Seattle Could Be the First U.S. City to Institute Congestion Pricing

Photo:  Dongho Chang
Photo: Dongho Chang

Once cities give congestion pricing a shot, they never look back.

By putting a price on driving during peak hours on the most congested streets, cities including Singapore, London, and Stockholm have cut traffic, reduced air pollution, funded critical transit improvements, and made streets safer for walking and biking.

In Stockholm, traffic fell 20 percent after congestion pricing was implemented in 2006. A recent study attributed a 50 percent drop in childhood asthma cases to the policy, the Washington Post reports, and researchers project the public health benefit would be larger in the U.S., given our air pollution baseline.

In London, congestion pricing has accelerated dramatic shifts from car travel to transit and cycling. Since the city’s fee went live in 2003, the number of vehicles entering the center city has dropped 44 percent, while the number of people entering increased 23 percent.

But the politics of congestion pricing are tricky — the new tolls stir opposition, while the benefits aren’t immediately apparent until the policy is in effect — and only a handful of cities have enacted it. So far, none of them are in the United States.

Most recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo got cold feet and put no weight behind a congestion pricing proposal for New York City crafted by a panel of his appointees. Cuomo and the state legislature ignored most of the panel’s recommendations in their new budget deal.

It’s possible that Seattle might beat New York to the punch. Mayor Jenny Durkan is seriously considering a bid to set up a congestion pricing system, reports David Gutman at the Seattle Times. Durkan said she’d like to have it in place by 2021 — the end of her first term:

Obviously, we’ve got to work with stakeholders, we have to get through a lot of those things, but I think it makes a lot of sense for us to move to congestion pricing to, one, increase mobility and safety downtown and, two, to really restrict some of those greenhouse gases that are released in the urban corridor.

The details of a plan have yet to be worked out, Durkan said, but she wants to implement a real congestion fee on downtown streets — not just HOT lanes on highways. The revenues, she said, would go toward transit improvements and electric vehicle infrastructure.

Unlike in New York, Seattle could institute congestion pricing without needing to go through the state legislature, Gutman reports. But it would likely require a local referendum.

While Seattle has made significant progress shifting travel from cars to transit, a 2015 poll of voters in the Puget Sound region found that 56 percent opposed congestion pricing, Gutman reports.

That’s in line with pre-congestion pricing public opinion in Stockholm, the only city where congestion pricing has passed in a referendum. At first, most people opposed congestion pricing there too. The key was to institute the system on a trial basis before the vote, so people could experience the benefits first. After the trial, the referendum passed with 52 percent of the vote, and approval shot up to 70 percent within a few years. In cities that have held congestion pricing referendums without a trial period, meanwhile, the votes have gone against it.

  • Joe Sullivan

    Should be implemented in the US anywhere there’s traffic congestion on a daily basis, highways and downtown streets.

  • Arelsan

    As a lifelong resident of NYC, I’m just itching to get out in the next few years. Dealing with increasing congestion, train delays and just overall hostile behavior to anyone who isn’t protected by thousands of pounds of steel is draining. Seeing places like Seattle makes me realize more and more that NYC is simply decades behind in all of what it does.

  • Ray

    I say that 56% is great news. I can’t wait for it to occur in Los Angeles, starting with the smaller cities that can offer a free pass to local residents. They’ll get 99% support.

  • Henry

    It wouldn’t work. Seattle has a bus driver shortage as it is. There’s no transit alternative because all the alternatives are being constructed, and throwing more money at the problem is not going to speed it up.

    This is a great proposal to poison the well.

  • Michael

    There’s better ways to allocate revenue. Every adult could be allocated certain number of driving hours in the target areas and an exchange could be set up to buy/sell those rights. That would be an actual marketplace.

  • hayduke

    More nonsense coming from a city that blows 100’s of $millions on things like bike lanes that hardly get used, and streetcar boondoggles. Despite all the spending we’ve done at the behest of the bike lobby, bike ridership has continued to stay flat at barely 3% of commuters.

