Is Bay Area Ready for Congestion Pricing?

New York's lead may be catalyst that gives San Francisco political push it needs

A westward look at the traffic queue on Harrison from Main Street. Photo: Streetsblog
A westward look at the traffic queue on Harrison from Main Street. Photo: Streetsblog

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After years of failed efforts, New York City finally got the legal clearances to move ahead with congestion pricing. So where does that leave San Francisco?

“Its time is near,” said TransForm’s Edie Irons. Just as in New York, San Francisco’s traffic has grown increasingly intolerable in the past few years, she explained, and “in New York people actually came together around this solution.”

The idea, of course, is to charge motorists for entering the most congested parts of the city during periods of highest traffic. The funds raised from that charge would go to transit improvements, so more people would have an alternative to driving. Congestion pricing has proved its worth in cities overseas, such as London and Stockholm, where traffic flow improved significantly. However, New York will be the first city to try it in North America.

San Francisco has toyed with the idea for some time. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (CTA) recently approved funding for additional studies on how to apply it locally. And last year, legislation was authored by Senator Scott Wiener and Santa Monica Assemblyman Richard Bloom that would have given San Francisco the state clearances it needs. It died in committee, but last week Wiener told San Francisco’s CBS affiliate that he could potentially bring it back next year if the city is ready to try a pilot project. “We already have a form of congestion pricing,” he said. “If you cross the Bay Bridge during rush hour, it’s higher toll. That’s congestion pricing.”

Peak period traffic congestion. Image: CTA
Peak period traffic congestion. Image: CTA

Last November, SPUR’s Sarah Jo Szambelan defined principles for implementing congestion pricing successfully. Congestion pricing, according to the report, is part of as set of strategies to “discourage driving by asking drivers to pay a share of the costs it imposes on others.” It’s similar to a gas tax, except that it targets a specific areas to help mitigate traffic delays and pollution from idling cars where it’s at its worst.

TransForm’s report on congestion pricing stresses that, if done right, it can also advance equity. “There have to be protections in place and it has to be thoughtfully structured to spend the revenue on affordability and access, especially for the most vulnerable people,” said Irons, adding that any plan has to “protect the most vulnerable people from undue harm because there are costs.”

How much those costs will be, and exactly how discounts would be structured, is still being determined. But an idea of what it could look like can be seen in a November 2018 presentation from the CTA. It recommends, among other things, a $3 charge to drive into the congestion zone during peak times, with a $6 cap so that businesses making deliveries don’t have to pay over and over again. It would also have discounts for zone residents and disabled drivers.

According to one CTA recommendation, motorists would pay $3 to enter the area marked in blue. Image: CTA
According to one CTA option, seen above, motorists would pay $3 to enter the area marked in blue. Image: CTA

Irons told Streetsblog it’s essential that the proceeds from the program go to building out and improving the transit system, so it does what it’s supposed to do–give people a viable alternative to driving. “It has incredible potential to actually advance equity and make transit much better and more affordable and that’s what they’re going to do in New York.” She added that without congestion pricing, it’s inevitable that transit fares will go up to fund transit improvements (or service frequencies will go down), which just pushes people to drive more.

“New York has been much bolder than San Francisco in reclaiming road space to improving walking, cycling, and public transit,” wrote Livable City’s Tom Radulovich, in an email to Streetsblog. “The congestion charge will complement that.”

According to an official at the CTA, outreach for a pilot could begin as early as this summer. Assuming legislative approval for the pilot in Sacramento, it would be until at least 2021 before San Francisco could join Singapore, London, Stockholm, Singapore, Milan, Gothenburg, and New York  in charging a fee to drive in the most congested parts of the city.

Where do you stand on congestion pricing? Do you think it can clear up traffic and make San Francisco’s streets safer and less polluted?

Post your thoughts below.

  • ZA_SF

    So what’s the status of the TNC tax from 2018? Has it been implemented, and what effect has it had on TNC-linked road congestion? That should be a realworld test of the congestion pricing concept for SF.

