The imminent arrival of congestion pricing has one of North America’s highest-traffic cities gearing itself for a “revolution” in transportation, with one expert calling it the most important experiment the U.S. highway system has seen in decades.
That experiment in New York City is ready to launch in 2024 after two decades of false starts, writes Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, in a post for Bloomberg CityLab. Drivers entering central Manhattan will pay a “significant fee” of US$9 to $23 during peak hours, less when the roads are quieter. It’s an approach that should “help alleviate traffic on some of the country’s busiest roads, provide much-needed revenue and passengers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s train and bus lines, and clean the air for everyone’s benefit,” Tomer writes.
Through a U.S. lens, the New York experiment has national (and, by extension, North American) implications, he adds. “Even though cities around the world have successfully launched congestion pricing programs for half a century, U.S. elected officials have exhibited far less courage, frequently stopping at small pilots or resident surveys,” he says. But “if it sees the same positive results as its global peers, then I expect other city leaders will quickly look to replicate New York’s success.”
Tomer traces the roots of traffic congestion to the longer commutes brought on by suburbanization. While the “obvious response” over the years and decades has been to increase capacity, “we now have more than enough data to know building more roads doesn’t work. We simply can’t build enough capacity to handle the insatiable driving demand that suburbanization creates. That’s especially true for the roads running into our urban cores, which concentrate the most jobs, retail, entertainment, and other assets in the smallest areas.”
Congestion pricing encourages drivers to adjust their commuting patterns by making roads more expensive to use when traffic is high. In that sense, it’s just like paying a ride-hailing company more at rush hour, or grumbling about sky-high air fares during a holiday season. Tomer cites examples dating back to 1975 of cities where congestion pricing worked: In every case, “fewer people drove into the city centres, congestion fell, air pollution-related health outcomes improved, and the cities raised money to invest in alternatives.”
To maintain public support, congestion pricing systems face equity concerns, particularly in communities that (unlike New York) lack well-developed transit systems. They must also find a price point that is high enough to reduce congestion, but still reasonable enough to “to not spook downtown and central city demand.” Like any other new fee, they’re also bound to face political pushback—as New York’s certainly did.
But enough cities around the world have had experience with congestion pricing that researchers know how to overcome those challenges, Tomer says. And that experience could spell relief for U.S. cities that “have struggled with central city congestion, clogging our most valuable neighborhoods with vehicles, smog, and general frustration.”