New York City is preparing to charge drivers a fee to enter its most crowded areas, becoming the first American city to implement congestion pricing.
Other progressive cities are considering similar measures, including Seattle.
The economic case is straightforward: If you want less of something, tax it. Congestion adds to pollution, hurts productivity and impedes access to business.
But an elegant theory — even one that worked in cities such as London, Singapore and Stockholm — would be a hard sell here. Some 70% of respondents to a Seattle Times poll opposed congestion pricing for downtown. And these are city and King County residents — not drivers of jacked-up Ram pickups in red country.
Indeed, some caution is in order here.
First, where congestion pricing succeeds, people must have abundant, efficient alternatives. Thus, London enjoys 250 miles of high-capacity subway along with light rail and an extensive system of commuter trains to the suburbs. Similar intensity of rail transit exists in other cities that show congestion-pricing success.
Even New York City operates the largest subway system in the nation, although its maintenance problems are growing (and fixing this would be helped by the congestion tax). It also has the nation’s largest passenger-train service to outlying towns and cities.
Seattle is behind, as the curse of voting down a true rapid-transit system in 1970 (75-percent funded by the feds) continues.
Light rail is a start but construction is moving too slowly, while Sounder commuter trains are modest and prone to mudslides on the northern route. Mayor Jenny Durkan held up completion of a modern streetcar that would serve the likely tolled zone. Buses will never be enough. Most people won’t ever be buffed cyclists tacking the hilly city at speed.
Second, the zones where drivers would pay extra must be highly coveted. This is certainly true in London, Singapore and Oslo. Manhattan south of Central Park, the likely Big Apple target, is the world-class heart of a world-class city.
Seattle would be more of a dice-throw. The central city is the healthiest it’s been in decades. It held 300,000 jobs and 82,000 residents last year, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Cool downtowns are in demand.
Three-quarters of downtown employees get to work using modes other than driving alone, and 37% walk to work.
Yet the core faces some vulnerabilities. It is contending with the trouble facing retailers nationwide (where the 6,000 store closures announced this year are already more than in all of 2018). How much damage comes to shops and small businesses if customers go elsewhere because of congestion pricing?
It might be considerable. My sense is that many older Seattleites who once loved driving downtown are getting fed up with traffic, parking and street incivility issues. They are people who shop and buy, as opposed to the armies of young coders who live downtown and work 18-hour days.
Also, the City Council has an antagonistic/apathetic relationship with the private sector, especially Seattle’s largest employer and downtown anchor, Amazon.
These companies might start to look elsewhere — Amazon is bulking up in Bellevue, soon to be connected with light rail — if city officials forget what undergirded the great urban turnaround: Safety, economic dynamism and investments to improve livability and infrastructure.
In short: Downtown Seattle must be an indispensable draw to the region in order for congestion pricing to succeed.
That paramount significance of a district is obvious in Manhattan, and even in parts of San Francisco and Boston. Seattle? Move cautiously. Durkan’s budget adds $1 million to continue studying the issue.
Still, something must be done. American industrial policy subsidizes cheap gasoline and Happy Motoring culture, which are prime causes of the existential crisis of human-caused climate change. Congestion pricing can’t fix that globally, but it does reduce pollution locally, as well as improve safety. Importantly, it might change customs, especially for young people.
Even if climate change weren’t an issue (it very much is), studies and experience shows that widening streets and freeways only increases congestion. Driverless cars won’t solve the problem, either. Ride-sharing services increase it.
Also, like the false choice held out about climate change vs. the economy, the same is true for congestion pricing.
Samuel Schwartz, who helped develop New York’s plan, told my colleague Michelle Baruchman that it is ultimately business-friendly.
“Business went up in the congestion pricing zone in London,” he said. “Business went up in the congestion pricing zone in Stockholm. What doesn’t work for business is paralyzing traffic, awful transit systems, trucks that are just stuck in traffic and can’t move. Businesses end up being winners with congestion pricing.”
The details would be important. For example, low-income drivers, tradespeople and trucks to the port might need exemptions; ride-share outfits do not — indeed, they need to be taxed, with the funding going to transit.
And the money raised by congestion pricing can’t go down the City Hall wormhole or to social service outfits that don’t get results. It must also go to transit — that visible progress builds popular support for the policy.
Nor can the tolls be static. London’s experience shows that they need to be monitored and adjusted as needed.
A portion of the population will never be sold, especially older people from a less populous city and nation, who equate the single-occupancy vehicle with freedom. Others can be persuaded that measures such as congestion pricing are needed, that cars have become a prison.
Congestion pricing offers one way out But Seattle should move cautiously.