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Congestion Charging Makes a Comeback in Major Cities

Eric Woods — March 31, 2015

Congestion charging—and similarly ambitious programs for traffic management—are once again on the agenda for the mayors of large cities struggling with traffic jams, rising pollution levels, and shortfalls in transport funding. The fact that a traffic pricing scheme is again under discussion in New York is a significant indicator of the changing mood, and there are reasonable grounds to believe that this time it might happen.

Other cities are also stepping up their programs to manage or reduce private vehicle use. The mayor of Paris is considering a series of restrictions on high-emission vehicle use in the city, starting with a ban on older diesel engine vehicles. Madrid—another city suffering from poor air quality caused mostly by diesel vehicles–has introduced intelligent parking meters that charge higher fees for more polluting vehicles (there is no charge for electric vehicles [EVs]), and there are plans to extend the current controlled areas for vehicle access to other parts of the city. Beijing’s city leaders are also considering a form of congestion charging, though public resistance continues to be a considerable barrier in the Chinese capital.

Pioneers

Singapore led the way on road user charging in cities in the 1970s, but it was the introduction of the London Congestion Charge in 2003 that seemed to herald the wider adoption of such schemes around the world. However, enthusiasm waned after similar projects were rejected in cities like New York, Manchester, and Edinburgh. For most city leaders, such large-scale projects were seen as politically risky. So although road charging is used on many highways around the world and is becoming more attractive as an alternative to general road or fuel taxes, the reference cases for urban congestion control remain relatively few. Alongside London and Singapore, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Milan are still the most notable examples.  While many cities still grapple with basic arguments over congestion management, Singapore continues to evolve its approach and is now proposing a new system, which will give it almost total visibility on vehicle movements in the city.

Political Courage

Gaining acceptance for a congestion charging scheme requires strong, even brave, political leadership and the willingness to engage with citizen and business concerns. Apart from a common resistance to paying for something that was previously free, many citizens and businesses are wary of schemes that are not linked to improvements in the transport system. The London and Stockholm schemes, for example, were both linked to funding improvements in transport infrastructure, and this is a key part of the recent proposals for New York, as well.

It’s also important that a city can offer viable alternatives in terms of connected and reliable transit scheme. The growing acceptance of EVs in cities (which are excluded from many charging schemes) and the availability of electric car-sharing programs like Autolib’ Paris means that there are now ready alternatives to commuters who can’t or don’t wish to abandon their own vehicle.

Congestion charging schemes today are part of a much broader debate on the nature of urban mobility, with better information and more alternatives available for many city travelers. Once again, we are looking to see if New York will pick up the baton.

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