As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Congestion Pricing and San Francisco

When I lived in San Francisco, though I was out in the Richmond I spent a couple years without a car using public transit without much of a problem. Between BART, Muni, rideshare on the Bay Bridge and the ferries there are plenty of opportunities to get around throughout the city. It can be a bit of an ordeal but it is well within the realm of possibility. That hasn't stopped Bay Area commuters from expressing anger about a proposed congestion pricing scheme.

America's second most congested city could become the first to institute so-called congestion pricing to try to reduce downtown traffic, improve the environment and raise money for further transit fixes. A similar effort failed earlier this year in New York City [...]

The online reaction was fast and furious.

"Why should I have to pay to drive on public streets?" asked one reader. "Driving has gone the way of smoking," wrote another, adding that "it is easy and right to pick on drivers."

Congestion pricing, said a third, "would be a regressive tax on those who don't have good public transit options..."

People pay lip service to wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, and then bristle at tangible steps toward it. I hate to quote Tom Friedman here, but he's right - re-engineering America into a post-carbon future without a specific price signal like congestion pricing or a carbon tax is going to be impossible. There are plenty of different ways to go about this. California is experimenting with raising the gas tax as part of the work-around budget. Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is mulling over a mileage tax. Congestion pricing has worked in London, and toll roads as a quicker option are present across the country. The point is, as Friedman says:

The two most important rules about energy innovation are: 1) Price matters — when prices go up people change their habits. 2) You need a systemic approach. It makes no sense for Congress to pump $13.4 billion into bailing out Detroit — and demand that the auto companies use this cash to make more fuel-efficient cars — and then do nothing to shape consumer behavior with a gas tax so more Americans will want to buy those cars. As long as gas is cheap, people will go out and buy used S.U.V.’s and Hummers.

There has to be a system that permanently changes consumer demand, which would permanently change what Detroit makes, which would attract more investment in battery technology to make electric cars, which would hugely help the expansion of the wind and solar industries — where the biggest drawback is the lack of batteries to store electrons when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. A higher gas tax would drive all these systemic benefits.

The congestion pricing proposal in San Francisco has another appeal - reducing traffic and allowing people to increase their productivity simply by getting to where they need to go faster. That includes the street-based public transit options as well. Ultimately, if the congestion pricing money is used smartly, to enhance mass transit options, it makes complete sense to try it.

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