    Seattle’s actively trying to force people out of their cars, without offering any realistic, viable transit alternatives. They’re putting the cart before the horse. And rather than trying to punish people for what they think is bad behavior, they should try to entice them into good behavior by providing options that actually work. But instead they want to blow 200 million dollars on a 1.2 Mi long streetcar line that very few people will use. That money should go toward buying more buses that people will actually use.

    Lastly, am I the only one who sees a serious problem with this kind of government monitoring and intrusiveness? Apparently they’re going to require either some sort of app that monitors us, or a GPS device. Furthermore, they’re even talking about using this technology to automatically give traffic tickets. This is an outrageous overstep on the part of the city, and I hope someone sues their pants off.

  • Robert Friedman

    Have you been or lived in Seattle?

  • Robert Friedman

    “There is no transit alternative because all the alternatives are being constructed”. Can you elaborate based on what is physically in Seattle right now as far as transportation infrastructure?

  • hayduke

    Yes, since ’93

  • LazyReader

    I don’t mind congestion pricing if they use the money to fix the infrastructure the traffic is responsible for, bridges, roads, etc. It’s when they take drivers money and funnel it into the obscene transit schemes they propose to build.
    Needless to say, transit ridership is declining in Seattle just as it is almost everywhere else. But they probably don’t particularly care, since the goal is to build it, and then build it for the sake of building it not to actually move people or relieve congestion. Seattles streetcar is 80% over budget.

    Operating increased bus service on the same route would cost a
    fraction of that much: in 2016, Seattle spent more than $60 per
    vehicle-revenue mile operating streetcars, while King County Metro spent
    $18 on buses it operated itself and $9 on buses on contracted out to
    private operators. Thus, halting streetcar construction would save
    around $200 million over the next five years alone. That sounds like a
    pretty good result to me.

    Rail transit is obsolete, short distance passenger trains were rendered obsolete by buses in the 1920s, long distance passenger trains were rendered obsolete by planes in the 60’s.

  • Guy Ross

    If the use of private automobiles was presently funding what it consumes in the way of public funds, your suggestion for congestion fees being used exclusively for automobile infrastructure would be more compelling. Seeing as it is currently being subsidized, any additional fees or taxes only bit into that subsidy.

  • Matt

    Actually, transit ridership in Seattle is one of the few places in the US where transit ridership is not declining…

  • Matt

    Personal automobile use is obsolete as well. Been around for 100 years and hasn’t really innovated.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Given popularity of single-occupant driving commuting, congestion pricing results in more expensive empty seat hauling.

    Instead, offer narrow track vehicle leasing and sharing. Legalize narrow lanes and narrow spaces for faster driving and parking. TNC shareholders could finance pilot fleets.

    Offering new, faster options more popular and effective compared with taxing older, slower, habitual behavior.

  • Courtney

    I’d love to see this in downtown Chicago and during sports and music events in the city.

  • Jeff

    What kind of nonsense is this? I’ve noticed no one can actually explain how this works. Would have been nice to have an explanation somewhere in the article. What do downtown businesses think of the idea? Seems like it would take a huge bite out of their business. In California, what with ever rising taxes on gasoline thanks to our legislature, and a huge increase in vehicle registration fees, more “taxes” on cars is not a solution.
    These taxes are supposed to go for fixing roads, etc. Do our legislators realize that with all of these taxes, and forcing people out of their cars, they actually then gather less in taxes for infrastructure? And then they put people out of jobs in the automobile industry (manufacturing of automobiles, auto sales, auto parts stores, auto parts manufacturing, auto repair) forcing higher employment? Let’s consider ALL of the options first.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    It is important to have a “viable option” to driving BEFORE you implement congestion pricing in the form of ‘cordon pricing’ or other types of congestion charges. All the cities that you mention had / have really good mass rapid transit (note, I did not write “public transportation” — I wrote “mass rapid transit”) in place before they implemented congestion pricing. Right now, Seattle’s transit is nowhere near robust / good enough to offer a truly viable option. Without that ‘truly viable option’ being in existence / a reality (i.e. without mass rapid transit serving / connecting all parts of the metropolitan area, with stations consistently and everywhere located within reasonable walking distances from one another — across the whole commute-shed or urban area), congestion pricing creates huge and serious equity issues. Low income folks suffer much more / out of proportion. To translate: it is unjust. One could, I suppose, overcome this injustice by having the equivalent of food stamps for driving fees, but that would be very expensive to create and administer, and may prone to corruption. Any thoughts?

