Congestion Pricing, Often Attacked as Inequitable, Is Actually the Cure for Inequitable Transportation

Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr
Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

The best way to ensure that congestion pricing doesn’t hurt the poor is to make sure revenues from new tolls support better transit service — not just build more highways.

That’s a key finding of a new report [PDF] by TransForm, a sustainable transportation advocacy group in California that sees congestion pricing as a way of advancing transportation equity — but only if the plan makes buses move faster, improves air quality and improves transit.

It’s not a given though; for congestion pricing to be fair depends on how it’s structured.

Congestion pricing — currently in use in London and many European cities — reduces driving by 15 to 20 percent, and congestion by 30 percent, TransForm says. A lot of cities want those benefits.

In cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Portland, where congestion pricing is being discussed, local politicians instinctively question the new tolling policy as a tax on lower-income drivers. In fact, the majority of rush-hour commuters who drive into the central business district of major cities — especially in New York — are wealthier than their transit-bound neighbors. Transportation is inequitable in myriad ways both invisible and visible, thanks to the dominance of the automobile, the starving of public transit and the lack of affordable housing in our gentrifying city centers.

That’s why it’s crucial to design a truly progressive congestion pricing program, says TransForm.

“When implemented without a clear focus on social and racial equity, road pricing programs can burden low-income drivers with new costs and deepen existing inequities,” the group writes. “But when equity concerns and deep community engagement help shape road pricing programs and their reinvestment strategies, they can lead to more frequent and affordable public transit, safer pedestrian and bicycle routes, and improved health outcomes for vulnerable communities — all important components of an equitable transportation system.”

Graphic; TransForm
Graphic: TransForm

Here’s what the group recommends:

#1. Use revenues to fund alternatives

High housing costs push the middle class and the poor away from job centers. If cities don’t have good transit, those workers will likely drive, which means congestion pricing would saddle them with higher transportation costs. But if the money is used for transit or alternative modes of transportation, the middle class will benefit at the expense of drivers, who tend to be wealthier.

And using congestion pricing to fund transit is a win-win: it’s also better for the environment — and environmental equity has long eluded low-income groups and people of color.

“Road pricing is a necessary step to building a healthier and more efficient transportation system, but it has to be done in a fair way,” said Hana Creger, environmental equity program manager at the Greenlining Institute, a racial policy shop in Oakland. “The needs of vulnerable populations [should be] first and foremost at the conversation.”

Many cities — Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis included — already dedicate a portion of their highway toll revenue to transit.

Congestion pricing can help advance transportation equity outcomes in and of itself. TransForm writes that when London set up its pricing ring, bus wait times dropped 30 percent and delays due to congestion were reduced by 60 percent.

#2. Free or discounted alternatives 

In addition to discounts or exemptions, or as an alternative, cities may want to consider offering discounted transit fares in response to congestion pricing. Many cities — Seattle, Denver, New York — already offer discounted transit fares to low-income people. And many other cities — Chicago, Boston, New York — also offer discounted bike share passes to low-income residents.

#3. Subsidies, discounts, caps and exemptions

Some cities are considering programs that would give discounts to low-income drivers or small business owners for their trips into the congestion pricing zone.

London, for example, exempts people with disabilities and their drivers from the charges through its “Blue Badges” program. The city also discounts tolls for people who live within the congestion pricing area by 90 percent. And Seattle is considering income-based discounts on a tiered scale, so those making $25,000 or less would pay the lowest toll.

Such income, disability or residency status discounts can help build political support for congestion pricing. But they “need to be carefully weighed against other program goals such as moving traffic more efficiently or reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” TransForm notes.

Discounts can also undermine the central goal of congestion pricing: reducing car travel.

77 thoughts on Congestion Pricing, Often Attacked as Inequitable, Is Actually the Cure for Inequitable Transportation

  1. In my opinion, the key to congestion pricing being viable is sending the 100% of the revenue to the congested City where the toll is collected.

