Choking on Congestion Charges

Last week, London reduced the size of its Congestion Charge Zone, eliminating the charge for automobiles in West London.   The congestion charge is a fee that motorists are assessed when driving into the zone during certain hours of the week. It has been in place in London since 2003.   London's scheme is one of the largest in the world, but with the recent reversal in West London and sinking public opinion, I felt compelled to take a closer look at how congestion charges impact transportation, and cycling in particular, in larger cities.

Cyclists should benefit from fewer cars on the road during rush hour, right? Research indicates that as the number of cyclists increases in a given area, each rider is actually safer as a result of this increase.   With a congestion charge in place (to the tune of  £8 per day, or more than $12), one would think that many people living within a reasonable distance of their workplace or shopping destinations within London would make the switch from driving to riding. And the combination of fewer cars and more bikes should make it safer to ride in the city.

Oddly enough, the percentage of cycling-related injuries has not seen a steady decrease; it actually increased in the first half of 2009.   While the London Cycling Campaign reports that cycling increased by one third within the first year of the congestion charge's implementation, the lasting effect on bicycle safety is not evident in more recent reports put forth by Transport for London.

Congestion zones have had less success in other major cities, mainly because most other programs have been snuffed out well before implementation.   A host of other cities in the UK have ultimately voted down congestion charge programs.   New York City had plans to be the first U.S. city to implement a charge as part of Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 initiative, but the program never even made it to a vote in front of the New York State Assembly.   San Francisco is currently the only U.S. city with congestion charge ambitions, but we will have to wait until the results of a proposed 2015 six-month trial are in to find out if a more permanent charge will go into effect there.   Stockholm, however, is an example of a city that has experienced seemingly positive results; the city boasts of a 75% increase in cycling over the past decade, and a congestion tax has been in place in the city since 2006.   Air quality and traffic conditions within Stockholm have improved since 2006, but it is arguable that the cycling revolution was well underway prior to the creation of the congestion zone.

I want to support the congestion charge idea.   I really do.   On its face, it seems like such a logical way to incentivize people to find ways to commute into the city in something other than a single-passenger vehicle.   Charging determined motorists and using their dollars to reinvest in alternative methods of transportation sounds like a genius scheme.   However, between the lack of sufficient evidence that it actually improves conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. And there are other potentially negative effects that it can create (for example, decrease in retail dollars spent within a city or the potential "˜regressive' nature of the tax). I am not as easily convinced as to the utility of the charge as I want to be.   Singapore, the first city to implement a congestion charge in 1975, still aspires to be more like London in its cycling culture.   And London aspires to be more like Amsterdam in its cycling culture, a city that has no congestion charge.   A congestion charge may force some people to leave their cars at home, but without the supporting infrastructure for cyclists, a congestion charge zone cannot stand on its own as a method of increasing cycling as an alternative form of transportation.

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