amounts of money and no concerns about our impact on the environment, we could keep doing that,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of TransForm. “But the last 50 years of experience suggests that paving our way of out congestion is not working.”

Highway 101, facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont during the evening rush hour. Photo: Andrew Boone

In a new report, “Innovation Required: Moving More People with Less Traffic,” TransForm calls on C/CAG to consider an alternative that they say would be cheaper, more effective at reducing traffic congestion, and would improve public transit. Instead of adding carpool lanes, TransForm is pushing for conversion of one existing highway lane in each direction into “optimized high occupancy toll lanes” (Optimized HOT), also called express lanes.

These lanes are free for carpoolers but also available to solo drivers for a fee, which is varied based on demand to ensure that they remain free-flowing. The report, which includes a traffic analysis of this option and two others, conducted by former C/CAG Transportation Programs and Planning Manager Joseph Kott, concludes that converting one existing lane in each direction to an express lane would move more people with less traffic at just one-tenth the cost of the agency’s current plans.

Building the more expensive, less efficient options would waste a lot of revenue from the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax, Measure A, that could fund an expansion of transportation choices for residents and workers. With an estimated $130 – $160 million in construction cost savings, as well as new toll revenue, converted express lanes could provide a windfall of funds to improve non-driving commute options in San Mateo County, such as Caltrain, SamTrans, and the county’s disjointed bicycle and pedestrian network.

Compared to C/CAG’s proposed carpool lanes, converting existing 101 lanes into express lanes would carry 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles, while costing less than one-tenth as much to build, according to TransForm. Although it seems un-intuitive that a Highway 101 with an additional standard travel lane would end up more congested than converting an existing lane to a carpool lane, it works because the variable fee charged to solo drivers ensures that as many solo drivers are always in the carpool lane as possible without congesting it. Because the new express lanes, or “variable-fee-for-solo-drivers-carpool-lanes”, would also provide a congestion-free lane for buses and carpoolers, the number of people using buses and carpooling would increase because they would be faster driving alone. This results in fewer total vehicles and thus less traffic congestion.

The 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles figures are based on the same assumptions used by C/CAG for other traffic analyses but include factors ignored in C/CAG’s June 2012 carpool lane feasibility study, such as demand variable with pricing and mode shift from solo driving to transit. Kott, the former C/CAG planner, said transportation agencies also usually neglect to account for factors such as growing demand for public and private transit, walking, bicycling, and the potential for Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs to provide financial incentives for non-driving commutes, since these are all relatively recent trends.

“We’re still stuck in this mode of saying that all we can do is provide for private motor vehicle travel on our highways and that’s all we can forecast,” said Kott. “We can do multi-modal forecasts too, but we have to have the right assumptions.”

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San Francisco’s Downtown Commute Patterns, Animated

Note: Use the top left drop-down menu to select “Bay Area” and get a view of San Francisco.

A new interactive map provides a glimpse into how San Francisco workers and residents commute — where they go, which modes of transport they use, and how much money they make. The map, created by UC Berkeley planning Ph.D. student Fletcher Foti, uses travel survey data to display transportation patterns using colored dots that designate respondents’ transport mode and the rough location of their home. Foti created maps of the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York regions.

The map helps illustrate some of the findings in the SF County Transportation Authority’s congestion pricing study, which reported that 97 percent of driving in downtown SF is done by people with household incomes of more than $50,000 per year. Using the map to sort commuters by annual household income, very few blue dots (car commuters) can be seen in SoMa and the Financial District below the $75,000 bracket. There are a whole lot of red and yellow dots — walking and transit trips — commuting into downtown among all income brackets, but it’s apparent that among households earning less than $75,000, most avoid car commuting.

There’s a lot more to be gleaned from this map. A couple of other observations that jump out to me are that much of the car commuting in SF is between neighborhoods that lack convenient transit and bike routes. Meanwhile, some commuters appear to drive very short distances that could be done by Muni, bicycling, or walking if those options were more enticing.

Catch any other observations on commute patterns in SF or the rest of the Bay Area? Share them in the comments.

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Lessons From London After 10 Years of the Congestion Charge

A Republican member of Congress told me last week that he recently was in London for the first time in a long while. “Traveling was so much better,” he said. “You can actually get around. That traffic-charging system they’ve got seems to be doing a lot of good.”

London’s system — known formally as congestion charging — started up 10 years ago this Sunday, on February 17, 2003. In the decade since then it has been meticulously monitored, analyzed and debated — perhaps more than any traffic-managing scheme since Moses parted the Red Sea. It has also spawned a raft of charging programs elsewhere, most notably in Stockholm, and, starting last month, in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city. Of course, an all-out effort to enact a comparable system here, the proposal to toll motor vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, died in the state legislature five years ago.

Ten years on is a good time to take stock. Let’s have a look.

