Too much traffic? Congestion pricing advocates have a solution

Ask any trucker and they will tell you traffic is a way of life – not a happy way of life, but one they must deal with on a daily basis. Americans are driving more than ever before, and that is making roadway congestion increasingly worse. The Federal Highway Administration said there were 3.22 trillion vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. in 2018. That is up from 2.99 trillion in 2013 and a 40 percent increase from 1993’s total of 2.3 trillion.

All this traffic has a profound impact on the cost of transportation and ultimately, the cost Americans pay at the store for goods.

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) reported that congestion on the nation’s roadways costs the trucking industry $63.4 billion a year. That cost arises from 996 million lost hours of industry productivity, the equivalent of 362,000 truck drivers sitting still for an entire year.

That freight congestion is only expected to worsen as more of the population moves closer to cities. Easing that, though, has become not just a freight problem, but a global problem that starts with removing some percentage of total cars from the roadways. According to Timothy Papandreau, strategic advisor and founder of City Innovate, a car is only used about 5 percent of the time, on average, while city buses run empty 60 percent of the time. The solution, he noted during Michelin’s Movin’ On summit in 2018, is to find alternative ways for people to move – bikes, walking, ride-sharing services, and autonomous vehicles among them.

The National League of Cities (NLC) sees a different solution. NLC suggests charging people to drive into cities through a variable congestion pricing model.

The organization found that of the 15 largest cities in the U.S., only New York City has a true “commuting population” in which the majority of commuters take public transportation to work. Only five of these cities have a comprehensive transportation system, NLC said.

“Unsurprisingly, these cities remain heavily reliant on car transportation,” the group wrote in its report, “Making Space: Congestion Pricing in Cities.”

A look at vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. over the past 26 years. Photo: Statista

The cities with the highest rates of commuting are: New York City; Washington, D.C.; Boston, Massachusetts; and San Francisco, California. Of those, though, only New York City, at 68 percent, sees more than half its commuters using public transit, walking or biking. San Francisco residents still seem to prefer their vehicles, with 49 percent driving to work. Other cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have high percentages of drivers, at 58 percent, 60 percent and 78 percent respectively.

To make its case, NLC turned to cities like London and Stockholm, which have run congestion pricing programs for years.

“A key question [cities] should ask themselves is, ‘does our current transportation system enable residents from all economic backgrounds to access jobs and city amenities without cars?,’” the group asked.

In London, officials faced a congestion problem that was costing the city up to $6 million each week due to gridlock. The average automobile traversed the city at a speedy 7.5 miles per hour. After implementing congestion pricing in 2003, along with improvements to public transportation, London saw an immediate improvement. By 2004, traffic had been reduced and vehicle speeds had increased 30 percent. By 2015, there had been a 9.9 percent decrease in traffic volume on city streets despite a 20 percent population increase.

“The implementation of congestion pricing throughout the city of London required an initial investment of $214 million. With a starting rate of £5 per car in 2003 – which increased to £11.50 in 2014 – congestion pricing brought in gross revenue of about $3.9 billion in its first 10 years, of which around half funds public transportation,” NLC wrote.

Charges are based on “zones,” that change based on the time of day. London has also evolved its program. Initially, taxis and private hire vehicles were exempted but that exemption was eliminated this year as Uber and Lyft began operating in the city, increasing congestion.

“London shows us that any congestion plan must be adaptable and flexible to changing conditions over the years. When congestion pricing was first implemented, no one could have foreseen the advent of new transportation technologies like ride-hailing as well as micro-mobility options including shared electric scooters and bikes. Cities that adopt congestion pricing will need to keep this in mind,” NLC observed.

Stockholm and Singapore have seen similar success rates. In Stockholm, the initial $236.7 million investment in the system was repaid within four years and delays decreased by 33 percent during peak times and were cut in half during non-peak periods. Traffic volume dropped 22 percent. The program now nets $143 million a year.

Singapore has reduced traffic by 23 percent and pulls in approximately $100 million a year on an $18.5 million operating budget.

New York City will implement congestion pricing in 2021 for Manhattan’s Central Business District, and it will likely serve as a case study for other U.S. cities. NLC notes that Los Angeles is in the early stages of discussing a congestion pricing program and other cities may follow suit. Details on pricing for New York are not final, but vehicles will be tolled only once per day. Initial reports suggest trucks may face a $25.34 weekday rate and automobiles would be charged at $11.52. The city has already implemented an additional charge for for-hire vehicles.

The plan does have its critics. “Many advocates cite the massive net benefits and increases in vehicle speeds, while critics focus on the share of new tolls and surcharges that will burden residents throughout the broader region,” NLC noted.

Depending on some of the specifics of the plan yet to be finalized, New York officials estimate the program would save between 256,000 and 544,000 hours of commuting time, boost vehicle speeds by up to 23 percent, and provide a net benefit to the city of between $1.89 billion and $3.97 billion.

“As other cities move forward on discussions around congestion pricing, they will have to weigh the benefits – less traffic, better air quality, reduced emissions and much-needed funding for infrastructure, to name a few – with the costs to residents who don’t have viable alternative modes of transportation,” NLC said.

The group also advised smaller and mid-sized cities to consider congestion pricing, noting that several growing southern cities could find themselves in traffic predicaments similar to New York and Los Angeles in the near future.

“In southern cities with populations of 50,000 or more, the average growth rate between 2007 and 2017 was 16 percent, compared to a national average of 12 percent,” it wrote. “Texas and North Carolina are leading the pack, with 22 percent and 19 percent annual growth, respectively. Some western cities are also experiencing high rates of population growth, with Washington state leading the region.”

In conclusion, NLC concluded that the rise of self-driving vehicles would not significantly alter this equation, in fact, the rise of ride-sharing services “speaks to the need to think about congestion pricing in more dynamic terms.”

“Variable pricing increases as traffic increases, thereby pushing some drivers – or in the future self-driving vehicles – off the road and making cars glide more smoothly. In this case, variable pricing could help to unclog streets,” NLC wrote. “Congestion pricing could directly counteract an increase in vehicle usage and ensure self-driving cars pay full freight for the impact they create.”

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at