The City needs congestion pricing.

vehicle congestion on battery street in san francisco
(Photo Credit)

On a recent episode of KQED’s Forum, Dave Iverson discusses the possibility of congestion pricing in the City with two main guests: Ken Cleaveland, director of government and public affairs with the Building Owners and Managers Association and Zabe Bent, senior transportation planner with the San Francisco Transportation Authority.

To some degree, Ms. Bent and Mr. Cleaveland both live in their own respective fantasy lands. Mr. Cleaveland is in car fantasy land. He believes we can continue adding cars ad infinitum to City streets. Whereas, Ms. Bent is in SF Transportation Authority fantasy land as she believes Muni is a world-class public transit system. Despite these extreme views, or perhaps because of them, this is a great discussion.

Ms. Bent doesn’t do a great job explaining why the City needs congestion pricing. Indeed, the City DOES need congestion pricing. Here’s why:

Congestion pricing is not a tax, as Mr. Cleaveland insinuated multiple times. Congestion pricing is a user fee. Are user fees really so bad? No. User fees can be very useful to ration extremely limited shared resources. Our downtown City roadways are extremely limited shared resources.

Most private goods and services are paid in full via user fees at time of consumption. Take McDonald’s: you pay $1.00 for a hamburger when you want a hamburger. If you paid McDonald’s like you currently pay for roadways, every citizen of the United States would pay a monthly McDonald’s hamburger ‘subscription fee’. Here’s where the silly comes in: anyone, at anytime, can stop by a McDonald’s and eat as many hamburgers as he or she pleases.

As you can imagine, there would be a number of problems with the national compulsory McDonald’s hamburger subscription plan.

What if someone is a vegetarian? They’re still required to pay the hamburger fee, yet they eat no hamburgers.

What if someone eats 400 hamburgers per day? They pay the same fee as everyone else, yet they consume vastly more resources than others.

What happens during the lunch rush? McDonald’s couldn’t possibly keep up with the extreme demand for hamburgers during lunch. Remember, these hamburgers would seem ‘free’ at time of consumption. Since hamburgers are ‘free’ at time of consumption, demand for these hamburgers is very high. A very natural method of rationing, the queue, begins to develop. Long lines start at McDonalds before the lunch rush, perhaps as early as 10am and last until 3pm. The dinner rush starts an hour or two later. It may take as long as 2 hours just to get your hamburgers. At some prime McDonald’s locations there may be queues at all hours of the day. If your time is valuable, you will seek alternatives to these hamburgers.

Most people would agree that a compulsory McDonald’s hamburger subscription plan would be absurd. Why, then, do we price our roadways in this fashion?

First, most people don’t think of it this way, since our roadway ‘subscription plan’ is mixed into a number of other payments in the form of local, state and federal income, sales and property taxes. Most importantly, it would be impractical to operate on a pure user fee model with all roadways. We can’t erect tolls, even automatic ones, at the foot of every person’s driveway, nor would we want to.

But, we have a glaring need to restrict uncontrolled usage of limited downtown roadways, a defined area around which we could erect automatic tolls. A user fee is an excellent method of rationing usage of this scarce resource.

Where else do we have user fees? User fees exist on ALL alternative forms of ground transportation in the United States, save for walking and biking. By not charging user fees for our roadways, but charging for all other forms of transportation, the government is effectively subsidizing the use of personal vehicles.

It’s time to put the personal vehicle on par with all other forms of transportation in the US.

If the hamburger example was hard to swallow, let’s focus on a more concrete aspect of congestion pricing. Uncongested roads have HIGHER throughput than congested roads. (Source)

Variable road usage fees will increase the efficiency of our streets. This allows those who need the roadways the most to pay for that right. Without user fees, vehicles that have a very high, nearly inelastic demand for the roadway (delivery vehicles, taxis, busses, emergency vehicles) have no way of paying for this priority. The rich can resort to helicopters, but that doesn’t work for the rest of us.

Naturally people complain about this proposal — we don’t like paying for things we expect to be ‘free’. But, our roadways are not, and never have been, ‘free’. We’ve simply been pricing them incorrectly in highly congested urban areas. It’s time for congestion pricing in San Francisco.


PS. Yes, gasoline taxes are a good attempt at a roadway user fee. But, they don’t do anything to limit usage of particular stretches of roadways.

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2 Responses to The City needs congestion pricing.

  1. Charles says:

    No we don’t! It is just another tax. Cars represent freedom.

  2. kfarr says:

    Cars represent transportation policy conservatism — the ultimate example of urban planning laziness. Why think of something new? Why design living spaces for walking — the natural form of mobility our species developed over millions of years? I guess that sort of planning requires too much effort in America.

    Cars represent debt. They force a significant economic shackle on every citizen of the United States. The fact that every American needs to purchase a $20,000 metal box to live a full and productive life is the ultimate joke of the 20th century (and, apparently, the 21st).

    True transportation ‘freedom’ is the ability to walk, bike, take public transit OR use a car to go about your daily life. The vast majority of Americans do not have transit mode freedom. They have no other choice but to drive thanks to the planning and infrastructure investment decisions of our nation’s city planners and elected officials.

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