What It Is: Cars and trucks pay £10 (roughly $15.60) to drive into or within the charging zone between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The zone is London’s commercial and financial hub and, at 8 square miles, rivals Manhattan’s 8.5-square mile Central Business District. Taxis are exempt, as are qualifying low-emission vehicles. Cars registered to zone residents, who account for 2 percent of Greater London’s 7 million people, pay one-tenth the standard charge.

How Drivers Pay: London’s system deploys 1,360 closed-circuit cameras at 348 sites within the charging zone and on its boundaries to record the license plates of vehicles entering and moving within the zone. The plates are continuously matched against a database of monthly accounts, and “spot” payments are made via Internet or at kiosks, drawing down accounts or billing license-plate holders. This cumbersome system arose not only from the absence in the U.K. of electronic toll collection systems such as E-ZPass when the system was launched a decade ago, but also from the decision to charge for car trips entirely within the zone in addition to vehicle entries. A byproduct is the relatively meager net revenue available for transport improvements.

Traffic Outcomes: In its first few years, the London charging scheme was heralded as a solid traffic-buster, with 15-20 percent boosts in auto and bus speeds and 30 percent reductions in congestion delays. Most of those gains appear to have disappeared in recent years, however. Transport for London (TfL), which combines the functions of our NYCDOT and MTA and which created and operates the charging system, attributes the fallback in speeds to other changes in the streetscape and traffic management:

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Confronted With Congestion Pricing, People Clamor for Transit, Gas Tax

Three scenarios for congestion pricing: 1) priced lanes on all major highways, 2) a mileage charge levied on all roads and streets, and 3) priced zones. Image: MWCOG/Brookings

Could a congestion pricing program work in the DC region? Maybe. But first, officials would need to get the public on board — no easy task. A report on the conclusions from five public forums, held in the region between October 2011 and January 2012, suggest that more and better transportation options need to be in place before a congestion charge is levied, so that commuters feel they have options.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, together with the Brookings Institution, found that the 300 people they talked to are skeptical of any government plan to get more money, and are sorely undereducated about how transportation funding works. The study was funded by FHWA as a followup to a 2003 study to determine the technical viability and potential benefits of congestion pricing. Now they want to know the political viability of such an idea.

The biggest barrier to acceptance is the simple fact that people don’t understand transportation. The participants in the study didn’t know that funding was a problem or a cause of many of the inadequacies of the system. They didn’t know how much the gas tax is, that it doesn’t rise with inflation, or that it hasn’t changed in 20 years.

They don’t see themselves and their own driving as contributors to the problem of congestion. They blame construction and other drivers (especially those from “other jurisdictions” — DC and Virginia residents love to beat up on “Maryland drivers”) — anything but their own driving. They assume that congestion pricing can’t work because everyone on the road is there because they have to be. They don’t think they, or their fellow drivers, have choices in travel behavior.

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Congestion Pricing: Vital for Funding a Sustainable Transpo Future in SF

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Third Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Take a shot at budgeting San Francisco’s future transportation revenue with the new online “Budget Czar” simulator from the SF County Transportation Authority, and it will quickly become clear: If residents want better transit and safer streets for walking and biking over the next 25 years, the city needs to collect new sources of transportation revenue in a way that effectively reduces motor vehicle congestion.

The SFCTA anticipates having $64 billion to spend over the next 25 years, with 80 percent ($52 billion) going to maintain the existing state of street and transit infrastructure — “not nearly enough to meet projected needs,” the agency said in a statement. With $9 billion already committed to projects in the works, that leaves just $3.14 billion left to devote to projects like pedestrian safety upgrades, a network of protected bikeways, and increased transit service — improvements that the SFCTA believes are in high demand from the public. By seeing how residents would budget that $3.14 billion in the “Czar” simulator, the SFCTA says it hopes to get a better picture of how to prioritize transportation projects in the 25-year San Francisco Transportation Plan, expected to be adopted next spring.

“We need to critically think about, ‘What are some of the best sources of revenue?’” said Egon Terplan, regional planning director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “One of the really important functions of the Transportation Plan is to put that on the table, and to say, ‘What projects do you want as a city and county? And if you want more investment in transportation projects than we likely have money for, are you willing to pay for it?’”

As funding sources like gas taxes and federal grants shrink, population growth in the Bay Area means the SFCTA expects as many as 412,000 more daily car trips clogging the city’s streets and highways by 2035. But that scenario can be averted if San Francisco institutes a congestion pricing system that provides incentives for drivers to avoid adding to traffic jams while funding improvements to make transit, bicycling and walking more attractive.

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Mapped: Dramatic Changes on London Streets in the Congestion Pricing Era

Change in car use, 2001-2010. Source: ITO World

For the last nine years, private motorists entering central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. have paid a fee (currently £10 or US$16.22) to drive on the city’s scarce street space. The revenue from the congestion charge is plowed into the city’s transit system, and as Transport for London has amply documented, many Londoners have changed their commuting habits.

Now a flurry of maps released by ITO World, a British company that specializes in visualizing transport data, shows London’s dramatic shift to more sustainable modes from 2001-2010. (The congestion charge went into effect in February 2003.)

The map above depicts the extraordinary decrease in private motor vehicle traffic, with the dark blue dots showing where driving has gone down more than 30 percent and the bright red dots showing where it’s up more than 30 percent. By the looks of it, the drivable suburbs are still a bastion of private vehicles, but the central city is seeing far less traffic.

Of course, people aren’t just sitting at home. They’ve embraced other ways of getting around. So while there are fewer vehicles in London now than in 2001, one motorized mode has become more ubiquitous: the bus.

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What’s the Secret to World-Class Transit Systems? Congestion Pricing

Top transportation officials from three global cities — London, Singapore and Stockholm — shared their experiences in expanding the use of transit at a panel at the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference last Friday. Eyeing those cities, it’s easy for New Yorkers to get jealous.

“I was, in many ways, salivating,” said MTA chief Joe Lhota.

Singapore's massive transit expansion plans -- the dotted lines are all system expansions planned for the next ten years -- wouldn't be possible without congestion pricing. For a larger version, click here.

Singapore is doubling the size of its rail network in the next ten years, according to the Singapore Land Transport Authority’s Lew Yii Der. Using driverless technology, he added, Singapore will soon be running subway trains as little as 90 seconds apart.

London boosted bus ridership by 60 percent in a decade (in contrast, New York’s bus system is seeing fewer passengers year after year) and recently hit an all-time high for Underground use, said Transport for London’s Elaine Seagriff. Projects in the pipeline will add an entire new rail line through the heart of the city and boost capacity in the existing Underground system by 20 percent.

Stockholm plans to spend 8 billion Euros on expansion projects through 2020 for a region of only 2 million people, reported Stockholm Public Transport Managing Director Anders Lindström. In the New York region, per capita spending on that level would come out to $115.5 billion.

In a city where “mega-projects” mean three new stations for the Second Avenue Subway and one on the 7 line — and where it’s possible no system expansions at all will be included in the next five-year capital plan — it’s hard to imagine the cash-strapped MTA ever reaching such lofty levels. How did these other cities do it?

It’s foolish to call anything a silver bullet, but even so, it’s no coincidence that each of these cities do something New York hasn’t done: price the use of scarce road space.

London’s phenomenal growth in bus ridership, for example, can be significantly attributed to the fact that surface transit doesn’t have to sit in gridlocked traffic, thanks to the city’s congestion charge. Analyst Kenneth Small estimates that in the typical American city, bus ridership would jump 31 percent due to the introduction of congestion pricing, without bus service even receiving any of the revenues.

But the money certainly helps. London’s congestion charge generated approximately $240 million in 2009, all dedicated to transportation. Stockholm’s pricing scheme took in about $112 million in a much smaller region.

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Absent a Transportation Bill, DOT Can Innovate All On Its Own

As Deron Lovaas said this morning on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, “If recent events are any indicator, it might take Congress a while to agree on a policy that will put our underfunded, inefficient, oil-dependent transportation program on the right track.”

It's working in San Francisco. Now USDOT can help expand dynamic pricing to other cities around the country. Image: SFMTA.

Well now, that’s an understatement.

Between the uncertainty of the supercommittee and the bicameral bickering over the size and length of a bill, the only thing we can be sure of is that we’re heading toward yet another extension of SAFETEA-LU when it expires at the end of next month – if the two parties can agree to even that. Negotiations broke down over a whole lot less recently, when Congress let the FAA shut down over a measly couple million bucks.

But even if it’s a while before we see legislation passed that enacts new policies, there’s a lot the USDOT can do with existing authority to make smarter transportation investments that reduce congestion and carbon emissions. NRDC has documented them in a new report, “Federal Actions to Reduce Energy Use in Transportation” [PDF].

  • Dynamic pricing. Fifteen states are participating in the DOTs Value Pilot Pricing Program, which allows states more flexibility in levying tolls and other pricing measures. San Francisco’s innovative new parking pricing system is a fruit of this program. Other variable pricing measures, like congestion pricing, could also help reduce fuel use and pollution, says Lovaas.
  • Realism. USDOT should enforce the fiscal constraints of regional long-range transportation plans, being upfront about realistic costs. Lovaas says this will address a “pet peeve” of his and force states to reconsider “costly highway projects that have been on the books forever.”
  • Transit benefits. Without further authority, USDOT could expand and promote the transit benefit program, which allows companies to give employees $240 per month in tax-free transit and vanpool benefits. Lovaas says the program is currently run by the IRS without any DOT involvement, and is vastly undersubscribed.

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