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Seattle’s promising, extremely early look at congestion pricing: Traffic down, CO2 down, money for mass transit up

London does it (Image: SDOT)

London does it. Singapore does it. Stockholm does it. New York is starting it. And now Seattle is considering becoming one of the cool kids who charge people to drive downtown.

A Seattle Congestion Pricing Study (PDF) report will be on the agenda Tuesday afternoon as Seattle Department of Transportation representatives will begin the discussion with the City Council about how Seattle might implement some sort of congestion pricing program. The study doesn’t really get into details or suggestions of how Seattle might implement a program. It gives an overview of how such programs work in other cities, and suggests how Seattle might take the next steps toward developing a program of its own.

Some of the study’s findings will make you want to implement a plan immediately:

In every case, congestion pricing has reduced vehicle trips (by 10% to 44%), reduced CO2 emissions (by 2.5% to 22%), and lowered travel times (by 10% to 33%).

Congestion pricing can take a number of different forms. The one common denominator in all of them is an area is designated for pricing. Basically, draw a circle (more or less) on a map, and attach conditions to people who want to go inside the circle.

  • Cordon pricing is what many people think of when they consider congestion pricing. When someone drives into the circle from outside, they pay a fee.
  • Area pricing is similar, but it also charges people for leaving the circle, and for trips within the circle.
  • Fleet pricing means only charging a particular class of vehicles such as ride sharing vehicles (and cabs) or commercial vehicles.
  • A fossil-free zone charges the cordon price, but also forbids gas powered vehicles from entering some areas at all.
  • License-plate zone restricts cars based on their license plate numbers, so plates that start or end with a certain letter or number can only go into the area on certain days.

There are also tolling schemes, like charging per mile, or charging tolls on arterials.

In case studies cited by the report, each of the options generally worked: traffic went down, greenhouse gas emissions went down, travel times became more reliable, and additional revenue helped fund investments in mass transit and other programs.

The study noted that four options might be worth more study for Seattle: cordon pricing, area pricing, fleet pricing, and the per-mile charge.

While there are a number of different ways to implement a pricing scheme, one of the major decisions involves the goal. Is the idea just to reduce traffic, or would the city also be trying to reduce emissions, or generate additional revenue, or something else? Designing a system that maximizes one of these goals won’t necessarily maximize the others.

Any system is also likely to shift traffic patterns as drivers find ways to skirt around the boundary.

There’s also the question of implementation. Where, exactly would the borders be? How would charging work from a logistical standpoint? It might be possible to install systems similar to the good to go system on the 520 bridge. But would drivers allow the government to place trackers in their car to measure a per-mile pricing scheme?

And of course, there is an equity issue. Flat pricing structures would place a higher burden on lower-income people than it would on wealthier people. But there could be ways to mitigate those impacts, such as using the money generated to expand transit options in target communities with more lower-income residents. Or, the pricing system could charge on a sliding scale based on income.

Dealing with equity would be a top priority for the Transportation Choices Coalition, nonprofit advocacy group, said Hester Serebrin, policy director of the group. Serebrin said her group was happy equity was a focus of the report.

She notes that while there will have to be trade-offs, there might be opportunities for some creative thinking in implementing the program. For example, some of the revenue generated could be used to reduce taxes in other areas – such as the sales tax – and might help move the region to a move progressive taxing structure that could help lower-income residents.

Before it could be implemented, any program would need to win referendum of Seattle voters. (Sorry, folks who drive here for work but don’t live here, you don’t get a say.) The report explains that in other cities, there is strong initial support of the concept, which falls off as details emerge. The support level bottoms out just before the program starts as people are nervous, but generally support increases after its up and running.

Serebrin noted that while people may balk at a new toll, there is already a cost to driving downtown in terms of parking, gas, and time lost to traffic jams. People who decide to avoid the toll by taking a bus would also help themselves avoid these other costs.

SDOT retained a consultant for the report funded by an $200,000 appropriation to study the impacts and benefits of congestion pricing. The council has also appropriated $1 million in the 2019 budget to fund a second phase of the study to include “community engagement,  financial and transportation modeling of scenarios, and evaluation of potential equity impacts and benefits, pricing tools and options, technology options and impacts to businesses and roadway users.”

The next step, according to the current report, is to define Seattle’s goals for its program which can then inform what sort of program and pricing options will work best to meet those goals. As you can see from SDOT’s diagrams of the planning process, there is a long road ahead.

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15 thoughts on “Seattle’s promising, extremely early look at congestion pricing: Traffic down, CO2 down, money for mass transit up

  1. Rich people have plenty of advantages already; why on earth would we deliberately create yet another way they can wiggle out of problems the rest of us are stuck having to deal with?

    Traffic sucks, sure, but it sucks fairly; doesn’t matter how rich you are, we only get so many hours in a day.

