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Op-Ed: Congestion Pricing Can Be Equitable, If Done Right

Editor's note: A version of this article originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington and is republished with permission. 

Congestion pricing is a strategy that charges drivers more for using road space during peak demand times. It’s an idea with many potential benefits, from reducing traffic to improving the environment.

But congestion pricing also draws criticism around equity, as critics say it can allow the wealthy, those easily able to pay for services, to bypass the rest of us. Others argue it can punish those low- and moderate-income workers who absolutely depend upon owning a car to get to work. Indeed, we are living in a time when affordability means that many front-line workers have moved out to the suburbs, often to situations where they absolutely must drive.

On the other hand, congestion pricing can be a tool for economic equity, depending on how it is implemented. If buses move through free-flowing traffic, there is an automatic equity bonus, since low-income people tend to rely on public transit and can now access jobs and other amenities easily. And if congestion pricing lowers air pollution, it benefits low-income and marginalized communities that suffer disproportionately from asthma and other respiratory diseases. For instance, “Singapore, London, and Stockholm each saw drops in vehicle emissions after congestion pricing was introduced”—in these cases, the cordon scheme—according to the Eno Center for Transportation.

And although sometimes politically difficult, there are strategies available to address equity concerns with congestion pricing, such as lowering or eliminating fees for low and/or moderate income workers.

HOT lanes draw criticism

One form of congestion pricing — known as High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, like the one on the Virginia Beltway, and a similar proposed one in Maryland — have been criticized from the left for several reasons. Some say they are likely to induce new traffic by drawing more cars onto the roads. This is particularly true if they are used to widen roads rather than convert existing capacity.

The other major argument against HOT Lanes is that they are inequitable, allowing the affluent to bypass lower-income people and drive harmoniously among freely flowing traffic, while most people sit trapped in traffic as bad as ever. For instance, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) explains that, during peak hours on express lanes in Orange County, CA, “the two ‘managed’ express lanes each carry almost twice as many vehicles per lane than do the free lanes.”

Proponents, however, argue that HOT Lanes benefit low-income people when they need to get someplace quickly, such as an important appointment. According to the FHWA “In places like San Diego, support from low-income travelers is over 70 percent.”

Proponents of HOT Lanes also argue that an older model, High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes limited to vehicles with multiple people, was widely underutilized. Furthermore, on HOT Lanes, pay-tolling drivers may end up effectively subsidizing a lane also used by buses.

As with most programs, HOT lanes can be more or less equitable depending upon how they are implemented; indeed, so can cordon pricing.

How to maximize equity

For all forms of congestion pricing there is an equity issue, since “pricing is a regressive fee, as are most other transportation charges, including gas taxes, sales taxes, and parking fees” explains the Eno Center report. In other words, people pay the same fee whether they can easily afford it or not. Still, there are several ways to counterbalance this.

Most importantly, to maximize equity and environmental impact, funds from congestion charges must be invested in bus and rail systems. Notably, “On San Diego’s I-15 HOT lanes, revenues generated by toll payers financed transit improvements that contributed to a 25%-percent increase in bus ridership,” according to the FHWA. Bus service was also increased with the introduction of congestion charging in London.

Still, low-income residents increasingly live in places not reached by transit and may be unable to enjoy the benefits of congestion charging. That’s why another strategy for an equitable version of congestion pricing is varying charges depending on income. In New York City’s planned congestion pricing, for instance, households in the affected areas making less than $60,000 per year receive a tax credit equal to the toll, explains the Eno Center report.

A variety of other circumstances can also be grounds for exemption from congestion pricing. People with disabilities, truck- taxi- and Uber-drivers who depend on driving for a living, electric car drivers, and others could be exempted. However, if too many exceptions are granted then congestion may return; a balance must be struck.

Is now the time?

If, as part I of this series showed, congestion pricing is easiest to implement during a congestion crisis, now might not seem the ideal time. After all, the pandemic greatly reduced traffic and hence the need to fight congestion. Yet, the pandemic also revealed the benefits of free-flowing traffic, and a return to the old status quo might seem unpalatable. Indeed, in 2021, U.S. commuters have been paralyzed in traffic 36 hours, ten hours more than in 2020, although dramatically less than the 63 hours of 2019, according to transportation analytics firm Inrix. The possibility of a return to the old ways may be enough to induce more cities to implement congestion pricing.

Beyond the pandemic, climate change is also an increasingly urgent threat — and congestion pricing could be one way to mitigate that, by reducing traffic congestion, improving public transit, and ultimately lowering air pollution. And mitigating environmental hazards, which impact the poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods most, is always a move toward equity.

Ethan Goffman is an environmental and transit writer. A part-time teacher at Montgomery College, Ethan lives in Rockville, Maryland. He is the author of "Dreamscapes" (UnCollected Press), a collection of flash fiction, and two volumes of poetry, "I Garden Weeds" (Cyberwit) and "Words for Things Left Unsaid" (Kelsay Books).

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