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Posts from the Congestion Pricing Category

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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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Streets Bond Measure Headed to November Ballot

Photo: ejbSF

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of occasional stories on the “2011 Road Repaving and Street Safety Bond.”

A $248 million streets bond measure being pushed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and other electeds is on its way to the November ballot after being approved this week in a 9-2 vote by the Board of Supervisors. The “2011 Road Repaving and Street Safety Bond” would provide funds over three years to repave the city’s crumbling streets and fix cracked and buckling sidewalks. Streets with high volumes of transit, bicycle and pedestrian traffic would be prioritized.

“With more than half of our 850 miles of roadways deteriorating, we must confront the crisis in the condition of our streets now or we will face even greater costs and threats to public health and safety later,” Lee said in a statement released yesterday.

The San Francisco Department of Public Works (SFDPW) recently posted maps online that give a citywide breakdown of which streets stand to benefit from the bond money. The final list of streets would be “geographically equitable” and the SFDPW would “ensure that projects are evenly distributed to all parts of the city” without raising property taxes.

The agency’s outgoing director, Ed Reiskin, recently appointed to head the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said funding sources to improve street conditions have gradually declined over the years, and the measure is urgently needed to rebuild a growing backlog of streets in poor condition.

“We have a huge need. That backlog is maybe three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s just no way that we can dig out of that hole using the operating dollars that are funding police and firefighters and library services and health and human services,” Reiskin told Streetsblog in a recent interview.

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Data Show Bay Bridge Crossing Speeds Not Affected by Variable Tolls

Graphic: Eric Fischer

Weekday crossings. Graphic: Eric Fischer

When the tolls on Bay Area bridges were increased on July 1, the Bay Bridge was given a higher toll at the times of its greatest usage in an attempt to reduce congestion by discouraging drivers from using the bridge at peak times.  Crossing the bridge into San Francisco costs $6 from 5:00 to 10:00 am and 3:00 to 7:00 pm on weekdays, $4 at other times on weekdays, and $5 on weekends.  However, the toll structure does not seem to have had the desired effect.

Using data for about 50,000 bridge crossings from Stamen Design’s Cabspotting and from NextBus for AC Transit, I calculated and plotted the time required to cross the bridge at different times of day before and after the toll increase.

The graphs are noisy because of the small sample size, but the time required to cross the bridge by car at the morning and afternoon weekday peak times seems basically unchanged since 2008.  The off-peak weekday crossing is a little slower than it used to be, perhaps because of the S-curve detour for construction of the new east span.  On weekends, the off-peak crossing time seems to be unchanged since 2008.

The weekend peak data from 2008 is especially noisy so it is hard to tell exactly what has changed there, but if anything, it takes longer to cross the bridge now than it did before.  It seems that either the demand for the bridge is so inelastic that the variable tolls are not an effective way of shifting or reducing demand, or that the price differential has not been made large enough to have an effect.

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SF Congestion Pricing Study Moves Forward Without San Mateo Boundary

Flickr photo:

Flickr photo: Michaelangelo van Dam

The study analyzing numerous options for congestion pricing in San Francisco touched off such a political furor in San Mateo County, you’d have thought San Francisco was about to moat up and charge a fee for admission. Politicians and planners from Daly City and San Mateo spoke about the plan today as though they were jilted lovers getting a mandate from the beautiful city to their north without being allowed to get a word in edgewise.

“It hasn’t been a conversation with San Mateo County, it has been a monologue with San Mateo County,” said State Assemblymember Jerry Hill, who testified with numerous San Mateo officials at the board meeting of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), which conducted the study. Hill said he and others from San Mateo County were supportive of efforts to reduce congestion and deal with climate impacts, but not if it included charging drivers to cross the county line.

In case San Francisco didn’t move affirmatively to drop the Southern Gateway option from the study, said Hill, he was prepared to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for one county charge other counties “punitive measures” like pricing.

“I am a professional supporter of appropriate congestion pricing,” said Richard Napier, executive director of the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County (C/CAG). But Napier warned that congestion pricing worked in cities like London and Stockholm because the charging areas were dense and transit was good, much like the northeast portion of San Francisco. Of the southern gateway option, Napier said, “I don’t think it would meet the criteria” for significantly reducing traffic.

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Congestion Pricing on KALW’s Crosscurrents


San Francisco traffic planners will study congestion pricing further, following the vote of approval today by the Board of Supervisors in their capacity as directors of the SFCTA. The action puts the debate to bed for a couple more years, but expect the turmoil to begin anew when the SFCTA completes the required environmental review and the region debates the merits of pricing driving in congested areas. KALW asked me to be on Crosscurrents to discuss the issue further. You can listen here.


San Mateo: We’ll Retaliate to Congestion Pricing with Congestion Pricing

In today’s San Mateo County Times, Mike Rosenburg brings us the news that “fuming” officials in San Mateo County are considering retaliating against San Francisco for studying congestion pricing, though their solution might seem counter-intuitive:

Instigating what one Peninsula politician said would be a “border war,” some San Mateo County officials said they would try to implement a toll to enter the county from the north during rush hour if San Francisco enacts a similar entrance fee for its city. The threat by Peninsula leaders is an effort to persuade San Francisco leaders to shelve their plan.

Finally, San Mateo County officials are talking some sense, though they probably don’t realize it. Assemblymember Jerry Hill goes on to say: “You will see a battle of tolls — everyone will try to out-toll the next jurisdiction to beat the one that started it. No one wants to see that.”

