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3 Far-Flung Cities Offer Clues to Unsnarling Manhattan’s Streets

The idea translates easily into any language: Charge drivers for using congested streets and watch them change their habits. It has become an increasingly attractive tool for major metropolises overwhelmed by the traffic strangling their streets.

But actually carrying out congestion pricing has been anything but easy — at least in three cities that are often cited as international models. In London, Singapore and Stockholm the fees were met with skepticism and outrage by commuters and civic and business leaders, though they later proved effective in reducing traffic, congestion and air pollution.

As New York debates whether to join these cities after decades of stalled efforts, their experiences could provide a road map. Each city does congestion pricing in its own way. Singapore sets varying fees based on the road and time of day, and adjusts them in response to traffic conditions, with fees going up when there is congestion, and down when there is not. Stockholm also sets varying fees for a congestion zone covering the central city area, with the highest fees at the busiest times of day. But its system is less flexible than Singapore’s since those fees do not regularly fluctuate with traffic and any changes require the approval of Sweden’s Parliament.

In contrast, London charges a simple flat-rate of $16 per day no matter how often a vehicle goes in and out of a designated congestion zone in the center of the city. In New York, a state task force has proposed a flat rate of $11.52 per day for passenger cars — and $25.34 for trucks — for entering a congestion zone in Manhattan that would stretch from 60th Street south to the Battery. Taxis and ride-hailing cars could face a separate charge of $2 to $5 per ride.

All three cities invested heavily in technology and infrastructure before they rolled out their congestion-pricing systems. Stockholm spent the most — $237 million — to set up a system of gantries and cameras in 2007 that register and identify vehicles by snapping photos of license plates, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group based in New York that has compared the three systems. London also relies on gantries and cameras that cost nearly as much, or $214 million, in 2003. Singapore’s project cost $110 million in 1998 and requires every vehicle to be outfitted with an electronic device that automatically tallies up the fees, according to the Transportation Campaign.

These start-up costs were later recouped through the congestion fees, which have also raised millions more for transportation and infrastructure needs. London receives about $230 million annually in net revenue, while Stockholm’s system raises $155 million and Singapore’s generates $100 million each year, according to the campaign. New York’s task force estimated its proposed congestion plan could raise more than $1 billion annually for public transit.

To encourage a shift away from cars, officials in each of the far-flung cities added new buses, bike lanes and other public transit services. As congestion pricing has settled in, many of the fees have gone up — more than doubling in London and drawing complaints in Stockholm that the system has become an easy way to raise money.

Other challenges remain. Even with the fees, London’s gridlock has returned, driven in part by an influx of Uber and ride-hailing cars that did not exist a decade ago. Singapore is working to make its system more efficient and less costly by turning to satellites to replace the physical gantries beginning in 2020.

For drivers in these cities, congestion fees have become part of daily life. That does not mean they like it. “It’s very frustrating,” said James Tan, 55, a businessman in Singapore. “I do try to avoid driving during peak hours. But if you have to drive, you have to drive.”

Singapore, The early morning rush in Singapore, which charges fees to enter the main business district that can be as high as $4.57 per day. Credit Edgar Su/Reuters