  • LazyReader

    UC professor Charles Lave insisted on observing the “Law of Large
    Proportions.” Investing $1 Billion on the option used by 87.9% of the
    people (Drive Alone and Carpool) will produce far more benefits than
    investing the same $1 Billion on the option used by less than 2.0% of
    the people (Rail). The reason transit is falling apart is multiple….

    – For one, because it only carries People. Roads have the advantage of carrying both passengers and freight.
    – Roads can handle more abuse than rail, If your road is crumbling or
    cracking……so what you can still drive on it, a bumpy ride for sure, but still navigable. If YOUR RAIL IS CRACKED or Rusting you’re in a heap of trouble
    – Compared with the safety and security and Comfort of riding a car,
    Crime, sexual harassment, graffiti, unpleasant odors, poor hygiene,
    invasions of privacy and depraved acts like beating off and defecation,
    are common on metro systems throughout the world.
    – Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to
    anymore. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically
    useless.
    – Few use it because few need it. In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and operated profitably), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, and taxpayers had spent well over a trillion dollars improving and operating urban transit systems. Yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.
    – The industry has seen a 50-percent decline in worker productivity since it was municipalized.
    The underlying problem is that subsidies have led to mission creep as
    interest groups other than transit riders play the biggest role in
    lobbying for transit funding. Transit was originally about providing
    transportation for those who needed it and were incapable of driving or obtaining a car. Now it is about providing jobs for construction workers and transit operating employees, building glitzy but little-used rail lines, and giving politicians an excuse to subsidize economic development in places of their choice.

  • JimT

    Unless the charge is based on mileage driven within the zone, this would be a huge subsidy to cabs, Uber, Lyft, etc.

  • crazyvag

    There laws of physics state that it will never be possible to move as many people as a train is moving nearly 2000 passengers at 35mph during rush hour.

  • LazyReader

    All those pesky cracked rails, smokey tunnels, and non-functioning elevators and escalators.
    A single freeway lane carrying 2,000 cars an hour with a rush-hour average of 1.1 persons per car, there is no reason why freeway lanes have to be limited to cars. A freeway lane dedicated to buses is capable of moving 1,200 buses per hour safely spaced six bus lengths apart. If WMATA used 80-seat, double-decker buses such as those used in Las Vegas, that lane could move 96,000 people per hour, without even counting standees. used 80-seat, double-decker buses such as those used in Las Vegas, that lane could move 96,000 people per hour, without even counting standees.
    On reaching downtown, the buses could disperse to various streets, any of which are capable of moving at least 160 buses an hour (40 buses per hour per stop with four designated stops every two blocks). That means directing buses down three or four north-south streets and four
    east-west streets, allowing most riders to find a stop close to their actual destination. Instead of tens of billions of dollars and many years building new subway lines
    that would provide a modest increase in the rail system’s capacity. Or
    it could spend a small fraction of that amount of money and time on new
    buses running on high-occupancy toll lanes that would more than double
    the system’s capacity. Unfortunately, the political momentum created
    when DC made the mistake of building rail in the first place will
    probably doom it to doing the former. The result will be a lot of money
    spent but little congestion relief.

  • Henry

    I can! This PDF shows the proposed truncation of express feeder services when the ST2 projects are completed in 2024. Right now, truncation is not possible since the light rail system is not that expensive, and the current termini are located in busy areas away from the freeway networks that the express buses utilize.

    Instituting a congestion pricing cordon today would be like doing it in Los Angeles if there was only the Blue Line and it only went to Compton, or doing it New York and it’s only the 1 train ending in Harlem, or doing it in Chicago and it’s only the Red Line from the Loop to Belmont. Seattle’s bus system is overcrowded, and it does not have an expansive rail transit system to transition people onto today. But it will in 2024.

  • crazyvag

    You have a point, but your numbers are theoretical that assume you can get all buses to merge onto the highway at perfect time to achieve the 1200 buses per hour. That’s hard to achieve in real life.

