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.

Few would disagree that San Francisco needs to move faster on making transit and bicycling more convenient commute options, but the health and safety benefits of reducing unnecessary driving are just as undeniable. A modest $3 fee would cause people to reconsider whether they really need to drive into the densest part of the Bay Area during the most congested hours. The result would be safer streets, less pollution, and a more reliable commute for those who need to drive the most.

We can expect many of the same arguments to resurface against congestion pricing, like the assertion that it would disproportionately tax the poor. The data, however, doesn’t back that up. The SFCTA’s study [PDF] found that 95 percent of drivers to, from, and within the downtown area during the morning rush are from households making more than $50,000 annually. And 70 percent of rush-hour driving in downtown SF is done by San Franciscans, not far-flung commuters who lack viable transit options.

Currently, a safer future for San Francisco streets depends heavily on the three ballot measures that the mayor and the SFMTA are counting on for transportation funding — and they’d only provide part of what the city needs. That kind of gamble is hardly the sure thing SF needs to secure a more effective surface transportation network.

Congestion pricing would provide San Franciscans a safer bet.

  • Mario Tanev

    I didn’t know that congestion pricing was shelved. I thought an EIR is in the works and is supposed to be done in 2015.


  • Where do you see that info?

  • Mario Tanev

    Maybe I am wrong on the EIR. But the outcome of the BoS hearing was shelving of the San Mateo border option, but authorization for the SFCTA to seek federal funding for a pilot.


    If it were completely buried behind the scenes, then under whose authorization?

  • jamiewhitaker

    This is a public health issue just like cigarette smoking when you consider the World Health Organization classifies vehicle emissions a deadly carcinogen that shortens lives .. And much more serious than sugar sodas because we have no choice but to breathe when walking, playing, or bicycling outdoors. Mayor Lee wants to increase vehicle congestion in the Rincon Hill and South Beach neighborhoods by building the Warriors an arena in the worst possible location in regards to community health impacts – already an area of the City recognized by San Francisco Health Code Article 38 as having awful air quality and also recognized by the Legislative Budget Analyst on 6/5/2013’s equity hearing at BOS Budget Committee as having the highest rates of pediatric asthma hospitalization rates in the City because of the air pollution from the 280,000 cars crossing the Bay Bridge daily and other high volume traffic on The Embarcadero and SoMa traffic sewer streets.

    By claiming it is too inconvenient to charge drivers $3 to block up our streets in SoMa while knowingly promoting an arena and other projects that will increase traffic congestion and the carcinogenic air pollution, our City government leaders seem just fine with killing SoMa residents by increasing the poisons in the air we breathe and causing our kids to have more asthma Hospitalizations in the name of making billionaires happy.

    Our Mayor and many BOS members seem determined to get an arena built despite DPH, Dept. Of Environment, and SFCTA reporting increasing traffic congestion and/or air pollution will kill people in downtown San Francisco. I’m stunned that the Examiner article didn’t even mention the public health – air pollution angle. Meanwhile, we see TV news about Russians whipping some female punk band members with horsewhips … But the Mayor of San Francisco doesn’t get any coverage for promoting land use plans that will shorten residents lives from the increased traffic and air pollution.

    Here’s the even bigger irony … South of Market will be paying 20% of the $500 million SFMTA General Obligation Bond, if voters approve it .. that’s $100 million. Meanwhile, the TEP and other SFMTA “plans” have no god damn bus running east of 2nd Street to help encourage Rincon Hill or South Beach residents to take public transit instead of jumping into their cars .. instead, I guess we have to fund the 38 Geary, the 2 Clement, and the 1 California buses providing transit to every damn east-west block between Argulleo and Presidio over in the Richmond where the air quality is much, much better than in SoMa (check the Air Quality map here: http://www.sustainablecommunitiesindex.org/city_indicators/view/14 )

    Mad world … San Francisco City Government promoting killing its own residents by increasing traffic congestion and air pollution. Unbelievable.

  • coolbabybookworm

    It’s too bad Wiener is opposed to congestion pricing, but also not surprising. It’s ridiculous that the Mayor acts like his planned ballot measures, which may not even pass, are going to be a silver bullet to fix all the transit, safety, and circulation problems we have on our city’s streets. At the same time he undermines improving our streets by advocating for removing Sunday metering, not exploring congestion prices, remaining luke warm on Vision Zero, etc.

