The congestion charge on motorists in central London has been held up as a model across the globe for cities looking to reduce the traffic jams that tie up their streets and highways. The charge has brought substantial benefits to those who live and work in London — whether they drive or take mass transit — and it could do the same in traffic-clogged cities in the United States.
London drivers are charged the equivalent of $16 per day for traveling into the center of the city between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. They can pay the charge by phone, on the Internet and in many stores. They can even set up accounts so they don't have to remember to pay the charge every day they travel into the zone.
There is simply no other measure as effective in quickly reducing traffic as congestion charging. The theory of congestion charging was established by transportation planners and economists as far back as the 1950s. But only recently — in cities like Singapore, London and Stockholm — has the theory been put into practice. It has been demonstrated to be as effective at controlling congestion in reality as in theory.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal for congestion charging in downtown Manhattan will be studied by a New York State commission. If congestion charging goes into effect in New York City and is as successful there as it has been in London, other congested cities across the United States might adopt similar plans. Perhaps Washington — with some of the worst traffic congestion in the United States — will consider such a system in the future.
London's congestion charge, which began in 2003, doesn't need big toll plazas. Instead, the system is enforced using some 700 cameras across 200 sites in the charging zone.
In addition to providing an efficient and accurate means of checking whether drivers have paid the charge, the data provided by the cameras has also been crucial in investigating the foiled car bomb attempts in central London in June and previous terrorist incidents and crimes.
London anti-terrorist police investigating the June attempted attacks were quickly able to trace the movements of the suspects, allowing them to be apprehended before they could flee the country or commit other atrocities. This security benefit would be welcomed by many in Washington who are concerned about possible terrorist attacks on America's capital city.
Congestion pricing in London has been a major success on many fronts. It has cut the amount of traffic driving into the charging zone by 21 percent and reduced traffic congestion by 30 percent. These benefits were obtained immediately after the charge was introduced in 2003 and have been maintained since. At the same time, there has been no discernible increase in traffic around the congestion charge zone. In fact, there has been a decrease in traffic along the key routes leading to the zone.
Life for those working and living inside the London zone has improved through the reduction in traffic and lowering of dangerous pollution, which exceeds accepted health standards in central London and many U.S. cities.
While road traffic is not the only contributor to the poor air quality in these cities, it plays a very substantial role. The congestion charge in London has resulted in a reduction of dangerous nitrogen oxide emissions of 8 percent and a cut in particulate emissions of 7 percent. This is despite an increase in the number of buses on the road, which emit more particulate matter than gasoline-fueled cars.
Congestion charging is about smarter use of our roads. It would encourage motorists to consider mass transit for their journeys where it is viable, as is certainly the case on the Metro system in the Washington area. Congestion pricing would also encourage motorists to travel at less crowded times of the day and to consider changing their travel patterns. For example, instead of making a special trip to the mall, more drivers would instead schedule their journeys to do this on the way home from work.
And, of course, for those who choose to continue to drive in the most congested periods they would experience faster and more reliable journeys because there would be fewer cars on the road. So you get what you pay for.
The revenues raised from congestion charging can be used to improve the transit system, to increase capacity and improve service reliability and coverage. In London this has meant major improvements to the bus network.
Opponents to congestion charging have argued that it is just another tax — and that it is unfair because drivers already pay enough in taxes. The problem is that the current system of road taxes does not reflect when and where we choose to drive.
Economists refer to this as a problem of supply and demand. In most markets, balance between supply and demand is achieved using price. Airlines charge a higher price for flying during the busiest times, electricity costs more when demand is highest in many places, and so on. This link between demand and supply is missing from the way we currently pay for the roads. The result is an unmanaged system where congestion is bad and getting worse.
Opponents also argue that congestion charging would be unfair to the poor. But this assumes that the current system is equitable ¿ which it is not. Everybody pays the same fuel taxes and it's the very poorest who most are exposed to the danger of road traffic ¿ accidents, fumes and the noise. That's not fair. Congestion charging would reduce the negative impacts of traffic on those without cars and provide revenue to expand choice for everyone, for example by improving the rail and bus networks and holding down fare increases.
Cameron Munro is an analyst at RAND Europe, a nonprofit research organization, where he has conducted studies on congestion pricing in London.
This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on August 7, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.