    If the toll dollars just goes to the state DOT or state general revenue, it’s little more than a tax on urban areas for the benefit of everyone else, with explicit assumption that poorest urban residents will trade their mobility options to avoid the tax (which might be successful in addressing a traffic “tragedy of the commons” but at what cost??).

  2. Yes. Tax would likely result in rich people continuing to drive by themselves while poor people will choose to commute in shared trains and buses. Strong consideration must be given for options in which there is equal choice for poor and rich alike to commute by driving themselves to work alone.

  3. Denver converted to congestion pricing a few years ago. U.S. 36 between Boulder and Denver added a much needed lane PLUS a bike path and BRT-quality shoulders and stops. Congestion lanes are currently being added to I-25 north of Colorado Springs and near the Loveland-Fort Collins area. Tolling both helped to fund these projects and will also be used to cover maintenance.

  4. Agreed. Taking a step back too: of all the negative externalities of automobiles that we could/should price for, congestion has got to be one of the lowest. 1. Global warming 2. Asthma & air pollution 3. Sprawling out our human habitat beyond what’s reasonably walkable 4. The sedentary lifestyles & associated health costs 5. Social isolation & associated public health costs. 6. Enabling vast geographic racial segregation. 7. Plus – my biggest peeve – having GIGANTIC ugly parking lots next to anything of cultural or economic significance.

    Most of those correlate a lot closer with taxing fuel, parking, or the vehicle purchase itself, than with road usage at certain times of day, so i’m not sure we’re putting our energies in the smartest places fighting a little rush hour congestion.

  5. Agreed. Cars are a “low” risk transportation option with generally excellent safety, convenience, speed, privacy, and choice. However, the negative aspects which you describe are certainly real issues.

    To me, the two biggest causes for most of the issues you list come down to very poor automotive design. Clearly, narrow, highway-capable cars powered with electricity are far, far, preferred than currently side-seated cars powered by gasoline. Thus, my advocacy for 100% electric highway-capable narrow cars for better throughput and parking land-use, cleaner air, and better options for people living in transit desert options.

  6. Are as many poor people commuting by driving alone as rich people after the tax? If not, then it’s not really equitable, is it?

  7. Poor people In Boulder? Did you mean less rich?

    The bike trail is getting good use and the Flatiron Flyer BRT has been so popular they’ve had to order more buses. Does that count?

  8. The simple fact that parking is very expensive in city centers indicates that most people commuting to city centers by car are wealthy. Routing congestion fund revenue to support low income people as Transform suggests should improve equity and access to city centers. Even poor people deserve access to opportunity. Especially poor people.

    Of course there will be resistance as even wealthy people don’t like their costs to increase. There is an opportunity to present this as a win-win situation. Most high earners feel that their time is more valuable than others. Congestion management will allow traffic to flow more freely and save their valuable time. This exactly the mechanism that plays out on the “High Occupancy Toll” lanes being added to freeways. If you want to reach your destination quicker then you have the option of either being more efficient by carpooling or paying an extra fee.

  9. Wouldn’t it be better to work on a system where poor people who want to drive alone are afforded that opportunity at a fair price? Time is important to poor folks, too. Seems to me further fees on top of the parking fees will only segregate driving alone more to rich people.

  10. Congestion pricing may work better in wealthier communities. In places like Chicago and its suburbs where I live, congestion pricing fairness may be too difficult to achieve. That’s why I advocate for highway-capable narrow car auto-redesign allowing narrow lanes and parking spaces over new taxes as a way to allow more poor folks to drive alone if they choose.

  11. Bikeshares exist only in gentrified areas which tend to be in Manhattan or close to Manhattan so let’s not toot it as a great alternative to anything.

    If one really cares about low-income people, maybe more people should support promoting motorcycles and scooters and exempting them from congestion tolls. I helped a friend get a motorcycle for under $500 and it gets 60-70 mpg, is able to carry loads of cargo and an extra passenger and allows for a convenient way to cut across the five boroughs. Not to mention the drastic reduction in time spent in transit because my friend, nor I, does not live anywhere close to Manhattan where we have to commute to work.