    We don’t need congestion pricing, we need *good public transit*.

  2. The public health implications are clear- the status quo is not equable either. One in four people commuting to work downtown are doing so in a car alone, yet those drivers are responsible for much of the delays for public transit that stymie more investment in it.

    “Traffic sucks, sure, but it sucks fairly” does not at all ring true to the thousands of people stuck on buses behind your vehicle.

    • It’s not the drivers who are responsible, it’s the auto designers and makers who continue to insist on side-by-side seating in cars even though they know people drive alone the majority of time. It’s long beyond time to transition to single-width, 100% electric, highway-capable auto design.

    • It remains all too easy to forget what has been considered a proven economic fact for decades – when commute costs are implemented (gas taxes, expectations around having electric vehicles, tolls, mileage fees, etc), it is the poor who suffer. Why? Because they are the ones often relegated to living way outside their work areas and, due to their lower incomes, can’t afford an electric car, often don’t have adequate access to transit, and so on. If we continue to ignore this fact, we continue to make policies that harm them and, quite frankly, leads to more and more of what everyone moans about – greater homeless numbers. And this is not even speaking to those low income people who also deal with disabilities that further complicate the whole commute issues and bottom lines to their income. Let’s be responsible to keep the vulnerable in mind with what we implement. It takes a big picture focus to remember the true benefit/cost ratios in these decisions.

      • Agreed, and it seems from a cursory glance at the material they are aware of the undue burden it puts on someone making $40K a year vs. the entitleds making >$100K, etc. I know a number of people who work for the big tech companies in town and many of them take Uber/Lyft to work or drive alone – why? Because they can, their companies often reimburse them for transportation to work, and because they have schedules that allow it. Tax the everloving hell out of those modes.

      • Build more park and rides outside the city.

        The 2.75 for bus fare is going to be a lot less than what gets spent on gas driving from, say, Renton to downtown Seattle.

        Solve two problems at once.

  3. Unlike Seattle, all of the other places where congestion pricing works have mature transit systems. They also don’t have the narrow-city problem Seattle faces with bodies of water on the east and west borders, which severely limits the number of alternative routes available. I’m not saying congestion pricing is inherently wrong, but so far these comparisons and studies seem very flawed. For the commenter, Ryan, ” yet those drivers are responsible for much of the delays for public transit that stymie more investment in it.” what do you mean by this? Even looking at ST3 voters, many car commuters voted in favor of it because they wanted public transit alternatives. The reality is that the new ST3 lines aren’t even operational yet and we’re talking about congestion pricing and ST4.

    • My point is simply that congestion created by SOVs causes delays for transit that could be reinvested in the system as a whole. Currently an unacceptably high level of King County Metro (and Sound Transit express bus) service hours are wasted in congestion. If we were to free that up, a virtuous cycle could continue where transit improves and more people choose to use it.

      • Well, let’s make more transit-only lanes, then. No need to make things complicated and inequitable with a complex congestion-pricing scheme; just set aside more street space for transit and let everyone negotiate equally for what’s left, rich and poor alike.

      • More transit only lanes? All on board for that… if only we could prevent the SOV drivers and Uber/Lyft (by far worst on the road) from blocking them. The route I take has its own lane for greater than 90% of my trip, and we spend about 20 minutes just trying to get from 3rd Ave to Denny via Battery Street. Why? Jerks in cars who block intersections or the bus lanes themselves and have no fear of repercussion.

  4. I wish Mayor Durkan would live on the salary of a regular working person in Seattle for six months, without her motorcade and cushy home in the better part of Cap Hill. She’d realize the crushing pressure that working people face as they are nickel and dimed at every turn as they try to afford astronomical rent hikes, new and unjustifiable road tolls like 99, significant increases in the food costs, increased public transportation costs and childcare costs. Durkan is unrepentant in her complicity to drive all working people out of Seattle. This latest idea doesn’t even have the data to back it up. We lack the transportation infrastructure of places like Singapore and London and in case folks wanted to increase their bike usage, she’s dismantled the master plan that would create greater safe biking lanes across the city. I voted for Durkan but it’s now that clear she lacks a real vision for this City and where she does have ideas, she lacks the leadership to drive real change. Strike one was the head tax debacle, strike two was her treatment of Carmen Best during the search for police chief, strike three is the continued homeless crisis and changing the way the city counts people to show less homeless numbers. This latest idea, which she has been pushing for some time now, is a desperate attempt to score a win, even if it will have a tremendously negative impact on working people. She simply doesn’t care. Shameful!

  5. I’m a service provider and need to have my van wherever I work. There’s 4 different buildings downtown that I have regular work in. It would suck to have another expense like this to factor in to my overhead

      • Imagine if there were no non-commercial vehicles on the road (expanding that to include taxis and uber and suchlike). How much easier would it be for you to get your van around, then?