November - December 2010
Vol. 73 No. 6


Congestion pricing - a chance for a big improvement in downtown SF traffic

A 12% reduction in peak-hour traffic may not sound like much, but in fact, it could create a remarkable change in downtown San Francisco. Traffic jams would almost disappear. Blocked intersections would be a thing of the past. Traffic would move faster and bikes and pedestrians would have noticeably less traffic to dodge.

The bad news is that the city is predicting increased auto congestion downtown. Especially when the recession ends, population and employment will be increasing in the city and the region. Major housing construction is proposed in Park Merced, Treasure Island, Hunters Point, South of Market, Dogpatch, and Octavia Boulevard, in addition to many smaller infill projects. Most of these projects include too much parking, and will generate even more driving than they would otherwise.

The good news is that in December the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider congestion pricing, a new program that could indeed cut down on drivers. The basic concept would be to charge a fee to all cars entering or leaving downtown during peak hours. It might cost $6 per day (perhaps divided up as $3 each way). Most collection would be automated by using FasTrak technology as on the bridges. The $60 - $80 million in net revenues would be used to fund more city and regional transit service. Planners expect about a 12% reduction in peak-hour driving, as some drivers shift their times, and others shift to the improved transit.

The city has been studying congestion pricing for two years, since the Bush administration began seeking test projects to see if congestion charging would do more to relieve congestion than building more traffic lanes, and gave the city a study grant. For over two years the San Francisco County Transportation Authority has been trying different boundaries and times for the charges and soliciting stakeholder opinions. The study predicts a 12% reduction in peak-period auto volumes. The study employees microsimulation of traffic based on the volume reductions to show that drivers who pay the congestion fee will enjoy speed improvements of 15 - 25%. Drivers will also experience reduced traffic as they approach the downtown.

Congestion pricing is in use - and working well - in London, Singapore, Rome, Stockholm, and other European cities. These cities charge a fee to drive on streets that have historically been free, and the congestion reductions have been noticeable. Other U.S. cities are in the study phase.

London claims a 15% reduction in driving with a charge of approximately $12 a day (weekdays from 7 am to 6 pm) and up to $250 fines for those who neglect to pay. London uses its net congestion-fee revenues to increase surface transit, which now moves more freely because of the reduced congestion. London reports a 30% increase in bus ridership, and businesses in the area are mostly supportive of congestion pricing.

The Sierra Club San Francisco Group supports congestion pricing in concept. We may have some comments on the proposed details when they are released. We see that congestion pricing can reduce congestion and allow Muni to move with fewer traffic delays.

Congestion pricing will require approval first from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and then from the state legislature. The state has already authorized a special transit agency on Treasure Island to impose congestion pricing when future residents leave the island in cars, but congestion pricing for everyone driving into the downtown will be a much bigger step.


San Francisco residents should contact your supervisor at:
City Hall, #244
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, CA 94102.

Ask them to approve congestion pricing for downtown.