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Where's Congestion Pricing Headed Next?
Best cities for bikes, UPS strikes
The Feds gave the final approval for congestion pricing in New York City this week, meaning the MTA could see as much as $1 billion in new annual funding starting as early as next April. While much of the media has misframed this as the “first congestion pricing in the U.S.” (plenty of toll lanes use congestion pricing, this is the first congestion cordon) - this is nonetheless a momentous occasion for transportation and urban planning in America.
In more enlightened parts of the globe, congestion cordons have been improving cities for decades: in Singapore since 1975, in London since 2003, in Stockholm since 2006, in Milan since 2008, etc. The results have always been a resounding success across the board. Cities raise new revenue that can go into improving transportation, biking, and walking facilities. Air and sound pollution improves as less fuel is burned, fewer tire particulates waft about, and honking decreases. As less important trips are diverted to off-peak hours or onto transit, travel time improves for more important uses, whether that’s an emergency, deliveries, or an everyday trip that now has its negative externalities priced in.
Despite initial grumblings, even businesses tend to support congestion pricing, once it's been enabled. Increased travel reliability means its easier to estimate how long it will get to work, or the time it takes to move a delivery across town. Less congested commercial streets make for a more pleasant shopping experience, doubly true in an era of increased outdoor dining (who likes eating next to fumes and horns?) And of course the funds raised for transit can mean lucrative new infrastructure projects, something that will hopefully smooth things out between New York and New Jersey.
Now that the toll gantries are all but raised, let’s take a look at some of the other regions in the country where congestion pricing may or may not be headed…
Of all the other large regions in the country, LA is furthest along with its own study on congestion pricing: Metro has been looking at the issue since 2019. In some forms, the concept has a long history in the area: the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County were the first toll road in the country where the prices moved in response to traffic levels. Since those opened in 1995, other public and private lanes in the region have adopted them as well.
That said, the media often dubs them “Lexus Lanes” which gives you a sense of how tough the battle will be to show the positive effects of congestion pricing, especially if implemented in the city proper. Currently Metro is weighing where in the region it might best work. While Downtown LA is the only part of the county where transit is pervasive enough to compete with cars, it’s possible that implementing it there would further batter the weakened central office district. (Although an added plus would be that taking those cars of the road would free up more capacity for trips that have to pass through downtown.) Tolling access to the Westside might have fewer business downsides, but we’re still a good decade or two before there’s enough rail transit there to pick up the slack.
D.C. / DMV
While local officials have mulled studying a congestion cordon in the region, a formal study has never been launched. There would be some precedent, as this is another region with dynamically priced high occupancy toll lanes, and a fee on ridehail trips to downtown may be in the works.
Drawing the cordon would be easy on two of the sides - the Potomac and Anacostia already make natural barriers with few crossings. Drawing the line to the North would be trickier, whether or not the barrier is in the city or at the edge of Maryland. But the real challenge would be getting this concept past Republicans in Congress, who often stymie many of D.C.’s more progressive plans.
It would be easy to say “toll access to the loop” and be done with it, or even bump that out a tad and use the river plus I-55 as the border. Officials took a more expansive approach when they implemented a fee on ridehail services back in 2020. We can quibble if this is truly “congestion charging” given that the fee is static, but the goal is to reduce VMT and generate new cash for transit improvements. Given the city’s well-defined downtown and general enthusiasm for new revenue, we’d say odds are high that Chicago might give proper congestion pricing a try sometime soon.
The SFCTA started studying a congestion charge back in 2019, but unfortunately plans were stymied by the pandemic. Given the region’s many water crossings, much of the region is already effectively congestion charged. While the rates on the bridges vary based on time of day, those times are based off of hours of peak congestion - we’d call that close enough for jazz.
