What’s the Secret to World-Class Transit Systems? Congestion Pricing

Top transportation officials from three global cities — London, Singapore and Stockholm — shared their experiences in expanding the use of transit at a panel at the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference last Friday. Eyeing those cities, it’s easy for New Yorkers to get jealous.

“I was, in many ways, salivating,” said MTA chief Joe Lhota.

Singapore's massive transit expansion plans -- the dotted lines are all system expansions planned for the next ten years -- wouldn't be possible without congestion pricing. For a larger version, ##http://www.lta.gov.sg/content/lta/en/projects/rail_system_map_mrtlrt/proj_maps_rail.html##click here##.

Singapore is doubling the size of its rail network in the next ten years, according to the Singapore Land Transport Authority’s Lew Yii Der. Using driverless technology, he added, Singapore will soon be running subway trains as little as 90 seconds apart.

London boosted bus ridership by 60 percent in a decade (in contrast, New York’s bus system is seeing fewer passengers year after year) and recently hit an all-time high for Underground use, said Transport for London’s Elaine Seagriff. Projects in the pipeline will add an entire new rail line through the heart of the city and boost capacity in the existing Underground system by 20 percent.

Stockholm plans to spend 8 billion Euros on expansion projects through 2020 for a region of only 2 million people, reported Stockholm Public Transport Managing Director Anders Lindström. In the New York region, per capita spending on that level would come out to $115.5 billion.

In a city where “mega-projects” mean three new stations for the Second Avenue Subway and one on the 7 line — and where it’s possible no system expansions at all will be included in the next five-year capital plan — it’s hard to imagine the cash-strapped MTA ever reaching such lofty levels. How did these other cities do it?

It’s foolish to call anything a silver bullet, but even so, it’s no coincidence that each of these cities do something New York hasn’t done: price the use of scarce road space.

London’s phenomenal growth in bus ridership, for example, can be significantly attributed to the fact that surface transit doesn’t have to sit in gridlocked traffic, thanks to the city’s congestion charge. Analyst Kenneth Small estimates that in the typical American city, bus ridership would jump 31 percent due to the introduction of congestion pricing, without bus service even receiving any of the revenues.

But the money certainly helps. London’s congestion charge generated approximately $240 million in 2009, all dedicated to transportation. Stockholm’s pricing scheme took in about $112 million in a much smaller region.

Stockholm, too, is pursuing major transit expansions (here, all the colored lines), thanks in part to congestion pricing. Image: ##http://sl.se/PageFiles/838/Public_Transport_Plan_2020_in_brief.pdf##SL##

The most all-encompassing efforts to put a price on driving, by far, are practiced in Singapore. On that dense island city-state, drivers must pay not only to use the roads, but to own a car at all. Starting in 1990, the government began to ration out permits to own personal vehicles, allowing the total supply to rise by three percent a year, according to Der. Since then, the allowed growth in automobiles has been lowered twice, to its current level of 0.5 percent a year. As a result, there are only 608,958 passengers cars in the entire nation of 5.2 million people. “The going price for a car is almost 80,000 US dollars, just for the certificate,” Der said.

Once Singaporeans have paid that much for the mere right to own a car, they also have to pay for the use of the roadway. Prices at 80 tolling stations across Singapore change every three months, based on congestion conditions.

Without competition from subsidized driving, the Singapore transit system is actually able to turn a sizable profit. Though the government helps pay the capital costs of the transit system, Singapore boasts a farebox recovery ratio of 126 percent.

The three systems had other shared characteristics — system-wide fare integration using smart-card technology chief among them — but congestion pricing stood out as integral to the success of the systems.

Is there political support in New York for any form of road pricing? It’s hard to say. “I really don’t want to talk about congestion pricing,” said Lhota, calling the question one for elected officials.

“It is a tough political row to hoe,” admitted former MTA chief Lee Sander, who moderated the panel. Still, Sander noted, of the three state senators who doomed bridge tolls in 2009, only one is still in office. One is headed to prison and the other may be following soon.

Recent history suggests other reasons to think some form of road pricing could be politically possible in New York. The City Council approved Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan by a vote of 30 to 20. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver endorsed East and Harlem River bridge tolls pegged to the price of a subway fare. And polls showed a sizable majority of New Yorkers in favor of congestion pricing, as long as the revenues were dedicated to the transit system.

The missing piece, these days, is Governor Andrew Cuomo, who seems content to opine about congestion pricing while letting the state’s transit system decay.

  • Roberto


  • Roberto

    Unfortunately, car drivers will see this as “You (transit) win, I lose”, but that’s they way its gotta be.

  • Anonymous

    In the meantime, we should continue to fight for priced parking and TOD.  No reason to build parking lots at transit stations.

