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New York is set to join London, Singapore and other major cities by introducing a congestion charge for drivers – but is the approach it’s likely to adopt already looking old fashioned?
Other cities with congestion zones use automated license plate recognition to determine who goes into chargeable areas. When it starts in 2021, it’s anticipated New York will deploy electronic-tolling devices around southern Manhattan to govern entrance.
Flat charges are expected for cars and trucks, with some exceptions and discounts for off-peak travel. The fees will contribute around $1bn toward upgrades of the city’s subway network.
While reducing congestion and upgrading the subway are positive outcomes, the authorities in New York are being urged by some industries to seize a further opportunity.
Former Zipcar CEO Robin Chase wants the scheme to look beyond a basic ‘tollbooth’ system.
“With more than $1 billion per year projected to be collected through New York’s congestion pricing program, losing hundreds of millions to build infrastructure that duplicates what already exists would be a travesty,” Chase wrote for Citylab.
“New York can take advantage of the fact that GPS, smartphones and wireless exist, are well understood, and have been widely adopted. There are new and better ways to figure out which cars drove where and how to collect that payment.”
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The debate over whether New York is better served by fixed infrastructure or GPS and smartphones is set to run, but elsewhere the conversation is changing.
London’s congestion zone has been in place since 2003, giving ample opportunity for any drawbacks to be recognized. Alongside infrastructure costs, one of the main negatives is how drivers end up paying the same whether they’re in the zone for a few minutes or all day.
Equally, if charging varies between peak and off-peak hours, traffic can increase outside usually busy times to get around the charge; while drivers can also adapt journeys or routes to avoid the charge, to the detriment of areas on the edge of the zone.
In fact, the notion of London maintaining a ‘zone’ is being challenged by the idea of implementing a scheme seen by some as a more enlightened approach to tackling congestion and vehicle pollution.
London has both a congestion zone and, as of earlier this year, an ultra-low emissions zone in which only the cleanest vehicles can drive without incurring a charge. Polluting vehicles have to pay both the congestion charge and the emissions charge should they wish to enter central London.
A report from the Centre for London suggests scrapping both schemes and replacing them with a more sophisticated system that makes use of digital platforms and an app to charge per-mile based on the impact of a particular vehicle’s journey.
The report, which is backed by some politicians and business groups, could see driving costs integrated with the wider transport system.
The think tank proposes Transport for London runs an app that quotes prices ahead of a journey and levies charges based on vehicle emissions, pollution, congestion and public transport alternatives.
The benefit of a city-wide per-mile scheme lies in the potential use of existing technology and how multiple charging schemes could be simplified into a single digital service. This service could allow easy implementation of variables, new charges and related services without over-complicating the process.
For users, accessing a service like this on an app could be simple, fairer, and help them to make informed choices about routes and their wider urban transportation. Of course, there are also the principal benefits of less congestion, safer roads, and a healthier population.
All it takes for an approach like this to catch on is for one major city to dive in first. Others might start their own journey toward a transport plan that is bold, smart and fair.