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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008

EarthTalk

From the Editors of E/THE ENVIRONMENTAL MAGAZINE

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Dear EarthTalk: How does congestion toll pricing, used in some cities around the world, cut down on vehicle traffic and promote green-friendly public transit? —Bill Higley

EarthTalk: Despite increasing green awareness and steadily rising gasoline prices, Americans and other denizens of the developed world—not to mention millions of new Chinese and Indian drivers hitting the road every week—are loath to give up the freedom and privacy of their personal automobiles. But snarled traffic, longer commute times and rising pollution levels have given city transportation planners new ammunition in their efforts to encourage the use of clean, energy-efficient public transit. One of the newest tools in their arsenal is so-called congestion pricing (also called variable toll pricing), whereby cars and trucks are hit with higher tolls if they access central urban areas at traditionally congested times.

Singapore was the world’s first major city to employ congestion pricing in 1975 when it began charging drivers $3 to bring their vehicles into the city’s central business district. The system has since expanded citywide, with toll rates at several locations changing over the course of a day. Funds generated by the program have allowed Singapore to expand and improve public transit and keep traffic at an optimal flow. Some of the tangible ben efits of the program, according to Environmental Defense, include a 45% traffic reduction, a 10 miles-per-hour increase in average driving speed, 25% fewer accidents, 176,000 fewer pounds of car bon dioxide (CO2) emitted, and a 20% increase in public transit usage.

London implemented a similar plan in 2003 that was so successful it was extended to some outlying parts of the city in 2007. Today, drivers pay $13 to bring their vehicles into certain sections of London during peak traffic hours. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, London’s plan has significantly reduced traffic, improved bus service and generated substantial revenues. Environmental Defense says the plan reduced congestion by 30%, increased traffic speed by 37% and cut fuel con sumption and CO2 emissions by 20%.

A 2006 congestion pricing experiment in Stockholm produced similar results, shrinking commute times significantly, reducing pollution noticeably and increasing public transit use during a seven-month test. The day after the trial ended, traffic jams reappeared, so Stockholm voters passed a referendum to reinstate the plan. Today the city has one of the most extensive congestion pricing systems in the world.

Perhaps the next major city to implement conges tion pricing will be New York, if Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way. In July 2007, the state Legislature rejected Bloomberg’s first such proposal—which would have used collected funds to pay for expansions and improvements to the regional public transit system—but ever-increasing conges tion and pollution might force lawmakers’ hands in the future.

“A congestion pricing plan is the most cost-effective way to jump-start transit improvements and reduce traffic congestion,” says Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives, one of a handful of groups working with Bloomberg to craft a version of the plan that will fly with state lawmakers. With two-thirds of New Yorkers opposed to the idea, it looks like an uphill battle for now, but advocates say passing such legislation is inevitable.

Contacts: Environmental Defense Fund, www.edf.org; Transportation Alternatives, www.transalt.org.Got an environmental question? Send it to: earth talk@emagazine.com.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.
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