    And guess who exempts motorcycles? Every single European city with any kind of congestion pricing policy like London, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Paris, Milan, Germany, Rome, Oslo, Nottingham and Madrid among others. And all of them have success stories- and that’s why they continue to exempt motorcycles. Heck, even in the US, DC gives free parking to motorcycles in many truck loading zones while Austin allows free parking for motorcycles in metered spots. Considering that motorcycles take barely any more space than bicycles, the advantages are quite obvious in reducing congestion and pollution- as proven by every city mentioned above. And it is very accessible to people of all incomes- in fact, in many cases, owning and maintaining a motorcycle can be cheaper per month as compared to a unlimited Metrocard. So, if a transit advocate really cares about low-income people, they should have no problem in asking for this exemption for motorcycles, scooters and all powered two-wheeled vehicles.

  12. Good point. I’ve often wondered why nobody talks about the fact that vehicles have gotten bigger as a contributing factor to traffic…so many SUVs and pickup trucks on narrow NYC streets. All it takes is one of those large vehicles to double park and a street is blocked completely. Not to mention the environmental impacts and lower visibility for drivers of those vehicles. We really should be pushing for European size autos here.

  13. Yes. Transportation academics like Levinson and Northwestern’s Hani Mahmassani do talk about short narrow track vehicles, but my experience with Region 5 congestion mitigation and air quality improvement funding in the Chicago area is that board members aren’t independent enough from the currently designed transportation devices they represent, and thus no auto design innovation is examined. It’s stunningly non-progressive. There’s an unholy alliance with train, bus, bicycle, and even road widener supporters. Everyone wants the money, and no one wants a solution where more people are allowed to drive alone.

    Surprisingly, the only current highway-capable narrow car able to lane-split is the US manufactured 100% electric Tango. It’s built in Spokane, WA by Rick Woodbury. The 13th prototype he’s building is expected to have a 300 mile range at full charge. Other narrow cars include the i-Road from Toyota and the Twizy from Nissan, but only the Tango is highway capable at this time.

  14. Yes. Research strongly supports motorcycles as congestion mitigators: To go along with motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles, road and weather protected short narrow track vehicles could be exempt from congestion pricing as well, considering they could more than double current lane capacity and quadruple parking availability.

  15. Low risk relative to what? Cancer? As far as transportation goes, cars are the most dangerous mode for everyone involved

  16. Wouldn’t it be better to work on a system where poor people who want to drive alone are afforded that opportunity at a fair price? Time is important to poor folks, too. Seems to me further fees on top of the parking fees will only segregate driving alone more to rich people.

    There’s a difference between wanting and needing. I want lots of things, things that don’t adversely impact the people and world around me. You can’t really say the same about a driver who wants to drive through some of the most congested areas in the city, alone, in their car, for free.

  17. Have they ever considered aligning Metrolink with Metro? Metrolink has infrequent service, expensive, and doesn’t link directly with Metro in many places like the Norwalk station. They need to use the same trains and fare rates.

  18. Yes, cars can be dangerous. However, cars are also far more popular than other forms of transportation. It would be informative to see injury and death percentage comparisons of actual trips for the different transportation devices. Further, planes, buses and trains can be very detrimental to health based on their fuel. For example: (Self driving) individual automotive devices designed to carry one or two people efficiently and powered by electricity may become the safest way to travel

  19. Financed by taxes, the Boston Big Dig Project was a $22 billion boondoggle of enormous proportions that didn’t resolve Boston traffic congestion. Giving away right-sized thin electric cars could have more than doubled road-width capacity, quadrupled parking availability and resulted in less air pollution for far less money. Like bike share for highways, the option exists now for weather and road protected individual electric transportation devices driving in narrow lanes and parking in narrow spaces that would allow faster commuting for everyone, including poor folks who now have to take three transfers to move from their less economically well off communities to their work places. All residents in Boston or Chicago may not want to use bike sharing, but it’s affordable if they need it. The same logic applies with highway-capable thin electric car sharing.