  • Jame

    I am mixed on the congestion pricing. I rarely drive to SF, and certainly not during the commute, so I wouldn’t have to pay. But considering how abysmal transit is from some parts of SF to downtown, it feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Does everyone have sufficient alternatives to get downtown?

    Which is faster, street design or congestion pricing. Can we fast track some of those bulbouts and slow downy traffic in SOMA? Can we stripe the bike lane on Folsom. Can we get bike share into the Western Neighborhoods? What else can we do to make sure alternatives exist?

  • coolbabybookworm

    SF has one of the richest coverages of transit in the US outside of manhattan so it’s not like people are unable to get downtown with any other means than driving. Maybe catching the bus or LRV downtown from the western or southern neighborhoods is slower than we’d like, but it’s not nonexistent (also, lots of express buses for commuting times).

    This isn’t an either or issue, if the city takes in an extra 60 million or more that can be directly invested in all of the improvements you mentioned then it’s cart and horse. Furthermore transit is more efficient if there are fewer cars on the road competing with transit for space and as the article demonstrates, it’s also safer for biking and walking. Lastly, the buffered bike lane on Folsom has been striped and the green paint put down. I would say it works better than 8th street.

  • Jame

    When I worked at the edge of Chinatown/Fidi, surprisingly many of my SF coworkers drove. And then the day came when I had to go to their homes in Potrero and Cole Valley via Muni, I totally understood why. It took like 40 minutes and a couple of transfers. The drive was like 15 minutes.

    As it stood, to get to that office I took BART or the Transbay bus and walked 1 mile to work (each way). It was even worse when the temporary terminal opened up and there was no easy connection (well-timed) to the 10 or the 12 from the BART or Temporary Terminal. Usually by the time I was within 2 blocks of my office I saw the bus. Lucky for me I never had much stuff to carry so it wasn’t a huge deal to walk that 1 mile each am and pm to the office, but I was appalled at the idea it was actually faster for me to cross the bridge (via transit) and walk than it was for most of my coworkers who lived in SF to get to work. That’s crappy transit in my book. Sure downtown has a lot of buses, but it takes far too long to even traverse 2-3 miles in SF via transit due to routing and coverage gaps.

  • coolbabybookworm

    How does one have to transfer from Cole Valley to downtown and not just take the N? I currently work at the edge of Chinatown/Fidi/North Beach and the only person who regularly drives to the office lives off the N in the Sunset, but they’re admittedly too lazy to even think of alternatives to driving. Everyone who takes BART or Muni walks the half mile or so from Market rather than transfer and many workers don’t have a car so there’s no option to drive. Also of note, there is a huge class element to who drives to downtown compared to who takes transit.

    My point though is that even if the transit is slower or less comfortable than we’d like, it’s still accessible and an option even if wealthy or middle class people feel above it or that it’s not worth it to them personally. I’m not sure what routing or coverage gaps you’re referring too when SF has the best coverage outside of NYC. By charging congestion pricing, the people who really need to drive are better able to do so and alternatives can be improved with those funds. A big part of the reason that transit in SF is slow is because MUNI is constantly competing for space with cars. With fewer cars on the road (and hopefully more transit vehicles with the new funds) real improvements are possible. What if the 60 million was used to help expand the express commuter buses and transit only lanes, for example? Or expanding bike share into new neighborhoods? Or improving the biking and walking network to relieve overcrowding on highly used transit corridors? When do we have sufficient alternatives?

    Nothing is going to be an immediate solution, but the status quo isn’t working and the current plans for improvements for MUNI and our streets falls far short of what we need to be a transit first city. I think anything we can do to improve alternatives to driving and reduce driving, especially during peak times, will make our city better, healthier, and more efficient.

  • jonobate

    It’s not been shelved, but is moving forward very slowly. The SFCTA’s Transportation Plan notes that congestion pricing is already approved for Treasure Island and is recommended for the Northeast Cordon.

  • murphstahoe


  • Mario Tanev

    Congestion-pricing solves other problems too.

    There is so much brouhaha about transportation impacts. About new developments not paying for their impacts. If street congestion (moving or parking) are priced, then the impacts are payed for automatically. Sure, the cost for existing residents who choose to drive will also increase, because there is no place to put new roads and they’ll be competing with the newcomers. The political impetus would be then towards building more efficient transit that can carry a lot of people more cheaply – which can then be paid for by congestion pricing. Density and congestion pricing hand in hand, can create a city where a car is truly almost never a good option.

    So, congestion pricing introduces a virtuous cycle and addresses a lot of our problems that stem from us giving our street space for free.

  • Caley Heekin

    Congestion pricing could also save lives by reducing response times for emergency vehicles that would otherwise be slowed by rush hour traffic. If this policy ever starts to get some real political traction, I’ll expect the SFFD to rally behind it for that reason, with the same amount of effort they put towards rallying against pedestrian-friendly improvements.

  • voltairesmistress

    Jame and Coolbaby, Your exchange reveals a divide in perceptions of MUNI as adequate or not. Muni is too slow and crowded to compete with any other mode for those with wallets or strong legs, but its extensive routes reach everywhere. People who can, avoid Muni most of the time. They vote with their feet, and that is pretty damning.

    We can equate patient muni passengers with saints or excoriate muni avoiders as privileged time snobs, but neither addresses the reality that we are not ready for congestion pricing. Why? Because we have no relevant transit alternative to cars (private, shared, or taxi) as far as convenience and time. London long ago and Stockholm recently built extensive subway systems. When they both introduced congestion pricing, everyone had real alternatives and started using them. Until we produce a similar, rapid transit system above or below ground, congestion pricing will remain all stick and no carrot and extremely unpopular.

  • coolbabybookworm

    So the sufficient alternative to driving as a mode of transportation for you would be an extensive subway system? The problem I have with that is that it’s not in the pipeline for the next several decades, if ever. It’s like saying we shouldn’t charge for parking unless it’s near a muni rail line or BART station since buses are slow (because they’re stuck in traffic).

    Congestion pricing, limited to certain times and in a particular space is not a huge deal. It’s like saying no one drives on the bridge because of the toll. It’s simply not true, nor does the toll stop people from driving.

    As Mario pointed out, congestion pricing has the potential to be a virtuous cycle. A small shift of a few percent a year of total commute trips (or all trips) away from cars and into other modes, while the money collected is being used to improve bike infrastructure and/or transit infrastructure and/or the TEP seems like a win-win situation for everyone except those who think the costs of driving should be paid by everyone but the drivers. For me, it’s a way of capturing money to offset at least some of the many negative externalities of driving and hopefully work towards improving alternatives.

  • jonobate

    I’m in favor of congestion pricing, but Weiner does have a good point that there is a lot we could be doing to help fix this issue short of congestion pricing – for example, create and enforce transit only lanes, market based pricing for all parking, enforce parking laws and the vehicle code, protected bike lanes, better pedestrian crossings etc.

  • voltairesmistress

    Coolbaby, I said rapid transit above or below ground, not necessarily a subway. As others have pointed out before, that could include a very efficient system of buses in dedicated, physically separated lanes with signal timing and many fewer stops. What is lacking in SF is not the means, but the political will. Geary BRT disgrace, anyone? In that sense, congestion pricing would be a leap for mayor Lee et al. Truly the cart before the horse, if we think of the rapid transit as described as the horse and congestion pricing following.

  • Jame

    Oh I totally agree, but Bay Area Bike Share seems to think the western neighborhoods (in SF) are useless. And don’t get me started on excluding Oakland, even though biking has doubled over the past couple years and there are some ridiculously obvious areas to try it out like Jack London Square, Uptown and Grand Lake, which are very close together, have bike lanes (and quiet parallel streets) and have limited bus/bart coverage.

  • Jame

    I could be wrong about the neighborhood, but it took me a couple of Munis to get to her place. Which I guess could be the edge of Cole Valley. And we were basically at North Beach, not all that close to Market Street either. So just getting downtown didn’t really help, if you didn’t want to or have the time to walk 1 mile from Market to our office. It took 45 minutes the times I took Muni the whole way there.