  • p_chazz

    I think that we should let other cities go first, and learn from their mistakes.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Like Singapore, London, and Stockholm, which have all been doing it for nearly a decade?

  • Kenny Easwaran

    TNC traffic will be hard to get a good comparison for. The apps have still been gaining popularity, so even if the tax makes each individual use it less often, total rides will likely be increasing as more people get used to doing things on smartphones.

  • p_chazz

    Singapore, London and Stockholm are not apt comparisons precisely because they did it so long ago. I want to see another American city (or two) implement congestion pricing first so we can study and learn from their experience with the implementation process.

  • Nicholas L

    Could Austin join you? Oh nevermind, I forget we’re stuck in Texas.

  • Jason

    TIL 10-15 years ago is ancient history.

  • DG

    We do live in America, “the Land of the Free”, and the the Automobile is “King”, and we live in a so-called Democracy where we have politicians from the City, County, State and Federal levels of Government and we are the constituents and what we simply want and need is to walk and cycle the streets without fear of death or mayhem, but who do you think our politicians are listening to us or businesses who pressure our elected officials with reprisals. It reminds me when Enrique Penalosa was the Mayor of Bogota, Columbia, he was at a crisis in 1999, his city was in gridlock, (he studied Economics in US), the World Bank wanted to give money, to build out automobile infrastructure and the freeway system, he went the other way, because he wanted to make Bogota a healthy city, he created a new transport system called Transport Mto create a healthy place for citizens to recreate (he recruited University students) to run Ciclovias each Sunday and Holidays, he was able to connect his whole city of Bogota to the worlds longest bicycle boulevard sit a mandate to create car free days in his capital city of Bogota,

  • Bill_SF

    The city has added numerous, low-utilization bike lanes to the city in the past few years that are directly contributing to the increased congestion. In regards to bike safety, perhaps we can start by forcing bike riders to follow traffic laws? For example, not running stop signs and traffic lights at will? Admittedly the city needs to enforce these for cars more as well. I’ve seen red lights ran in front of cops by both cars and bikes with no response.

    The city planners, if such exist, do not seem to have any cohesive plan of action. Bike lanes are added to high traffic, well-timed roads (last few blocks of Golden Gate ave before Market as of 2 or 3 years ago for example). Could the lane (and other such bike lanes) not have been added to a parallel street with less existing car traffic and made it more of a dedicated “safe zone” for bikers?

    Did we not just pass a multi hundred million dollars (or higher?) property tax measure for BART upgrades with little to nothing to show for it?

    Thr article talks about reducing pollution from idling cars…I drive an electric car (quiet and fume free) .. Do EV drivers get a fee waiver? If the city actually gives a damn about clean air / air pollution why are Whole Foods and a few Walgreens the main parties responsible for towing the line with respect to hosting public charging stations in SF and the Bay area in general?

    Lastly, the city has and is adding many new units of high density housing. Maybe the city should incentivise the building owners / developers to reduce the traffic footprint of their residents.. Maybe many spots allocated for car sharing companies so that residents can use public transit / bikes most of the time, but have easy access to a short term rental car when needed? Otherwise adding 1000’s of high density units and associated cars just magnifies the traffic issues

  • Kevin Withers

    NYC will have congestion pricing for one reason: the subways are in desperate need of funding. If not for that, nyc would not now be in that position.

    Bay Area has the gestapo of MTC, and its constant taxation activities. So we won’t.

  • p_chazz

    TIL 10-15 years ago is recent.

  • crazyvag

    Works great in London. Extra money was spent on transit, so not only do buses run frequently, they don’t get stuck in traffic either. The tube lines are getting new cars and many lines are running up to 36 trains per hour. 50% more than BART’s ~22 trains per hour. Why wait for the 2nd tube when we have so much capacity remaining.