  20. A lot would need to change in our road designs, neighborhoods, and institutions for Single Occupant Cars to be widespread. The lower hanging fruit – and maybe the first step – is just creating road safety conditions where scooters & small motorcycles are truly viable. The fundamental issue with car size is that the costs aren’t linear. The total cost of ownership of having a full size SUV instead of compact car is pretty low – about 30%.

    AND that cost ratio converges as fewer miles are driven, so the effect is acute in urban areas. Here’s a random block in NYC. It’s almost all small SUVs because it doesn’t cost much more, especially if it’s only being used a few times per month. And infrequent users are certainly less likely to SOV so the space is often handy relative to the incremental cost.,-73.9950941,3a,75y,10.82h,66.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s-x2-HXiaCsrxK1P8Fs9j-A!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    The advantage of the 49 cc scooter is the entry price is very low, it’s generally uninsured, & parking can usually be hacked to be free or near-free, which makes it an economical second vehicle for those working in high cost of parking areas, while also opening up a tier of vehicle ownership opportunities to individuals that currently can’t afford anything or have surrendered drivers licenses. The downside is that the top speed is about 25 MPH.

  21. We’re likely in different cities, which is why we have grossly different perspectives here. In NYC you can’t expect people to have a mass shift to electric cars because the charging infrastructure isn’t there. In NYC, less than 50% of people own cars, and also the maximum amount of miles someone would have to commute to midtown is 20miles, which is well within the range of an electric bike, which not only uses exponentially less electricity than a standard electric car, but is also several orders of magnitude less expensive and resource intensive to create.

    If we’re talking about providing fair options for ‘poor’ people to commute to the places they need to, we should be incentivizing the use of electric bikes, which require far less upkeep, insurance and are downright cheaper to buy, leaving more money in people’s pockets.

  22. There is no magic bullet though. You’re concept is a good one that i hope catches on…we don’t need an SUV to pick up our only child and some groceries.

    However, there will come a point that even if everyone is driving smaller cars…we’re still driving less effective vehicles (geometrically speaking) than transit, biking, and walking.

    “Fixing” urban congestion needs to come from a suite of ideas. Downsizing vehicles is good, reducing SOV’s is better, improving transit is better, good land use planning is perhaps best.

  23. Yes, offering better electric bikes and motorcycle would be beneficial. Fortunately, transitioning to electric single occupant cars could be quick and inexpensive, too.

    The advantages of starting with transitioning to100% single-width electric cars are that most people, including poor people, no matter how poor or far from their jobs, would have easy access to electricity. Further, like current cars, the road and weather protection would work reliably in every weather situation. Very importantly, thin electric cars can safely travel at highway speeds. Finally, driving in narrow lanes – lane splitting – and parking in narrow places like motorcycles would require no extra infrastructure cost.

  24. SingleIssueCommenter – Sure, smaller vehicles would help though that would require a massive change in purchasing habits to only accomplish about a 2X improvement in congestion. It would be nice if people switched from large SUVs to smaller vehicles though that option is already available to day, yet people still prefer large cars. A transition to smaller vehicles would be nice and it could happen today, but it isn’t. On the other hand mainstream alternative transportation has proven to provide much greater efficiencies. Look at the problem holistically instead of through a lens that focuses on only one solution.

  25. Thanks, Jerry. Minor message edit suggestion: narrow cars aren’t small – they’re narrow.

    Living in sprawling areas is very popular. SOVs are very, very popular. Bikes are SOVs. They are great. Unfortunately they aren’t weather protected or highway capable.

    Therefore, instead of taxing for “congestion”, better to simply create highway-capable 100% electric car lease and share programs with narrow lane and narrow parking space privilege. If it’s popular, more cars could be added. If it’s not, it could go away and some other innovation could be attempted.

  26. I don’t understand the premise of your question. I personally prefer transit to driving. I’d much rather sit on a train and read a book than drive a car.

  27. Yes. I live in the Chicago suburbs, and I drive alone to work every week day to downtown Chicago.

    Any transportation system, including NYC, that includes highways and cars that are at all popular would be strongly advised to offer narrow electric car leasing and thin lane and parking privileges to resolve congestion vs. congestion pricing. For the ability to drive alone faster, lease pricing programs could cost 1/2 for poor folks and 2x for rich folks.

