Wednesday 15 December 2010

San Francisco congestion pricing goes forward to next phase

Mercurynews reports that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has voted to support further studies into a downtown San Francisco cordon based congestion charge, but rejected the San Francisco-San Mateo county boundary congestion charge option.   Both were described in my earlier post here.

It voted 9-2 to dump the San Mateo proposal (which performed poorly compared to the downtown option, and which had serious boundary effect issues).   However, it voted to study the San Francisco downtown charge option based on a US$3 charge in both directions in morning and evening peaks, with an option for a US$6 evening only peak charge.  If studies are encouraging, it could be implemented, following approval by state legislators, by 2015.

This is the right decision.  

Congestion pricing systems should not be based on administrative boundaries, but on roads that are congested.   It should be based to the extent practicable on charges that reflect capacity and demand based on time and location.  Whilst the downtown option has limitations, and potentially negative boundary effects, it is more sophisticated than London's system.  Peak only charges are appropriate, although charges in both directions should differ if congestion differs by direction.  Ideally consideration might be given to charge differentially on certain roads, but this is a first step.

SFCTA now needs to do the detailed work on this proposal.  That means looking at boundary effects, bypass and ring routes, the products that motorists should have available, the discounts and exemptions (which include the ludicrous low income discount), the costs, the governance of the project and its operation and finally, what to do with the revenue.   Motorists need to get value and that means making sure the design and pricing noticeably reduces congestion.  It means the roads that are charged and the roads approaching them are well signposted, but also well maintained.  It also means thinking how public transport can be made more responsive to users and not simply think this is a new cash cow to persist with existing practices and inefficiencies.

San Francisco may be the first city to introduce congestion charging in the USA in the form of cordon pricing, as I have said before.   This is not the ideal form of congestion charging, and there are reasons to criticise the proposal, but yet it is a significant step forward in linking the basic economic principles of demand and supply with price in rationing road space.   It will not solve congestion in San Francisco, it is no silver bullet, it wont provide a pot of cash for a wishlist of expensive transport projects, but it should deliver faster speeds on the roads that are charged.  It should allow buses to flow more freely and efficiently.  It should improve the experience for cyclists and pedestrians.  It should improve the financial viability of public transport.  It should reduce air pollution, and ensure the charged roads can be properly maintained and enhanced.  If done properly it can enhance the economic, social and environmental condition of downtown San Francisco, and be a platform for more sophisticated charging.

However, I would plead that San Francisco look more at Singapore than London for its example of best practice.   For one of the big errors in quoting London is to claim that the London scheme cut congestion in London by 30% or traffic by 30%.  It didn't.  It reduced car traffic volumes by 30% within the charged zone (in the first year, eroding year by year), but around half of all traffic in the charged area was not subject to the charge and did not reduce.   The London charging zone is a tiny fraction of the area of metropolitan London, and congestion reduced only modestly because road space was reallocated to bus lanes, cycle lanes and wider footpaths (which was the goal of the then Mayor).   London has had success, but it is quite wrong to use statistics so grossly out of context and to claim it has freed traffic flow in London - the overall effect has been positive, but much beyond the charging area the effect has been minor.   San Francisco will need to ensure motorists see value for money.

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