The real issue is the southern border - where SF runs into San Mateo County. Pre-pandemic we can imagine the Board of Supervisors erecting a 7-mile fence themselves; these days the office market is so weak it’s hard to imagine them doing anything to deter demand. The bigger issue is that there’s almost as much traffic headed out of SF as there is into it, and destinations in Silicon Valley are much more diffuse. Might we suggest solving that by simply charging commuters by the mile? We know Secretary Buttigieg is a fan…
Moving past the country’s five largest regions, there are a few other contenders. Boston has a strong enough downtown, and good enough transit, that officials are considering it. Despite a historic looking core, Philly’s downtown actually holds very few of the region’s jobs, so that’s unlikely. I wouldn’t even mutter the word “congestion charges” under my breath in Dallas or Houston. Maybe Miami Beach could try to pull it off to clear up the bridges, but we sense the state would quash any attempts to do so. Where do you think we’ll see it next? Email us with your ideas.
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HOT INDUSTRY NEWS & GOSSIP
Best city for bikes? Icy winters be damned; People for Bikes just crowned Minneapolis the best big biking city in the country. Other winners are less surprising: Seattle, Davis, Provincetown, etc. All the more reason to move people and goods via bikes.
Future schmuture… McKinsey released its latest Pulse Survey on the “Future of Mobility”, and it’s a classic case of “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” As promising as the results may seem at first glance, the surveys are so vague, and the questions framed so aspirationally, that they're useless. It's like promising your doctor that you plan to eat healthier, and then snickering to yourself ("in 10 years!") Surveying intent as opposed to action is inherently ambiguous, but by not bounding any of the questions with real-life parameters (timeframe, price, speed, convenience...) the results are basically junk science.
UPS sits down: A strike at UPS is now looking all but inevitable, as the Teamsters have walked away from the negotiating table. They’re asking for a slice of UPS’ record profits; the corporation countered with a cost-neutral contract and… air conditioning in the vans (sounds overdue.) If the strike proceeds, this would be the largest single-employer strike in the country’s history.
App updates: Both DoorDash and Instacart made big plays for workers and merchants alike. Dashers can now opt to get paid by the hour — a seachange in the gig industry. Merchants got new first party ordering and loyalty tools, while consumers will see improvements to the app. Over at Instacart, they’re taking a somewhat opposite approach: debuting new perks and rewards that specifically target workers who spend long hours on the app. Meanwhile grocery store merchants get new options for managing profitable items like customized cakes and prepared foods.
Which way for AVs? Things are looking good for Amazon-backed Zoox, which just launched in Vegas. But TuSimple, which is trying to autonomize the middle-mile, may be selling off its U.S. business. And CA state officials are accusing SF of fudging the numbers when it comes to blaming Waymo for traffic safety issues. Hmm!
Oh Paris… Parisian officials unveiled ambitious plans to replace car lanes with sidewalks, greenery and new bike paths. Even the city’s most traffic-clogged streets look reimagined under this plan. Meanwhile after much ballyhooing, leaders in Seattle unveiled their own ambitious plan: they’re going to pedestrianize one whole block as part of a pilot program. Mon couer!
Herzlichen Glückwunsch! In Germany, Colonia raised €6 million from backers that include Plug & Play and my associates at Mobility Fund. The company has a P2P marketplace for trucks and vans - looks like sharing just got interesting again!
More money: The Feds doled out $2.2 billion in infrastructure funding. SB 532 could fund Bay Area transit shortfall. MA and MI sprinkle cash at the curb. Vornado bets $1B that commuters will return to central offices.
Just a few more links: Quack - swan roils London’s new Elizabeth Line. Home prices finally falling - is that good or bad? Shoppers and diners showing increased service expectations. Amazon launches Hub Delivery. Drover heads to Helsinki. Texas wages war on its cities. Small cities hate street vendors. Transit operators should learn from Canada. “I believe this reform is really going to transform the trash landscape in New York City.” A path forward for revitalizing LA's land use politics? Bonjour hi: Montreal’s suburban metro to launch in a month. Biden Boom. Lordstown heads towards bankruptcy. Tesla may have won the plug wars. Amazon Prime members prefer Walmart to Whole Foods. CitiesFirst talks to Roger Spitz. Gig workers feel unsafe in LatAm. RIP Richard Ravitch. Job alert: Blue Systems hiring Urban Mobility Data Product Owner. Italy says ciao to scooters. Webinar on delivery. Have you read Modern Delivery yet?
Until next week!
- Jonah Bliss & The Curbivore Crew