Each year, Bostonians spend the equivalent of almost three weeks of work commuting. That’s 134 hours idling in a car, crammed on a train and stuck on a bus. This makes Boston the fourth worst commuting city in the world — behind London, Paris and Chicago — according to a survey from INRIX analytics company.
One potential tool to ease that problem is congestion pricing, which implements fees for people driving in a designated area during peak times.
Could congestion pricing work for a city like Boston, which has a relatively small downtown and hyper localized economic activity?
Jon Gruber, chair of MIT’s economic department, joined Boston Public Radio on Thursday to give an economic perspective on the costs and benefits of congestion pricing.
What is congestion pricing?
Overhead cameras at all entry points to downtown would record when vehicles enter and leave the designated area. The cameras would be unobtrusive, similar to the toll cameras on the Mass Pike, said Gruber. Drivers would pay a fee based on when they entered downtown and how long they stayed.
Policymakers must decide on the specific details of a congestion pricing plan, including the boundaries of downtown, fees and any vehicle exemptions.
New York is on track to becoming the first place in the United States with such a plan. This summer, it finally approved congestion pricing for Lower Manhattan, paving the way for implementation in 2024. The proposed fees for driving below 60th Street are between $9 and $23, and lower during the late-night hours.
Here in Massachusetts, former Gov. Charlie Baker opposed congestion pricing, while Gov. Maura Healey has said it could be on the table.
Benefits reported in London and Stockholm
Congestion pricing has already been implemented in cities outside the U.S. with several recorded benefits.
The approach was pioneered in London in 2003, where drivers paid a flat fee of £15 (about $19) to enter a dedicated 8-mile zone downtown. They exempted people with disabilities, taxis, essential vehicles, ambulances and electric vehicles. The results were dramatic: the use of private cars in downtown London fell by close to 40%.
London’s flat fee was a broad approach, which Gruber said may not be suitable here. He said Stockholm provides a “more sophisticated” example that Boston could look at.
In Stockholm, the fee varies based on when cars enter the traffic zone and how long they stay, with a maximum fee of 130 krona (about $12). After implementation in 2006, not only did traffic decrease by 22%, greenhouse gas emissions fell by 10% to 15%. There was also a 15% reduction in emergency room visits for childhood asthma because of the decreased pollution.
“This isn't just about the world being underwater in a hundred years. There's real, current economic [and] real, current health costs of emissions,” said Gruber.
In New York, some people fear that more traffic will be diverted through the Bronx to avoid fees, leading to worse air pollution in neighborhoods with already poor air quality. The MTA has promised to use money raised from congestion pricing to mitigate any pollution impacts, by adding more green space and air filtration systems, among other measures.
In Massachusetts, opponents of congestion pricing, like former Gov. Baker, point to the prohibitive costs for low-income workers and residents who have fixed schedules and can’t depend on the unreliable T.
“This system only is equitable with an effective public transportation system,” said Gruber. “But this system can also raise the money that can pay for an effective public transportation system.” It’s a “chicken and the egg” conundrum, he said.
In New York City, the congestion tax is estimated to generate about $1 billion a year that will go back into public transportation.
“We're just not putting the resources in,” said Gruber.
To help solve the chicken and the egg problem, Gruber said Boston should think about a sequence of actions that lead to both less traffic and healthier cities.
“This doesn't work unless ... you put a workable congestion charge in and improve public transportation,” said Gruber.
But how can Boston make both things happen at once? “I think here the answer is easy, which is you improve public transportation and you finance it with a bond that's paid back by the congestion pricing.”
Then, legislators must work out the specifics of a pricing plan like what areas are included and who could be excluded from the fees. “I'm worried a little bit about that process,” said Gruber. He fears vague legislation. For example, if low income residents are excluded, then the definition of “low income” must be clear.
To serve low income residents there could be a transition system, where there’s a congestion tax subsidy for low income people that phases out over time as the city improves public transportation, said Gruber.
“There are real costs to society of not doing this. And we need to consider that,” Gruber said.