Not Quite A Freeway

For years, Nicholas Harrison loved darting in and out of traffic with his touring bike on his way to work as a French professor at Kings College London. The cool morning breeze rustling his brown, grey-flecked hair, Harrison resembled a downhill skier expertly slaloming in between the cars crawling at snails’ pace on the road alongside London’s Thames River.

It’s a different story now.

Far from stationary moguls, the cars now move briskly along, leaving Harrison little opportunity to do his customary bobbing and weaving. There are a lot more bikers with whom he also must contend.

“Congestion charging has really been difficult for my commute,” Harrison says, smiling wryly.

A major source of the change: the 8 pound fee drivers have had to pay since 2005 to drive in the city center, or “charging zone,” during certain hours of the day. Instituted in 2003 as a 5 pound fee, “congestion pricing” has had the effect of chopping congestion levels by more than 21 percent, contributing to reduced pollution and accidents, and generating 123 million pounds during the 2006-2007 year alone, according to Transport for London, a government Web site. Property values were not adversely affected during this time, either.


The Chicago Reporter analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau to see how people communted to in the nation’s 50 largest cities.

But congestion pricing is about more than simply socking it to drivers. London has used the revenue to provide additional buses and revamp “the Tube,” London’s subway system, to meet the transit needs of former drivers. According to the fifth annual monitoring report, the benefits from the 8-pound fee have exceeded the costs by a ratio of 1.7 to 1.

Although the largest city to date to implement congestion pricing, London was not the concept’s pioneer. Singapore was the first city to administer the approach in 1975 and immediately saw dramatic reductions in both traffic and vehicle accidents. Congestion fell 45 percent, while accidents dropped 25 percent, according to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that partners with businesses, governments and communities to solve environmental problems. In 1998, Singapore amended the system and charged toll drivers each time they entered the charging zone; this change led to a further 15 percent drop in traffic levels.

Despite its successful introduction in these and other cities, like Stockholm, congestion pricing has seen a slower introduction in the United States.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made congestion pricing a central plan in PlaNYC 2030, his vision of how to make the city more sustainable during the next two decades. In August 2007, the city became eligible for more than $350 million in federal funding to purchase 367 buses and help implement the plan, which called for an $8 daily auto charge entering the zone and a $21 daily truck charge entering the zone. A 17-member commission developed a congestion reduction plan, but no federal money was received because the state Legislature failed to approve a similar plan by the March 31 deadline.

New York’s loss turned out to be Chicago’s gain, as part of the money that had been set aside for New York was part of a $154 million federal package to add rapid transit bus routes on four major corridors, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele. The plan also included parking meters downtown that would charge more during rush hour to deter people from driving there.

The new program gave a boost to supporters of congestion pricing who had made little progress in that area. In a joint application, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Illinois Tollway Authority sought $248 million in December 2007 from the federal government to implement a pilot program on the Northwest Tollway.

Tom Murtha, senior planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said the agencies chose the Northwest Tollway because they thought they could successfully reduce congestion on the Kennedy Expressway.

“The ability to positively impact congestion on the Kennedy Expressway was a big reason for choosing the Northwest Tollways for a regional demonstration,” said Murtha, who emphasized that the pricing mechanism was one part of a broader traffic reduction strategy.

Under the proposal, riders would pay different levels of tolls depending on the time of day, location and direction, Murtha said. But the application is not likely to be funded because there’s not enough money, he said. Murtha added that he did not know when similar federal dollars will be available.

Jim LaBelle, vice president of Chicago Metropolis 2020, an organization that seeks to make the Chicago region a desirable place to work and live, said the proposed experiment was a positive step, but added that the approach to congestion pricing should be systemic, rather than located in one part of the region. LaBelle also said that the region’s layout may make the cordon-pricing approach of New York and London inappropriate for this region and the tollway approach a better fit for the area.

The Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit committed to sound planning in the Chicago region, is sponsoring a “Cost of Congestion” study in the six-county region that will help determine the technique best for the region. Michael McLaughlin, the council’s director of regional policy and transportation, said his organization has hired HDR, the same consulting firm that New York used in 2006 to formulate its congestion pricing plan.

So far, he said, government organizations and area agencies that deal with transportation have been open to the study, which is slated to be released this summer.

Congestion pricing previously had gotten the attention of some of the city’s leading politicians.

In June 2007, while the Chicago Transit Authority was facing a substantial shortfall, 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke floated the idea of using a model similar to London’s cordon approach. The money generated, he said, would help stem the CTA’s funding gap.

Mayor Richard M. Daley gave Burke’s idea a lukewarm reception, but in March 2008 he first mentioned the idea of using parking prices as a means to reduce traffic congestion.

But the idea of congestion pricing is going nowhere fast in the Illinois General Assembly. Numerous officials on the transportation committee for the House and Senate said legislative proposals are nonexistent. And, even if proposed, any legislation would have to get past skeptics like state Rep. Harry R. “Randy” Ramey Jr., who serves on the House’s transportation committee and whose home office is in West Chicago.

Ramey said that congestion pricing, if implemented, could end up deterring people from going to Chicago at all. “It could have the effect of decreasing [traffic],” Ramey said, adding that the additional cost may make people think, “–˜Why go down there now?'”

But LaBelle of Chicago Metropolis 2020 said he understands the normal human resistance to paying more for any service, adding, “People need to have confidence that, if they pay, it will make the system better for them. “We still have a way to go on that,” he said.

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