    Suppose you have a dedicate lane on the highway. If it’s on the left, trying to merge 20 buses per minute across 4 lanes of hard is not feasible.

    If the bus lane is on the right side of the highway, there’ll be constant conflicts with cars merging across the lane.

    Lastly, you’ll never have all the buses filled to the max. It’ll take a while to load the 80 passengers onto the bus which further reduces the throughput

    Personally, I find riding on a train, even when standing more productive given smoother ride. On subways in Seoul, no one holds on to the bar because you don’t need to.

    Finally, I don’t know if you know this, but in USA double-decker buses are not allowed to have standees unlike the same buses in UK or Berlin. A 60 foot bus has roughly same capacity as double decker bus, but at least everyone is sitting with the trade-off that double-decker bus has a significantly longer dwell time.

    I’ll agree that a car lane is inherently more flexible, but real world examples show that when you really want to add capacity, rail is how it’s done. You might achieve similar results if you one could ensure every street has a bike and bus-only lane along with 60-foot and 80-foot (double articulated buses – which are not allowed in US), but NIMBY will ensure that your plan is so watered down that you might as well have spent that political capital on raising money for grade separated rail.

  • LazyReader

    Well maybe in the UK or South Korea those nations are smaller and narrow.
    Short-distance passenger trains like streetcars and trolleys were made
    obsolete by buses in the 1920s. Long-distance trains were made obsolete
    by planes in the 1960s. Now the last vestige the
    passenger rail consortium wants to capture the intermediate distance
    travel market (50-250 miles) and Inter-city buses have already taken
    that market. Megabus, Bolt Bus, Peter pan, greyhound. The intermediate
    travel market is only about 1% of the miles traveled in the US. What
    possible justification could spending tens of billions on new
    infrastructure to run a transportation method that’s lost so much of
    it’s patronage.
    UC professor Charles Lave insisted on observing the
    “Law of Large Proportions.” Investing $1 Billion on the option used by
    87.9% of the people (Drive Alone and Carpool on roads) will produce far more
    benefits than investing the same $1 Billion on the option used by less
    than 2.0% of the people (Rail). Anything you can do with trains you can
    do with buses.
    – At it’s current rate of building, High speed rail
    wont be available to move anyone til at least 2030, Buses can move
    people NOW. And for those who worry the stigma of riding a bus there are
    luxury buses with leather seats, wi-fi, power plug in, snacks, lumbar
    support seats, big windows. – Commuter rail in the US is so expensive, you could subsidize the limited number of patrons who use by buying them a new Prius.
    – Buses respond to demand, rail does not.
    The buses are winning because they’re going non-stop from departure to
    destination without stopping except for perhaps fuel or rest period.
    Trains cant do that, they’re linear and have to run from stop to stop.

    Trains are not scaled to consumers, buses can. Buses can be double
    decker or articulated and carry 90 passengers, standard sized 40 footers
    that carry 40-50, more comfy same sized buses that carry 30 or less,
    mini buses that carry less than 20 passengers or even microbuses (no bigger than a van) that
    carry no more than 10, and can navigate the city streets, drop you off
    at your exact destination.

    Rail transit it obsolete in the US, with the exception of the North east. And numerous things are certain

    – the cost overruns; they always double every decade.
    – the ridership overestimates; often 50-250% lower than actual projections

    – decade or more in construction delays

    – the implicit racism/elitism in spending billions to attract a few white
    or wealthy people out of their cars while cutting bus service to
    neighborhoods of color or poorer residents.
    – the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road
    – the fact that most rail lines have been built mainly to get “free” federal money and perks for it’s workforce rather than provide actual transit.

  • Guy Ross

    Let’s cut to the chase: Subsidies for…..

    Private automobile ownership and use Yes/No?
    Urban Train Systems Yes/No?
    Long distance Train Travel Yes/No?
    Civil Aviation Yes/No?
    Rail Freight Yes/No?
    Road Freight Yes/No?
    Segregated Cycle infrastructure Yes/No?

