San Francisco, Paris and Beijing have joined a growing list of cities mulling over what many consider to be extreme measures in controlling congestion and the added pollution it causes.
Earlier this month, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority released its recommendations for a congestion pricing scheme that would charge drivers between three and six dollars for the privilege of driving in the city’s busiest downtown neighborhoods. The plan will receive further study and isn’t expected to go into effect until at least 2015, but a promotional video released by the SFCTA makes it clear that the body has every intention of pursuing the policy.
Meanwhile, several French municipalities including Paris and Lyon, are looking into a possible outright ban of SUVs within the next two years. As reported by the AP, a Parisian environmental official recently told RTL Radio that citizens who drive SUVs should “sell (them) and buy a vehicle that’s compatible with city life.” He continued, “I’m sorry, but having a sport utility vehicle in a city makes no sense.”
While such rhetoric likely wouldn’t fly with American drivers, there is a potential for cities to marry congestion pricing schemes with green vehicle incentives in such a way that could encourage consumers drive cleaner, more efficient vehicles. In Britain, a now-abandoned scheme would have excused electric vehicle owners from paying a congestion tax in downtown London.
California already offers single-passenger access to its carpool lanes for drivers of electric cars and some plug-in hybrids—a privilege that’s been available to hybrid drivers for the past few years (but which ends on Dec. 31). Adding a second level of benefits for hybrid and electric vehicles—in the form of a discount or exemption from congestion fees—would provide a significant new level of benefits to driving green.
An Undesirable Solution to a Growing Problem
With populations around the world becoming more and more concentrated around urban areas, many municipal planners and public officials are finding their transportation infrastructures stretched to the breaking point—posing several threats to the long-term health of their cities:
- An influx of new commuters is often indicative of a healthy economy, but the congestion that usually accompanies it can cost citizens, businesses and local governments billions of dollars each year in services, fuel and maintenance costs, and economic activity due to lost time.
- A failure to accommodate existing transportation needs discourages economic growth and decreases home values—cutting the tax base and putting further strain on the city.
- The cost of maintaining and improving public transportation systems around the United States is projected to increase significantly in the coming years, as cities scramble to accommodate more commuters traveling from newly populous neighborhoods.
Though paying a daily tax for the privilege of driving in your home city may not seem fair, supporters of the schemes say that the new tolls would simply offset the hidden costs of traffic congestion to society. Whether citizens and policymakers end up embracing that argument remains to be seen.