Has Congestion Pricing Lost its Buzz?


It’s 2004. Despite initial resistance to the idea being fierce, London has had a congestion charge for a year, and by the most important metrics, it’s been a success. Mayor Ken Livingston has been reciting statistics to anyone who will listen, parading reductions in congestion by 30 percent and average speeds at their highest since the 1960s. Journalists, Politicians and London’s cabbies are all talking. Pilot schemes are planned. Countless European cities are expressing an interest. Heck, even American cities are expressing an interest! Congestion pricing looks set to become a common sight in cities all over the world.

Actually, it’s 2012. London’s congestion charge has fuelled the fastest growth rate for the city’s bus system since the 1940s, but air quality remains chronic despite reductions in emissions in the city centre. Current Mayor Boris Johnson has removed the western extension introduced by an enthusiastic Livingston in 2007, killing his predecessor’s unspoken dream to gradually extend the scheme across Greater London and costing the city tens of millions of pounds in revenue. Stockholm and Milan are the only major cities in Europe to have introduced congestion pricing. Over in America, New York City’s thorough proposals have twice been rejected, attributed to a lack of ‘leadership and courage to embrace new concepts’ by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. San Francisco remains the only major US city ‘committed’ to congestion pricing, planning a trial period in… drum roll please… 2015. That’s eleven years years after they began exploring the possibility. Is it just me, or has city-wide congestion pricing lost its buzz?

Perhaps not. Smaller cities across Europe have eagerly started levying fees for drivers entering their boundaries, including the Maltese capital of Valletta, with a population of around 6,000 people, and the Latvian capital of Riga, which with 700,000 residents is a bit closer to the usual definition of a city.

Worldwide, some major cities have also begun implementing congestion pricing, but falling short of city-wide solutions. Sydney introduced a toll on its iconic Harbour Bridge, heavily congested due to it being the primary entry point for those travelling south into the city’s harbour-bound centre. A few hundred miles north of there, Brisbane has implemented a similar bridge toll, looking to manage traffic in an area of high growth. These Australian schemes, whilst barely comprehensive, are at least an improvement on the highway toll implemented in San Diego which charges US$8 but is optional. You can take the congested road for free, or pay for a speedier journey.

Prior to its introduction in London, support for the congestion charge wasn’t exactly overwhelming. But over the last eight years, London has shown how initial resistance can be overcome, with a majority of the city’s residents now supporting the charge. Sadly, this hasn’t been a convincing enough example. Along with New York’s twice rejected proposals, Edinburgh and Manchester both voted ‘no’ to proposed schemes by a massive majority. Even Stockholm, which permanently implemented its own ‘congestion tax’ in 2007, was unenthusiastic, with 13 of 14 municipalities voting against it (a result which the national government chose to ignore).

The logistics of both implementing and managing congestion pricing schemes might explain why smaller cities have maintained some enthusiasm as their larger neighbours have failed to commit. Whilst a bit of an over-simplification, a city with 6,000 residents will have an easier time managing a congestion pricing scheme than one with six million, both with the technical solution required and handling the likely changes in how residents move around the city. London was pragmatic in this respect, introducing 250 new buses on the same day its congestion pricing scheme went live. Other cities, with public transport networks and municipal budgets stretched to the limit, are likely to be less confident.

So where does this leave comprehensive, city-wide congestion pricing? As ever, all eyes are on Copenhagen. The Danish capital is currently contemplating its own congestion charge throughout the city centre, with all the usual arguments for and against emerging from the debate. Despite having a smaller population than both London and Stockholm, Copenhagen is the poster-city for sustainable urbanism in Europe and beyond. The next chapter for city-wide congestion pricing may well start with their decision. Either that or we’re waiting until 2015 for San Francisco to get its act together.

Images courtesy of R4vi and jovike on flickr

  • http://nuovamobilita.wordpress.com/ Nuova Mobilità

    ehm… currently in Milan there is a big buzz about “Area C”, the new congestion pricing scheme that has just replaced the old pollution charge scheme that proved its uneffectiveness in the long term due to vehicles turn-over. It was asked by the 80% of voters in a referendum held in june and it started on january, 16th. It looks like buses, metros, trams and trains are managing quite well the increase in demand (although many trains heading to Milan are very old, some of them are just scrap metal…) and the traffic flows in the city center dropped by 30%; beside transit, many previous car drivers are now getting around by moped and motorcars, that are not charged. There are a lot of protests, of course, in particular from more affluent people living in the charged zone which are not exempted from the charge; they are only given a bonus of 40 trips/year free of charge. The charge is 5 euros for the whole day. 2 euros for resident inside the charged zone. 3 euros for vans and lorries serving business. So I think Milan worth a closer look in these days…

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t blame Michael Bloomberg for New York’s failure to implement congestion pricing in any way.  He was and is all for it.  But New York City needed the approval of the rest of the State of New York, the capital of which is Albany.  Great amounts of lobbying by the “bridge and tunnel” crowd from Long Island, Westchester, the Hudson Valley and also Connecticut and New Jersey was able to shoot down any pricing proposals.  The upside is that Bloomberg has “retaliated” by allowing NYCDOT to do all kinds of neat pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements, like closing off half of of Times Square to motor vehicles.

  • Bogotanize

    Bogotá new mayor is compromise with implement a congestion charging in the downtow, in fact he alredy have a team of sweeden experts and he alredy said that he is willing to make it work in 1 year. Bogotá is alredy famous as taken as an example with teh largest BRT in the world, we invented ciclovias (closing 120km of sundays streets for bikes) we have 350 km of bike paths, the largest car free day (by the way is next 2 of febrary) and aparently we coulb be an example in this subject if the current mayor could make it  work. so keep and eye what will happen in Bogotá this year.

  • http://twitter.com/Blogbyen Blog byen!

    also in copenhagen we are going through heavy discussions about the planned congestion charging system. I can’t make sense of the arguments against it – but it is a shame that air quality, as you write, doesn’t get better as well. What can be done to ensure that this aspect also improves?

  • Jessie H.

    Car users normally don’t want to pay this. However, there’s another consideration – When a city launched congestion charge, surrounding areas might suffer with extra congestion or parking issues.  Peopel might park their cars to nearest area then change to other transport modes. Unless this charging policy is implemented at national level, otherwise the local authority should consider how to avoide this problem-transfer situation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/olimpioa Olimpio Alvares

    São Paulo City has more than 11 million inhabitants and 5 million passenger vehicles. It is in the middle of a Metropolitan Area with 20 million inhabitants and more than 10 million passenger vehicles. The mass public transport in metro, trains and busses is not big enough to handle the demand with acceptable quality. Therefore, 50% of the motorized trips are made by individual cars with 1,4 passengers/vehicle. The result of this is the unbearable and stinky congestion, which is now almost all day throughout the city and getting worse every year. The users of private cars are against road pricing schemes. They prefer to stay in average 3 hours/day in congestion than using the bad public transport network, that would take another hour/day from their miserable lives. But I think that a very well thought low profile (in the beginning) road pricing scheme in the right car streams and hours of the day, and with a well dosed cost to the car users, would take out from the streets the adequate number of cars to start to mitigate part of the overall congestion. This money should be rigorously applied in the improvement of the Public Transport Network. This gradual scheme would work better than an ambitious wide road pricing scheme similar to the rich and well structured cities like London. It would be immediately rejected by the São Paulo car users for obvious reasons. But this gradual road pricing scheme would only be possible if there were an enlightened confidence and a very strong political will from the City Mayor. This, unfortunately, is not the case in these harsh days we are living down here in São Paulo.