  • LazyReader

    Subsidies exist for all. But automobiles get merely a penny per passenger mile compared with most rail transit systems operating. The interstate highway was built over the span of 50 years on a pay as you go basis, not a “Burrow massive bonds” and hope the system pays for itself decades from now system.
    Through the mid-20th century, private transit companies served the vast majority of American cities. After World War II, these companies operated profitable, if declining, businesses in the face of rising automobile ownership. A handicap was that transit companies were considered public utilities and highly regulated. They had to seek government permission for route changes, fare increases, and service changes. They operated privately, but had to ask government for permission to implement change. 1964 with the Urban Mass Transit Act. The act promised federal capital grants to public agencies that took over private transit companies. Within a decade, the private transit industry was virtually wiped out, replaced almost completely by tax-subsidized public agencies; virtually all of which are sinking in debt and with antiquated systems that are rusting into oblivion and it’s employees tied to financially strapped public benefit/pension packages. Thus, well over a trillion dollars in subsidies has resulted in transit ridership falling from 61 trips per urban resident in 1965 to 41 trips in 2015, and even less in 2016. Short-distance passenger trains like streetcars and trolleys (0.5-10 miles) were made
    obsolete by buses in the 1920s. Long-distance trains (500+ miles) were made obsolete
    by planes in the 1960s. When other transportation technologies, such as
    horseback riding, steamboats, and canals went obsolete, we let them go
    except for recreation, tourists and museums. Now the last vestige the
    passenger rail consortium wants to capture the intermediate distance
    travel market (50-250 miles) and Inter-city buses have already taken
    that market. Megabus, Bolt Bus, Peter pan, greyhound. The intermediate
    travel market is only about 1% of the miles traveled in the US. What
    possible justification could spending tens of billions on new
    infrastructure to run a transportation method that’s lost so much of
    it’s patronage vs Buses which cost little to build and require no additional infrastructure since they utilize pre-existing one, our roadways which are paid for with user fees vs rail transit which was paid for by an array of means including milking drivers and political handjobs to lobbying firms.

  • LazyReader

    “funded critical transit improvements” In other words, drivers not only have to pay for road upkeep for their benefit they have to pay for transit they don’t even use. Imagine if a portion of subway fares went towards road maintenance they’d be screaming at the top of their lungs. Say the government passes a small 500 million dollar raise to support
    their government workers or upgrade subway stations, etc.. That’s a lot of cash but since the total cost
    is spread among so many taxpayers they only see a 5 cent tax increase, a
    nickel. The taxpayer gets dinged for five mesely cents, really has no
    incentive to be outside all day protesting it. Would you spend all day
    protesting yelling at the top of your lungs over a nickel a year? That’s
    why government always grows bigger, whenever there’s a proposal that
    boosts spending, the group that benefits fight for it, meanwhile the
    taxpayer shrugs the extra nickel.
    Seattle coul alleviate it’s traffic problems by

    charging single occupancy driver congestion fees in it’s most congested
    roads particularly during Rush Hour and use the money to repair their
    crumbling roads and bridges and tunnels since bridges/tunnels are often the choke points where traffic is most halted.
    – Improve traffic signal coordination to move more vehicles per hour.
    – Deregulate the transit industry and allow people to use their cars to move people outside the scope of taxis
    – Convert County’s HOV lanes into HOV/HOT lanes
    – offer tax incentives for lower income residents who use their cars to shuttle people.
    – Let private engineering firms build their own tunnels and toll lanes and charge people the right to use them.
    – Encourage urban cycling, 1,000 cyclers means 1,000 fewer cars
    – Buses on light rail style/schedule: Get a bus, paint it a fancy livery and run it at faster intervals…….and get a 30% bump in ridership. Paints cheaper than rail.

  • Frank Kotter

    Instead of telling me the history of subsidies, of which I am already aware, I was looking for more forward thinking because you seem well versed in these topics.

    I made this very easy to get your opinion about this but got ‘copy and pasted’. Too bad.