    Electric bikes are great, too, but since they’re not highway legal or weather and road protected, they likely wouldn’t be as popular as thin electric cars.

  28. I’ve never understood why there aren’t more motorcycles in NYC (or other US cities for that matter). The city should be promoting literally anything that’s not a car.

  29. It’s great that you’re able to ride in transit as your preferred method of commuting. On the other hand, there are millions of people would prefer the privacy, speed, safety, and convenience of driving by themselves, but they can’t because 1) they can’t afford it personally and 2) there are no government programs that provide them enough to drive alone.

  30. It may be boring to you, but many people much prefer driving for the convenience, privacy, and speed. It’s fine that you don’t want to drive personally, but the government should absolutely look at all the options available to allow rich and poor citizens the right to choose to drive alone safely if they prefer it.

  31. Narrow, not smaller, vehicles, driving on narrow lanes and parking in narrow parking spaces, wouldn’t require massive changes in use; a government program for a small group of commuters looking to drive >40% faster could be set up in poor neighborhoods as a test. Even better, a test group made up of low income veterans.

    My single issue commenting is well earned. Since college in the Chicago area, living in many different neighborhoods and cities, I’ve commuted in the following methods: working at home, walking, biking, driving a gas car, taking a train, taking a suburban train, car pooling in a gas car, busing, and driving alone in an electric car. My favorite method, by far, is driving alone in an electric car. Driving a thin electric car with narrow lane and parking space privileges would be much, much better. If it would be better for me, it would likely be better for almost all other drivers who are driving alone to work and back.

  32. Should be, yes. In reality, they’re confiscating e-bikes and telling the delivery drivers who use them to get a car instead…

  33. We need congestion pricing. We need transit improvements that can only happen with reduced car congestion and additional funding.
    The most “equitable” thing that can be done for lower income people is to give them efficient mobility options so they don’t need to spend a huge percentage of their limited incomes on car ownership and maintenance.

  34. Nationwide, an average of about 75% of commuters drive – for the above reasons and several more. This is NOT a comment against transit/cycling/walking. It is another comment about respecting personal freedom – a key foundation of our country.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  35. This assumes that the tolls collected actually significantly exceed the cost of repaying their own construction debt, plus ongoing o&m… That is actually a very rare situation.

  36. Incentivizing smaller cars for the minority of car owners who will never give up their car for their half mile grocery run and quarterly rendezvous upstate and implementing congestion pricing aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. Not only can you have both, but you can incentivize even more efficient options that leave more money in the ‘poor folks’ pockets that everyone seems to care about only when congestion pricing comes up.

  37. Right, however, counter intuitively, the fairness of congestion pricing will be judged in the end by how many poor people are still driving alone after the tax. Possibly a better system to ensure single occupant driver equality would be a program specifically created to fund narrow car with narrow lane and parking privileges for low income veterans. Congestion pricing seems far too vague, likely to never end, and very, very hard to judge its effectiveness.

  38. @SingleOccupantDriver – The Big Dig was an entirely predictable poster child for induced traffic. It is completely irrelevant to what this article is discussing, as is your endless shilling.

  39. Discussing The Big Dig is relevant because it’s an example of a government program that attempted to resolve traffic congestion but failed miserably. Congestion pricing is another attempt to resolve traffic congestion. Both road widening and congestion pricing are relevant to this discussion. Narrow cars are relevant too. See “#8 Gauge” in Transportation PhD David Levinson’s “21 Strategies to Solve Traffic Congestion”

    Since auto width design is very pertinent to the topic traffic congestion but the least discussed, I bring it up because I think it’s the best option. When it comes to the commons and taxing, it’s the citizen’s role to be vigilant and vocal about available options. I’m happy to participate in my role as 100% electric narrow car advocate.

