San Francisco considers congestion pricing

Road pricing, in various forms, are among the most powerful tools to reduce driving miles and motiviate mode shift to transit – as most recently shown in analysis for MTC PlanBayArea, the region’s initiative for transportation and landuse planning. Last week, Colin Dentel-Post and Paige Miller of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority presented an update on a congestion pricing study for downtown San Francisco at an “Urban Environmentalists” meeting.

The Challenges

Colin began his presentation by outlining the motivating challenges. San Francisco’s congestion has reached record levels, impacting trips for all street users (often even bus riders in bus-only lanes), increasing the potential for collisions (and thus possible injuries or deaths), and resulting in more emissions and noise pollution, further impacting the health and quality of life of those who live or work near downtown.

The impact is particularly notable on vulnerable communities, who disproportionately live around San Francisco’s Vision Zero High-Injury corridors.

San Francisco’s policymakers have made some progress in recent years by introducing demand-based pricing for metered street parking spaces, adding red transit-only lanes to more streets, and just last November passing a new tax on “Transportation Network Company” services (e.g. Uber and Lyft). They recognize that it hasn’t been enough, leading to SFCTA’s call to action: moving more people in fewer vehicles.

What’s been done before

Congestion pricing isn’t a new idea – it has already shown success in London, Stockholm, Singapore, and other cities, and is now under consideration in a number of cities across North America (New York City has already committed to implementing it). It has been shown to lead to reductions in both congestion and emissions while increasing transit ridership. In Stockholm after an initial pilot period the public voted to keep their system in place.

The SFCTA also studied implementing congestion pricing in 2010 but the recommendations were not adopted, in part due to a decline in traffic during the recession. Since then there have been calls to introduce congestion pricing in a number of different city plans around Vision Zero, climate action, and mobility, leading to the study in the works today.

Colin noted that equity needs to be a strong consideration as part of today’s planning effort. While there’s a lot that can be learned and replicated from the experiences in Europe and elsewhere one difference San Francisco needs to consider is that the other places that have implemented congestion pricing have a much stronger social safety net than the United States does today.

What’s on the table

Conditions have changed somewhat since 2010, both in terms of traffic patterns (in particular TNCs are substantially more prevalent today) and in terms of what sorts of technology can be used. 

The SFCTA’s goal is to decrease car trips by 15%, with four corresponding goals: get traffic moving, increase safety, clean the air, and promote equity. To accomplish this some drivers will have to pay a fee to drive downtown, others may get a discount, and investments will be made to make it easier for everyone to walk, bike, and take transit. The specific policies are still being worked out, with the target of identifying a short list this summer and a recommendation this fall.

During the question and answer session a number of possibilities were explored in more detail.

When it comes to the implementation there is not a specific technology chosen yet but it will likely be using license plates, with a possibility for payments to be made through Clipper or FasTrak. The level of the fee isn’t yet decided yet, nor is the question of whether it will vary based on immediate demand. 

While the boundaries are not yet set in stone the focus will be on the area around downtown, though if the region is too small it could lead to increased traffic just outside the boundary. Noting that 80% of trips into downtown San Francisco now begin from within the City, the 2010 study’s “Northeast Cordon” choice of the region bounded by Laguna Street, 18th Street, and the Bay is a starting point, as opposed to the “Southern Gateway” approach which would have tolled drivers crossing into the City regardless of destination. 

Further, many of the downtown trips are now being made by TNCs. There has not yet been a determination of whether there will be a flat fee for crossing the cordon boundary or if there will be multiple fees for crossing through multiple zones, which could account for the impact of trips made just within downtown. It was reported that Uber and Lyft are supportive of this study as they would rather see car trips taxed equally rather than charges focusing exclusively on TNCs.

Another question touched on whether fees will vary for vehicles of different sizes, based on the research showing that SUVs take up 1.4x as much street space as smaller cars. The 2010 study hadn’t considered this option but it isn’t ruled out yet for this study.

Many of the questions about implementation details will depend on what enabling legislation ultimately passes in the state legislature, which is a requirement for this program to go into effect even locally. Before getting state authorization, the policy would need to win a majority of votes at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was estimated that the earliest that this would likely go into effect is 2025, provided that there is political will to pass it.

Check out the live tweets to see the full Q&A session.

Supported by SFMTA

In two recent presentations the leadership of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has expressed strong support for this concept. At the 2020 Board of Director’s workshop Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin’s introductory slides included supporting this SFCTA study as one of several solutions to SF’s transportation challenges:

The recently convened Muni Reliability Working Group also released a set of recommendations several weeks ago which called for supporting strategies for congestion management, including pricing to help improve Muni service:

What’s next – getting involved

As mentioned at the forum, the situation is different today than a decade ago when congestion pricing was last considered.

A version that focused on tolling people traveling from outside SF was roundly panned in San Mateo County. Today, San Francisco is looking at congestion fees for people traveling downtown, most of whom are coming from elsewhere in SF. San Mateo County is building managed lanes on highway 101 which will charge solo drivers at peak hour in either direction. And all the programs in progress are considering strategies to address equity, including toll discounts, transit and carpool benefits. New information about options being considered for the 101 Managed Lane equity plan will be covered in a different post.

One question to watch for is how the money will be spent to address congestion and equity, and whether each program will look to spend money in its own jurisdiction, or look at travel patterns to decide where to invest.

SFCTA has a website for sending feedback and finding out about upcoming events about the congestion pricing plan. You can also email the team at congestion-pricing@sfcta.org. If you are interested a range of topics about improving the environment through urban transportation and land use, check out the Urban Environmentalists.

Post contributed by Cliff Bargar