Wrong, Mr. Hill. That’s actually my fantasy.

Considering the astronomical toll that driving takes on our region (see the video above), wouldn’t this be an ideal world? Make driving expensive and build up a world-class sustainable transportation system in the Bay Area through congestion tolls. That’s exactly what the Bay Area will need to do to meet its obligations under California’s climate change and smart growth laws. Reduce driving. Reduce congestion. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve transit and make tolls competitive. Brilliant.

San Francisco is onto something, and now, so is San Mateo County.


Congestion Pricing Fracas Shows Lamentable Ignorance of Facts

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.

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In Memoriam: Ted Kheel, Transit Advocate and Visionary

The New York Times called Ted Kheel, who died Friday at the age of 96, New York City’s pre-eminent labor peacemaker from the 1950s through the 1980s. And he was. Ted was also a steadfast advocate for civil rights, a fierce champion of mass transit, a stalwart defender of labor, an urbanist, a philanthropist, and a visionary. And, for the better part of a century, a vital element of progressive struggle in New York and beyond.


Kheel was an ally of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

Ted became famous in the 1950s and 1960s as the mediator who settled newspaper strikes, railroad strikes and other high-stakes disputes. He was a fixture in The Times — his square jaw and determined face signifying probity and civic virtue. But much of his finest work was done out of the spotlight. It was Ted’s heretical but constant agitation to allocate surplus toll revenues from Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority to the financially ailing public transit agencies, that in 1968 led NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to combine the TBTA with the Transit Authority and the commuter railroads into the MTA — and destroy Moses’s power to fund highways and starve transit.

Ted’s transit advocacy rested on what he called “the fundamental principle that car travel and mass transit are interrelated, like two sides of an equation. There should be a balance,” he wrote, “but instead, our system is enormously, unconscionably out of balance,” causing road gridlock on the one hand and inadequate transit service on the other. Ted fought for five decades to correct that imbalance, with stories in New York magazine like “How To Stop Cars from Devouring the City” [PDF]; with a self-financed lawsuit [PDF] to overturn bond covenants through which the Port Authority enjoined itself from expanding mass transit, that Ted pursued all the way to the Supreme Court (losing on a tie vote); and, in his final years, with an even more audacious venture that would draw me into his orbit and point the way to a new transit revolution with the potential to surpass that of 1968.

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San Francisco Congestion Pricing Plan to Be Shopped at Public Meetings

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.

While the full results of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority's (SFCTA) congestion pricing plan, the SF Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study (SFMAPS), have not yet been released, the agency will hold a series of public meetings starting next week to discuss the general principles of congestion pricing and how it could work in San Francisco. At the public meetings, the SFCTA will detail several possible scenarios to charge drivers for driving into San Francisco's downtown during peak periods, a prospect that should spark significant public and media debate.

In the best-case scenario, the SFCTA predicts raising $80 million 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.

While these numbers sound great, the agency still has to convince a lot of people about the benefits of congestion pricing, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was an early advocate for the concept, but who is not so sure now is a good time to try it.

"I've worked very hard to promote this construct, but I want to do it in a thoughtful and judicious way and I want to do it in a way that's not going to hurt the economic growth of this city at a time when we're trying to recruit companies and trying to recruit people," Newsom told Streetsblog. "We have a lot more work to do on that. We need a lot more outreach, a lot more consensus."

"I'm not ideologically opposed by any stretch," added Newsom, but "I'm not sure this is the right time to be having this debate."


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In Any Language, The Cost of Congestion Comes Through Loud and Clear

komanoff_graph.jpgAn analysis using the Balanced Transportation Analyzer shows how much time individual drivers steal from fellow drivers by choosing to drive into the New York City CBD.
It’s not often that you get to see your work set off a Eureka moment for someone else -- particularly when that someone is from a different culture. But I had that experience recently, and it seems worth sharing on Streetsblog in light of the interest shown today in my analysis of the travel delay costs from FreshDirect deliveries.

I presented a paper last week at an international forum on traffic congestion in Guangzhou, China. People in that city are beginning to look at congestion pricing, and I was asked to discuss why the Bloomberg toll plan failed politically.

As part of my talk, I described the “social delay costs” from an additional car trip into the center of Manhattan -- literally, the total time that all road users combined spend in traffic because any one of them decided to drive. Afterwards, one of the organizers, a professor of transportation engineering, asked me to present a technical version of my paper to his students at South China University of Technology.

The next day, when I came to the part about social-delay costs, the professor peppered me with questions about my methodology. As I went through the steps -- basically, every trip takes up an incremental amount of limited street space, which lowers speeds, which adds to everyone's travel times -- the professor grew more intrigued. It wasn’t that the idea itself was new, but that if traffic speeds and other baseline data were known, then the delay-impact of one trip could be quantified. And, moreover, that the impact varied enormously depending on the time of day: when there is ample spare road capacity, say, in the middle of the night, an extra trip has little discernible impact, whereas one trip during congested peak times adds several hours to the aggregate time that all other vehicles must spend on the road.

I daresay that for the professor, my elucidation of one trip’s delay costs helped move congestion pricing from the realm of abstraction to something tangible and, perhaps, essential. If a peak trip to the center of New York or some other city can impose one or two hundred minutes worth of delays on others -- and if no driver is ever called on to take that impact into consideration -- then of course the city will be awash in gridlock. No city, not even Guangzhou, despite an emerging 21st century transit infrastructure of Bus Rapid Transit and new subway lines, will be able to forestall the tide of free driving.