  • crazyvag

    They are not causing congestion. They provide options for those who choose not to sit in a car. Frankly, every street needs to have a protected bike lane. Today, there’s nothing between Townsend and Howard for traveling west. Instead we have Harrison with it’s ridiculous 5 lanes + 2 parking lanes. Such a waste.

  • crazyvag

    Sounds like we need a BART/Caltrain/Muni meltdown to get congestion pricing. 🙂

  • keenplanner

    We need congestion pricing. I guess the money will go to SFMTA, and with all that cash, the MUNI underground will still be a mess.
    The time is ripe for some car-free zones are as well. SF needs to stop letting suburban drivers take over the city.

  • LazyReader

    Only the bill doesn’t really call for congestion pricing; it calls for cordon charges, that is, a fee for crossing a particular line in the city or urban area. Cordon charges don’t really relieve congestion; instead, their real goal is to raise money that cities can then waste on useless urban monuments. the Dulles Toll Road, which was built by the state of Virginia in 1984 and worked well for many years. Then the state gave it to the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which more than quadrupled tolls so it could use the
    surplus to subsidize the Silver Line boondoggle while the rest of Metrorail crumbles……

    I wouldn’t care if they use the funds from congestion pricing to clean up the streets and sidewalks of the city festered with needles and human feces, but that’s not the case, San Fran want’s congestion tolling to repair BART. But BART will never be repaired because their aims are to expand it’s service which costs more than maintenance. So Muni’s goal is adding more to it’s plate whils’t it spends more money.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    What would happen if every city said that?

  • p_chazz

    Well, I guess we’ll never find out since New York is apparently going forward with congestion pricing.

  • p_chazz

    SFMTA will use the money to hire more keyboard-tapping bureaucrats.

  • p_chazz

    That’s no guarantee that it will work here. My expectation is that a significant portion of the funds will be absorbed by “administration” and very little, if any will be spent on transit.

  • ZA_SF

    “Low utilization” is a funny concept. I mean, most of the residential streets in the Sunset are barely used 12 hours out of the day, yet they are intrinsic to the overall network that support the heavily used routes. The principle is the same for bicycle lanes.

    For my commute, I emulate part of the 12-Folsom bus route on my bike, and since the implementation of bike lanes, numbers of people choosing bikes have increased, all the way from the Mission into SOMA. Those numbers more than equal the full capacity of a bus on that route in the same time increment/headway of that bus.

  • Bill_SF

    Golden Gate Ave used to have two lanes crossing Market where GG becomes 6th st and 3 lanes available for the 4 blocks or so prior to market. Traffic flowed fairly smoothly down Golden Gate including the high amount of traffic turning onto GG from Jones. About 2 years ago, a bike lane was added.

    It is now not unusual for traffic to be backed up for all 3 or 4 blocks of the bike lane. While there are dozens / hundreds of cars trying to travel down GG, there are upwards of 3 or 4 (sometimes even as much as 6 or 7) bikes that travel down the bike lane.

    Do not tell me bikes do not cause traffic congestion, they clearly do. Any other claim is completely disingenuous. A bike rider is almost always accompanied by a traffic “bubble” of slowness. Golden Gate is also still 3 timed lanes starting all the way up the hill at around Baker. There are many times I have seen bikes in both the right and left lanes…you have 2 bikes with a trail of cars behind or between them….I’m sure those bikers are patting themselves on the back for how “green” they are while they are simultaneously causing much more idling / waiting for the dozens of cars they are slowing down behind them. So…each biker is taking 1 car off the road, but causing much more than 2 cars worth of traffic delays.

    Frankly, every street does not need protected bike lanes. This is not the suburbs. There is not room / capacity in the city to reduce road capacity by 1/2 or 1/3 on major roads. There should be connected corridors of bike lanes that enable (very) safe travel for the bulk of the bike route + the occasional “bridge” road for changing corridors. This is merely asking bikes to follow a similar flow as cars: bulk of distance on well-timed roads (safe bike lane roads / paths for bikes) and then deal with traveling slowly on lower capacity streets….Or identifying the best / safest low-traffic route for completing the daily commute.