  • Jame

    I think Muni sucks. Technically it has great coverage, reality is it is super slow, and some areas are not very easily (or quickly) accessible from downtown. If you live in an outer or inner neighborhood not served by the N and you have the option to drive you probably will. Especially considering that the N is ridiculously packed during the commute window. You can nudge people to take transit, but it can’t take 3X longer than your drive if you expect more people to convert.

  • voltairesmistress

    These are muni realities. I frankly don’t understand how many muni riders rationalize this time suck on their lives. Maybe if you ride muni long enough and without getting to travel in other cities’ systems, you think it’s okay. Newcomers from New York, London, Munich, Singapore, etc. have all told me they find the muni system too slow to bother with. I use it only for straight shots on major lines for 2-3 miles max no transfers. Nearly each time I do, I marvel at riders’ endurance and patience. Saints or victims, I don’t know which.

  • murphstahoe

    That’s just a question of money. For the cost of Geary BRT, we could have massive coverage of pretty much everywhere. Heck – just for the cost of *studying* the BRT.

  • coolbabybookworm

    That’s a perspective issue. Many people don’t have other options, don’t want to pay for parking, enjoy reading or talking on transit, stress of driving, etc. I usually bike for most trips because it is much faster and more convenient, but otherwise I take transit or walk. I don’t have the option to drive. I frankly don’t understand why someone would spend thousand of dollars to drive when there are so many alternatives.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I definitely agree that it’s a matter of expertise and political will to improve transit, and I’m not actually expecting congestion pricing to happen soon and especially not with this mayor, but I do think from an intellectual or theoretical level congestion pricing is good policy.

    If I’m a driver going to downtown SF during commute times I can choose to pay the fee, drive outside of congestion pricing times, drive to a park n ride, take transit, carpool, bike, etc. It’s the same as someone driving from Marin today. They can pay the GGB toll and come to the city or they have alternatives that may be less convenient (although biking would be tough but not impossible).

    This is not a cart before horse argument because congestion pricing is a charge to use a limited resource with negative externalities. This is not banning driving or forcing people to use MUNI. I support congestion pricing for the same reason I support a carbon tax and/or increased gas tax, even for people who don’t have alternatives to driving like we do in SF.

  • coolbabybookworm

    But how could we ever get money to fund this!?!?! What possible revenue source could we establish?

  • voltairesmistress

    Well, that’s a very good argument for congestion pricing — which by the way I support, but haven’t been able to convince any panicky/defiant friends or family to its wisdom. They see all the costs to them of congestion pricing, but none of the benefits. For now, in a political sense, maybe we could use congestion pricing more as an “extreme” scenario in order to get speed-ups on more palatable concessions like street redesign and TEP and BRT.

  • voltairesmistress

    Because, unfortunately, once one owns a vehicle, it is frequently much cheaper (and much faster) to drive than to use the available alternatives, even if you don’t put a price on your own time. I priced this all out recently in considering moving hypothetically from parking an existing car on the street to using city car share, taxis, transit, etc. Carshare was really not a good bargain, unless you are avoiding investing in a car in the first place. Each person’s habits and needs would be different, of course, but I was surprised that I could not get the alternatives to car ownership to be more economical. Unless and until all externalities are put back onto the vehicle owner annually and each time he/she drives, the price of driving is too competitive with everything else.

  • Mario Tanev

    Actually means and political will are related. Because of lack of funding, Geary BRT has been watered down and even still there is no money coming to get it done by 2020. No legislator has the political will to bat to fund it.

    Money doesn’t solve all problems, but most problems cannot be solved without it. And there isn’t any on the table.

  • thomas-sf

    They always like to point out how this helped Stockholm and London….First off, these cities have an EXTENSIVE underground and transit system that radiates from the core like a wagon wheel that people not wanting to pay can use.

    Also both cities increased routes, busses and other services six months prior to implementation. London added 300 more busses, 15 routes were adjusted/extended and seven new routes were introduced and there were projects in the pipeline to further help riders.

    SF just wants the money, there were no plans to offer new service to provide a reason other than what SF knows how to do best, charge more for everything. They simply want to invest in all the technology of counting /charging the cars with NO additional new service to give people alternatives.


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