  • Carson

    IMHO, just not “doable” in the States. This isn’t the U.K., Sweden, or Singapore. If, by some miracle, a U.S. city institutes congestion pricing (think NYC, S.F., Seattle—mainly because of their natural water barriers), people and business will just go elsewhere (New Jersey, San Jose, Bellevue, etc.). Unlike the aforementioned countries, there’s plenty of undeveloped land, gasoline is cheap, highways are numerous (and free at point-of-use), and few people actually live in the classic “cities” as opposed to the sprawling suburbs.

    That, and by doing this you risk offending a constituency (drivers) that make up about 95% of the adult population. Can you hear the cries already? “War on Cars!”, “Socialism!”, “Government Interference!”. Americans are used to driving be cheap and convenient and anything that threatens this “birthright” will be vociferously derided.

  • vnm

    Carson,  a) That’s really defeatist.  b) There have been lots of things that naysayers said couldn’t be done in America that were: Women’s suffrage, trade unions, civil rights, gay marriage, I could go on and on. This should be a smaller leap that any of those items. The point is, don’t be surprised if things change. c) As we learned in the 1970s and early 1980s, the biggest threat that would cause NYC losing businesses is an unhealthy transit system. d) Without data to back up your assertions, I don’t buy the argument that businesses would leave NYC because of part-day tolls. Did any leave because of the Port Authority toll hikes? Businesses would gain lots of productivity from being able to get places quickly that would more than offset the fee. 

  • bill b

    MTA  chief Joe Lhota ” salivating ” , New Yorkers hide your wallets and metro cards . The  MTA will never have enough money from hardworking New Yorkers . Congestion pricing
    sounds good , but in the real world  of New York City they will increase it and increase it.   

  • Aidry

    Congestion pricing allows rich people to drive on less congested roads while everyone else has to walk, bike, take public transit, or drive the long way around. I’d rather see dynamic parking costs which do not limit anyone’s movement or transportation options, but do account for the real cost of parking. A destination centric form of pricing through parking is far more equitable than a congestion charge.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t get why parking-based pricing is any more equitable than a congestion charge.  Care to elaborate?

  • Aidry

    Parking allows people to still travel anywhere and in any mode of transportation they wish, but restricts storage at destination based on demand and affluence of that specific destination. That is different than completely preventing the less affluent from being able to drive period. Parking also allows for dynamic charges per location, vehicle size, and duration, and demand  vs. congestion charges which are more of a one size fits all approach. There’s a lot more fine tuned control and potential equity with smart parking meters charging for a storage solution rather than a blanket access charge.

  • vnm

    Also, more to Carson’s points: e) Firms would flee for cheaper driving? I’d say the exact opposite. Congestion pricing would probably actually attract firms TO NYC. There are huge negative externalities generated by traffic congestion, to other cars, to people walking on the sidewalk, to people who breathe air. A more pleasant city with less congestion would likely attract more firms to the city. f) It came so close to happening in NYC twice earlier, were it not for a mere four corruptible politicians who opposed it in the NY Senate, three of whom have now been forced out office by scandals (Kruger, Espada and Monserrate), and one of whom has proven himself to be a complete troglodyte out of step with NYC (Diaz Sr., on gay marriage). Now Connecticut is looking into it. g) from a social justice standpoint, how can Government continue to abide by the status quo? The Government charges you $2.25 to cross the Manhattan Bridge use a congestion-busting, environmentally friendly form of transportation, but lets you cross bridge for free in a pollution-spewing, congestion-causing private vehicle? How can we stand for that?

  • vnm

    Finally, h) I’m sure change-averse people in London, Singapore and Stockholm were against it at first too. Now, I’m sure if you tried to take it away from any of these places, there would be an outcry. 

  • Anonymous

    For London, while the extra money from congestion charging is nice. The main source of funds is from Central government. That £16 billion new crossrail, gets a third from central government, a third from new local business taxes and development taxes.  The £10 billion tube upgrade programme is money from central government.  Plus the Transport for London also gets £4.5 billion a year grant direct from central government.  If you want good public transport then your political structures need to be willing to spend the money.

  • Anonymous

    in response to Aldry who prefers smart parking to condon pricing:
    The latter doesn’t prevent people of lesser means from driving to the city-center – it just puts a price on it, and in return, allows a quicker trip – that’s what market-based means – whether it’s parking or driving.
    But here’s a question for you: How does smart parking benefit me as a bike or transit rider, or pedestrian?  Other than perhaps increased meter revenue that could be used for ped/bike/transit, or perhaps less motorists circling looking for parking, it doesn’t. Cordon pricing enable faster transit, as the article states, and safer bike trips, assuming the cyclist doesn’t get in the way of the bus.
    I think the ‘equity argument’ you apply, which is essentially the tired ‘Lexus lanes’, is a charade initiated by those who want to keep driving ‘free’.  Why not call the smart parking “Lexus parking”?


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