  • Evan D

    * Drivers in Washington State pay 50% of the cost of roads. The other 50% are spread across all taxpayers, whether they drive or not. So someone walking from Capitol Hill to CBD in Seattle is also paying for freeways they don’t use.
    * ‘Improving traffic signal coordination’ is one of those magic bullets that everyone wonders why they government can’t figure out, like ‘increasing efficiency’ and ‘cutting red tape.’
    * Private operators are competing against public mass transit here, Chariot being the first example to come to mind.
    * HOV > HOT on I-5 is politically difficult, though possibly easier than pricing all lanes. There’s already been a couple local experiments with that which haven’t been popular, even as they shown good results.
    * There already are private programs for residents to use their cars to shuttle people. Subsidizing those will not go over well.
    * I think you should spend some more time learning about the history of tunneling in this city. I don’t see private money stepping up to take on those risks and liability.
    * The city is doing a fair amount to try and encourage cycling, but these probably won’t pay off until contiguous networks are completed. It’ll be a few more years before we see real results.
    * Congratulations, you’ve invented RapidRide, only 8 years too late.
    * Trust me, our urban buses are well over 1/6 full.

  • Evan D

    Those national-level statistics aren’t anywhere close to being accurate for Seattle, as the assumption that “…downtown, a destination few people go to anymore.” Try 30% for SOV, compared to 47% for transit alone. SOVs have been moving fewer people year-over-year even as employment downtown grows, with transit picking up most of the slack.

    https://commuteseattle.com/mediakit/2017-mode-split-press-release/

  • Andrew

    How it is possible to have a trial run of a congestion pricing scheme that only lasts a short time? Aren’t the costs of installing the infrastructure to operate it considerable? I can’t imagine that they would rip them out and waste that money after just a few years.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Congestion pricing doesn’t usually decrease the number of people coming through the congested central area – it just means that there are fewer of them in single-occupancy cars and more of them on buses that can now move faster. So it doesn’t seem like it should be a problem for downtown businesses, unless they’re specifically businesses that people only shop at when they’re in a car (like gas stations or furniture stores).

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Why should we care about the *percentage* of people who are *currently* using infrastructure when deciding where to put the money? It seems to me that we should care about the *number* of people who will cause *additional* use of infrastructure when we spend the money. If we’ve currently got a million people driving and ten thousand on trains, but a billion dollars of spending could either be used to add a hundred thousand drivers or two hundred thousand on trains, then it seems clear that spending the billion dollars for two hundred thousand trips is more efficient than using it on the mode that currently has more people.

  • LazyReader

    The transit industry loses $50 billion a year. It’s customer base is

    dwindling. Business in many regions has declined by 20 to 40 percent.
    Yet Bloomberg, one of the nation’s leading business publications, says,
    “The outlook for public transit isn’t all that bad.”
    Just how bad does it have to be to be “that bad”?

    but according to the source of data in his chart (American Public Transportation Association, The real point is that buses are the backbone of the industry, providing 100 percent of transit ridership in most regions. And somewhere between 60-80+% of transit even in regions with rail systems. The way I see it, transit agencies have two babies to nurse. One is the systems themselves whose maintenance and upkeep have been neglected, only fixed on an ad hoc basis with occasional swings whenever there’s a surge in transit riders or price hikes. The other is the obligations these agencies have essentially sworn to finance the cradle to grave public benefits and pension obligations for
    life. That system has been politically ingrained for decades; rail transit is obsolete except maybe in the Northeast.
    – Subsidies haven’t increased ridership. America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014 yet urban rail trips remain fairly flat.
    – Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to
    anymore. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically
    useless.
    – It’s infrastructure is crumbling.

    Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good
    repair, the transit industry has chosen to build more transit lines that
    it can’t afford to maintain. Transit riders respond to delays and
    dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel. Groups opposed to new highway construction used to have a mantra: “Fix it first.” Groups today that sincerely support public transit should apply that mantra to the transit industry if they want to avoid further ridership declines.

    – Roads carry double duty. They carry passengers and freight. Typical urban transit is cramped…..and doesn’t carry luggage. Fifteen American airports are served by rail transit lines. Yet few if any of these lines have
    baggage racks or any other convenient place to put luggage. Just 15 percent of air travelers take the train to Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport, and just 12 percent take the train to Boston’s Logan Airport. As near as I can determine, it is less than 10 percent for every other airport. Most of the riders on airport trains are airport or airline employees.

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