    You take biker riders, double-parked delivery trucks, construction vehicles, Uber/Lyft drivers randomly pulling over to pickup/dropoff a fare, crazy people randomly meandering across the street and there is no surprise there are traffic issues. Blaming car commuters for traffic problems is hardly fair.

    You ask…well demand, preferential treatment for a group that represents less than 1% – 2% of the daily traffic flow. The city is going to be super bike friendly to the 100’s of people that ride bikes to work and lose $100’s of millions of revenue for the tens or hundreds of thousands of drivers that you drive out.

    Bike riders will still be running stop signs and red lights at will, so there will still be traffic fatalities for bike riders and everyone is still going to cry about the cars. Accidents are almost always caused by TWO parties not paying attention. If bike riders feel entitled to ignore traffic laws, it will always be the case that a moment of inattention / distraction by a driver could kill a bike rider violating the expected flow of traffic.

  • Traveler2468

    Well, this measure’s “progressive” supporters are probably thinking: “Good. This will get rid of the riff-raff driving into town. And make it easier for us, the privileged and the rich.”

    This is a huge give away to zone residents, giving them an additional perk on top of being lucky enough to live in those zones — especially those who bought long ago, or those who have rent control.
    San Francisco is a regional hub.
    In addition, it will increase the cost of living for all the bay area commuters who already find mass transit inconvenient.

  • Dave

    I have family in SF and have been visiting there since 1970. At that time, the city had been out of room for more cars for at least twenty years. What is wrong with this cheap, halfwitted, hick country of ours that we spend so little money and energy on mass transit? What is wrong with us?

  • SF Guest

    If you lived here you would know voters passed Regional Measure 3 which is a $4.45 billion traffic relief and transit improvement program funded by increased bridge tolls.

    In 2014, voters approved Proposition A which authorized the city to borrow $500 million through issuing general obligation bonds in order to meet some of the transportation infrastructure needs of the city. A city Transportation Task Force identified $10 billion in spending on “crucial infrastructure projects” earlier in 2014.

    San Francisco is “rich” in having a history of voter-approved tax ballot measures.

    The long-awaited over-funded Sales Force Transit Center remains closed for structural beam defects longer than it has stayed open.

  • SF Guest

    I think you’re forgetting the fact whether or not a congestion fee works here is not the point of special interest groups — their goal is to discourage driving by driving their costs up, remove traffic lanes and parking, ban roads to cars, etc.

  • David

    To answer the question asked in the headline: no. San Francisco is not ready. Its public transit system is very poor in comparison to NYC and any city in the world that has implemented this policy. Get back to us after Central Subway, Salesforce Transit Center, Caltrain DTX, and BART second tube construction are complete.

  • Putting the opening question aside, I took some issue with SPUR in their analogy to another form of transportation pricing:
    “Last November, SPUR’s Sarah Jo Szambelan defined principles for implementing congestion pricing successfully. Congestion pricing, according to the report, is part of as set of strategies to “discourage driving by asking drivers to pay a share of the costs it imposes on others.” It’s similar to a gas tax, except that it targets a specific areas to help mitigate traffic delays and pollution from idling cars where it’s at its worst.”

    Congestion pricing is not analogous to a gas tax, but it is analogous to charging for curbside parking. With cordon pricing, motorists would be charged to enter a particular area, e.g., Manhattan below 60th St., much like motorists need to feed meters or pay stations when they park on the street. The concept is much the same: the road is public space but is largely unpriced. The major exception is when cities or districts charge for street parking, which is still the exception to the rule in most of the Bay Area.

    I recommend reading, “The Streets Were Never Free. Congestion Pricing Finally Makes That Plain,” by Emily Badger, who writes about cities and urban policy for The Upshot in The New York Times today.


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