  40. Or, opponents have given up – now that the revenue stream is too large to dislodge without un-electing the supporters.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  41. It’s very important to understand congestion pricing is a generic term that covers a wide range of options. This includes cordons, area charges, network charges and toll lanes, with the key provision being that it involves charging specific locations at times of peak demand. There has been research by the OECD and research in Auckland that suggests that far from hurting the poor, congestion pricing, if well designed, can be widely beneficial for motorised road users and non-motorised. What is crucial is:
    – What are the objectives of congestion pricing? (i.e. is it really to improve the level of service of the road network or is it a new way to raise revenue)
    – What is done with the revenue raised? (it can be spent or it could offset other charges or taxes).

    Unfortunately, far too many advocates of congestion pricing are stuck either with copying the models that have been used elsewhere or have policy objectives that are mixed and cross-cutting. For public acceptability, congestion pricing needs to do the following:
    – Demonstrably improve the level of service at the times and locations where pricing is applied. This is seen in Singapore and Stockholm, it is not in London.
    – Use the revenue to, at least in part, benefit those paying. This may either be by improving the road network, or by reducing other charges (it could be taxes on fuel, vehicle ownership, parking or more general taxes that are used to pay for the roads).

    TransForm makes some good points, but some points need some clarification. Congestion pricing shouldn’t be about reducing car travel, although that is what will happen, it should be about improving network performance. If it really is about congestion, it doesn’t matter if car travel in the evenings increases (which is what happened in Singapore).

    London did get better bus reliability, initially, but much of that was not so much due to the charge, but because the charge was used to justify taking a lot of road capacity out of use for general traffic and making it available only for buses/motorcycles/bicycles. The introduction of many bus lanes made a difference, but the congestion improvement gains have not been sustained as a result, and in locations where it is simply not practical to provide bus lanes, there remain significant delays. It’s worth noting that in London half of all traffic in the congestion charge zone pays nothing because it is effectively exempt, and the greatest growth in traffic has been in freight and private hire taxi traffic (which has been exempt). Transport for London will tell you that if there were no private cars in central London, it wouldn’t make a discernible difference to congestion.

    However, one of the primary benefits of good congestion pricing will be to improve bus travel times because network performance is enhanced. That means the same number of buses can provide a higher frequency of service, with a faster trip. Care should be taken as to how to use the money on transit. London and Stockholm have used the money to increase bus frequencies and services, but London has lost patronage in recent years as the limitations of a flat all day charge on one location have become apparent. Stockholm has charges that vary during the day, which has delivered more sustainable outcomes, and also incentivises changes in travel times.

    That’s where there is a critical point. The main alternative under congestion pricing is not necessarily public transport, but rather changes to time of travel and frequency of travel. It only takes removal of around 5-10% of trips from a peak time to an off-peak time and there can be a significant reduction in congestion. Public transport plays an important part, but many trips are not ever going to substitutable for public transport, particular freight trips or deliveries. Congestion pricing encourages such trips to be consolidated and time shifted.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that the “blue badge” scheme for disabled drivers in the UK is nationwide, was designed to provide exemptions to parking charges (and demonstrate a right to park in specified parking spots) and subject to significant levels of fraud. It is critical to ensure disabled drivers are made provision for, but the UK scheme is not necessarily the one to copy. The 90% discount for residents of the congestion charging zone has nothing to do with equity, as anyone who knows London will know that most residents of central London are amongst the wealthiest and highest income in the world. However, it’s fair to say that those who own cars and live in central London are unlikely to use them much during weekday working hours. Residents’ discounts are to be avoided by having smarter design.

  42. I’m a big propenent of charging people to access transportation, and we should create an even better way to price road use. If someone starts a career at a job 10 miles away from there home, their cost to access transportation should stay relativity fixed for decades . To achieve this, people should be sold a license that fixes their transportation fee at certain level. The license should have a market value and be resellable, similar to a property . This way an user of the system isn’t affected by the price increase resulting from increased demand . It’s the new users that will be burdened with the increasing cost of transportation because new users are the ones creating the shortage. The new users will have to buy the limited licenses at a market rate .

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