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San Francisco flirts with 'smart pricing' (aka, the rush-hour tax)

Posting in Cities

Despite New York's failure to move forward with so-called congestion pricing for transportation, San Francisco is pushing forward, with the hope of building out a pilot program by 2015.

You'll need to bear with me a moment, because this post involves several emerging policies with brand-new catch phrases for yours truly. But here is the crux of the matter: The city of San Francisco has just delivered a study about the potential economic and environmental impacts of so-called "cordon pricing," or the idea that transportation tolls and other fees should be higher in periods of congestion. Such as the peaks of the morning and evening rush hours that gridlock many urban centers around the world.

I just read about the latest developments in the Way2Go blog published by the Environmental Defense Fund. You might recall the New York City was flirting with a proposal to charge different fees for driving into Manhattan at certain times of day. But that idea got the kibosh at the state level. But that hasn't stopped San Francisco County from exploring the ramifications for the Bay Area.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) is now considering a feasibility study for a congesting pricing plan that could get a demonstration by 2015, which actually seems pretty far away, but apparently the economy is a factor in waiting a while. But, long-term, the city thinks it needs to do something. According to the lengthy "Mobility, Access and Pricing Study" it has these overall goals:

  • Improve mobility by reducing travel time and improving "system efficiency" for motorists and transit passengers
  • Increase accessibility by providing more transportation options
  • Enhance quality-of-life in neighborhoods that are affective most by traffic or tailpipe emissions
  • Promote economic vitality

The San Francisco study holds up both London and Stockholm as examples of congestion pricing done right. London, for example, has been charging drivers a flat fee for driving within an 8.5-square mile region in central London. This program has been in place since 2003, and the city has reported a marked increase in the flow of traffic. Before the pricing scheme, it was 2 to 5 miles per hour, now the average is 10 miles per hour. The traffic has been reduced by about 30 percent, while greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by about 16 percent. Stockholm, which has been using congesting pricing since 2006, has seen a 22 percent reduction and a 14 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Here's why San Francisco is studying this idea:

  • On an average weekday, the city's "transportation" system servers more than 4 million trips across all different travel modes. By 2030, that number could reach 5 million trips per day, based on projects in population and job growth.
  • Trips toward the various target delay zones in the downtown area already take twice as long during peak periods, versus off-peak periods
  • San Francisco estimates that the average "cost" of congestion in terms of passenger delay, fuel costs and commercial vehicle costs could be $2.46 billion by 2015. By 2030, however, these costs could reach $38.9 billion annually.

Here's the crux of the matter, according to the study:

City goals, policy and investment will concentrate future growth in San Francisco's most transit accessible areas--locations that are already the city's most congested. This growth will present unique challenges and will differ in pace and character from previous generations of San Francisco development, which was dominated by financial district employment growth and was supported by major transit investments including the Muni Metro and BART systems. The city's future development patters will include substantial quantities of housing and will occur as the trend in out-commuting to suburban job centers continues. If growth proceeds in a business-as-usual fashion--without new system management policies and funding strategies--traffic congestion will substantially worsen, bringing gridlock and stifling economic activity."

There are a number of scenarios proposed by the SFCTA.

One, planned for both the morning and the evening, would collect $3 per crossing from cars entering or leaving the Northeast Cordon (border by Laguna and . (There would be a cap of $6 per day.) Another scenario would collect $6 per day from cars leaving the zone, during peak evening traffic. The money collected under both scenarios would be reinvested in the Bay Area transportation system. The SFCTA actually back-burned an option that would charge $3 per cross from cars crossing the San Francisco-San Mateo county line in both directions in both AM and PM peak hours (capped at $6/day).

The promotional video recaps the pricing plan and the potential impact, bringing it to life.

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure