Friday 6 September 2019

National League of Cities report gets congestion pricing wrong

"The views contained in the opinion piece below are solely my own and should not in any way be attributed to my employer, D’Artagnan Consulting LLP"

As I said a few weeks ago, the United States has suddenly "discovered" congestion pricing over a decade after Europe and over two decades after Singapore, in part because it is actually going to happen in New York.  This is good news.

At last, there is policy debate about using pricing to address road congestion, rather than the debate about simply building more road capacity or building more capacity for alternatives. 

The not so good news is that some writing about the topic appears a bit rushed and this enthusiasm to produce research and analysis can sometimes mean that there are gaps and inaccuracies which come out. One of the latest efforts is a report published by the National League of Cities called "Making Space: Congestion Pricing in Cities" (PDF).  It's not as good as it could have been, and could have done with a bit more time and some research (e.g. simply going to sources on this blog) to better inform cities considering congestion pricing.

Let's be clear, I am very supportive of anyone seeking to learn more and to think more about, I fear that a rush to generate "knowledge" could actually hinder progress in pricing, because it may oversimplify concepts, or worse yet disseminate misinterpretations of experience and concepts that might encourage opposition to road pricing more generally.  For example, to talk of congestion pricing primarily in terms of generating new revenue can raise fear that it is just a new form of tax, rather than a tool that addressing a major urban transport policy problem, which can also generate revenue (which itself could be used to reduce other sources of revenue).

I've read the report end to end. Overall it has some useful points and is well structured, and I hope it generates interest in congestion pricing as a concept, but I don't think the report is necessarily as helpful as it could be for decision makers, policy advisors or advocates for better pricing of road use, because parts of it are just not correct, and some useful details are left out.  For example, the number one reason congestion pricing programmes across the world have not progressed (and quite a few have tried) is because of a lack of public and political acceptability.  Ignore this at your peril.

The main flaws of the report are that it:

• does not adequately define congestion pricing;

• does not describe all of the behavioural changes that congestion pricing can encourage;

• does not describe the technology used in ANY operating congestion pricing systems today (but depicts technology that is not used);

• misconstrues the purpose of the London scheme, doesn't note the significant limitations of the scheme today;

• incorrectly reports the use of revenue collected from the Singapore ALS and ERP schemes, and does not accurately describe how it works;

• takes a narrow view of equity in congestion pricing, essentially claiming that the sole mitigation is additional modal choice;

• concludes with a new (and tangential) point about electric and automated vehicles, giving the impression that the imperative to consider congestion pricing is about such vehicles, not congestion more generally.

Below is a thorough review of the report.

Detailed review of the report