Congestion pricing is expected to launch in New York City next year, making the Big Apple the first U.S. city to toll drivers on local streets to combat traffic and fund improvements to public transit.
Drivers could be charged as much as $23 for entering Manhattan south of 60th Street — unless they remain on the West Side Highway or FDR Drive. The second in a series of public hearings is scheduled for Thursday, and will likely feature more arguments about the cost of the tolls and who should be exempt from paying them.
The program, which will benefit the MTA and its riders, is not a new idea.
Several cities across the globe have had congestion pricing for decades, and each offers a sort of blueprint for New York City’s program.
Gothamist spoke to experts in Singapore, London and Stockholm about the history of congestion pricing in those cities, the programs’ costs in U.S. dollars and ongoing concerns. Each expert also shared advice for New York City as it rolls out its own version of congestion pricing.
The experts noted that the stakes for congestion pricing in New York City are high. If New York succeeds, it could be imitated by more cities in the U.S. and abroad. But if congestion pricing does not meet expectations – perhaps due to excessive exemptions, scofflaws avoiding tolls, technical problems or political opposition – it will deal a major blow to efforts to reduce traffic and the use of automobiles worldwide.
Singapore began charging drivers a fee to enter its business district in 1975. The area tolled, which is about the size of Lower Manhattan, is much smaller than New York City’s zone.
In the first decades of the program, drivers seeking to enter the business district each day had to have a sticker on their vehicles.
By 1998, the government implemented an electronic tolling system that uses overhead gantries to read a device in vehicles. The device is required in all vehicles and compliance is nearly 100%.
Tolls range from $0 during the evenings and weekends, when there’s little traffic on the roads, to as much as $9 to enter the city center during rush hour.
There are no tolls on Sundays or during public holidays. And there are no exemptions, except for public service vehicles. Even public buses have to pay the fee.
But Singapore has another way to control the number of vehicles on the road: Residents must buy a special permit called a Certificate of Entitlement if they want to own a car. The permits are expensive and are valid for 10 years. After that, owners must reapply or relinquish their certificate. There are different categories for cars, buses and trucks.
At Singapore’s vehicle permit auction in July, certificates for smaller cars – like Nissan Leafs or Honda Civics – sold for an average of $71,006 in U.S. dollars. The tags for more powerful and larger vehicles, like Teslas or Mercedes, sold for an average of $87,027 each.
Expanding the system has proved difficult. The gantries are expensive to install and adding new ones generated pushback from the public, according to Walter Theseira, an economics professor at Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Singapore has also considered transitioning to a satellite-based tolling system, which would use GPS to charge motorists based on how far they drive in the congestion zone. But the city currently lacks the technology to precisely locate every one of the cars that enter the zone every day. There are also privacy concerns about the government tracking drivers the second they leave the driveway or parking lot.
Residents also complain about the sky-high prices for the permit to own a car, which is how the government makes most of its money for improving public transportation.
Message to New York:
“I think what’s more important is to recognize that you do have a congestion problem, and also to recognize that there are ways of solving (it with congestion pricing), which are actually a win-win for most people,” said Theseira. “You want to make sure that you’re doing something to make life better for the people affected by congestion charging, and that probably is going to be making the public transport system as good as you can make it, because a lot of people are going to be priced out with the system. They’re going to be unhappy. But if you make things livable for them by making sure they’ve got their subway connectivity, bus connectivity, then that goes a long way.”
Stockholm began charging drivers a fee to enter its business district in 2006.
Congestion pricing began as a six-month pilot program, which was followed by a referendum on whether to maintain the program. When the pilot launched, polls showed that two-thirds of Stockholm voters opposed it. By the time Stockholm residents cast their ballots on the issue, two-thirds voted in favor of continuing congestion pricing.
When congestion pricing began, traffic immediately dropped by 20% – the difference between gridlock and moving traffic.
Trips on public transit increased by 3.5% after congestion pricing went into effect.
