May 11, 2005
Tolls for Thee
Via Planetizen News, evidence that the impossible is finally catching on: according to Governing magazine, more and more jurisdictions in the US and Europe are making drivers pay to use roads when they're congested. And remarkably, the politicians responsible for instituting the tolls don't seem to be paying much of a political price.
London's experiment is perhaps the most famous: the city now charges drivers about $10 to drive into the city center between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. Some pundits predicted that the policy would spark a commuter rebellion. Instead...
Rather than revolting, drivers did one of two things: They either paid up, as 100,000 a day now choose to do, or they changed their commuting behavior. Many people who used to drive to work switched to mass transit, which became a more attractive option because [London Mayor Ken] Livingstone pumped toll revenues into expanded bus service. Other commuters bought scooters or bikes, either of which they can ride downtown for free. All in all, 60,000 fewer automobile trips are made into central London today than before the charge. Traffic moves more quickly, there are fewer accidents, and taxis and buses are more plentiful. Livingstone got re-elected handily last June, some say because of — not in spite of — his congestion-charging scheme.
Closer to home, Minneapolis is adopting a congestion pricing scheme for an urban insterstate, charging variable tolls, dependent on traffic volume, to allow single-passenger cars to use HOV lanes -- a system known as "HOT" (or high-occupancy toll) lanes. A similar plan was proposed in 1997, but was pulled after a public outcry. But this time around--after years of worsening congestion with no other solution in sight--the plan passed with bipartisan support.
Minneapolis is not alone in playing with congestion pricing. San Diego has had a variable-priced toll road in place since 1996, and other congestion pricing experiments are running in Orange County, California, and in Houston. Colorado, Washington State, Georgia and Virginia all have HOT lane projects under construction or review, while Maryland, the Bay Area of California and San Diego are looking at creating regional networks of toll lanes. And San Francisco is seriously studying London's center city toll.
A decade ago, this sort of trend probably seemed impossible. But since then, congestion has grown, and the cost of building and widening urban highways has skyrocketed, with no end in sight. So perhaps it's not surprising that so many places are adopting one of the few proven tools for squeezing more transportation capacity out of the same old roads.
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