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.