When the program started in 2006, drivers paid $2 to enter the zone during rush hour.
At other times during the day, drivers were charged $1. There is no charge between the hours of 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
Now, in the summertime, when more drivers enter the Stockholm toll zone, drivers pay a fee of $4.50 during peak hours. In the winter, when there are fewer drivers, the toll decreases to $3.50 during peak hours.
The money goes toward improvements to bike lanes, subways, light rail and highways.
To raise the tolls, the city and national governments must be in agreement.
Congestion pricing brings in about $92 million a year.
Stockholm uses license plate cameras to toll drivers, most of whom have an account that automatically deducts the fees. As few as 1% of drivers obscure their plates to avoid the tolls.
Emergency vehicles and people with disability plates don’t have to pay the toll, but there are no other exemptions.
Few, if any. Congestion pricing is broadly accepted as the cost of driving in Stockholm, according to Jonas Eliasson, professor of transport systems at Linköp University and director for transport accessibility at the National Transport Administration.
Message to New York:
“I really think that the rest of the world, especially the transport planner world, is following this with a lot of curiosity,” said Eliasson. “If you don’t succeed, then transport planners like me on the global scale have a problem to explain why it didn’t work. And there are two ways of failing. You can either fail because the system doesn’t work for some (technical) reason…And the other one is public communication.”
London launched its version of congestion pricing – known as the Central London Congestion Charging Zone – in 2003. It covered eight square miles, an area similar to New York’s congestion zone. Shortly after its launch, the number of vehicles circulating in the tolling area dropped by 15% and congestion in the zone declined by 30%, according to a report published earlier this year. Transport For London, which is akin to London’s MTA, also added 300 buses to encourage the use of mass transit.
Like New York, the money from congestion pricing goes toward improvements to public transportation.
License plate cameras are used to deduct fees from a driver’s account or send them a charge. Obscured license plates are not a major problem.
Data shows that 90% of people in the tolling zone got there on foot, on bikes or via public transit. Last year, congestion pricing yielded $282 million in revenue for Transport For London.
It currently costs $19 to enter the city center. That’s up sharply from the $6.30 the congestion pricing program charged when it launched. Vehicles are charged on weekends and holidays from noon to 6 p.m., while weekday charges apply from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once a vehicle pays the charge, it can come and go freely that day and does not have to pay again.
There are many exemptions. People who live in the zone get a 90% discount. People with disabilities or vehicles that transport people with disabilities aren’t charged. Vehicles with more than nine seats aren’t charged. Vehicles that are 100% electric are exempt from the charge, but will have to pay the full price starting in 2025. Motorcycles and taxis are exempt, but private for-hire vehicles aren’t.
Despite a major decrease in personal vehicle use in London, there have been ongoing issues with congestion. Transport For London says the expansion of bike lanes and pedestrian space is causing the current traffic.
In 2008, London implemented another measure to impose a fee on high-emission vehicles, like delivery trucks. Currently, high-emission vehicles must pay a $127 fee to enter the Low-Emission Zone. In 2019, London created an Ultra-Low-Emission Zone within the larger zone that requires certain vehicles to pay an additional $16. The emission fees apply to a single-digit percentage of overall traffic.
An expected expansion of the Ultra-Low-Emission Zone later this month has become a major political issue. In an election held last month, London’s liberal Labour Party expected to win a seat previously held by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a member of the Conservative Party. But Labour narrowly lost – and some political analysts blamed the expansion of the Ultra-Low-Emission Zone.
Message to New York:
“Keep it simple. It’s really easy for customers to be overloaded with information of what they might have to do and what they might have to pay when,” said Alina Tuerk, head of strategy and planning for roads and freight at TFL. “When we introduced congestion charging in London that was accompanied by a massive increase and improvement to the bus fleet. It has really transformed the way buses work in central London. So thinking about those alternatives will allow people to make a shift to different forms of transport.”
This story has been updated to clarify the effect of London’s congestion pricing on traffic.