Americans can't get enough of their cars. It's a relationship that forces state and local government agencies to constantly devise solutions that minimize pollution and congestion - the two main side effects of our addiction to the automobile.

These solutions aren't always met with enthusiasm, however.

In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, inspired by successes in London and Sweden, announced a congestion-pricing plan for parts of Manhattan. The proposal, which needed legislative approval to become law, would charge drivers $8 per day to drive in notoriously congested areas between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Though Bloomberg's proposal gained support from major players, including the state's governor, it also unleashed a flurry of criticism. The Legislature threatened to not vote on the plan during the 2007 legislative session.

But after a marathon negotiation session in mid-July, according to The New York Times, the Legislature passed the bill, which will create a commission to study different plans for reducing traffic congestion in New York City, including Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed the bill into law in late July.

Across the country, King County, Wash., is using the "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" method.

Instead of charging those who drive in congested areas, the county's Pay-as-You-Drive (PAYD) Insurance Pilot Project plans to give a positive incentive to those who don't. Using GPS technology, the PAYD pilot will monitor driving habits of willing participants and offer lower insurance premiums to those who drive less and outside of rush-hour traffic.

 

Drive Less, Pay Less
According to a 2006 King County report, more than 1.7 million licensed vehicles shared space on the county's roads in 2004. With a population just under 1.81 million in 2005, that works out to almost one vehicle per person. With 70 percent of the county's residents embarking alone on their morning commute in 2004, according to the same report, that's a lot of cars on the road.

But county officials say PAYD will help reduce that number and the problems it entails. "King County has been looking at a variety of approaches, an entire menu of approaches to reduce the No. 1 emission of greenhouse gas in our area, which is automobiles," said Ron Sims, King County executive. "We've also been looking at approaches to reducing the congestion in our area, which is often automobile-based. We believe that Pay-as-You-Drive brings an incentive for less car use and more and more efficient car use."

Set to launch in fall 2007 or early spring 2008, the five-year pilot will recruit 5,000 drivers, whose cars will be outfitted with GPS transponders. These units will record an array of information, including when, where, how much and how fast participants drive.

"We will be able to look where the car entered certain quadrants during peak hours," Sims explained, "and the insurance will be adjusted depending on when they enter those specific areas on the GIS maps."

The program aims to encourage drivers to use public transportation, ride bikes or carpool whenever possible. According to a county news release, those who choose to drive less or avoid congested areas during peak traffic hours could save as much as $100 on their annual insurance bill.

At the end of the pilot period, the program's objective is to reduce miles driven by participants by 12 percent and increase carpooling by 5 percent. A long-term goal is creating a PAYD product that could be replicated by other governments, but if nothing else, the pilot will reveal potential kinks in implementing such a program, said Jim Lopez, deputy chief of staff for King County's Executive Office, and lead on environmental issues.

"We hope to learn a lot about people's preferences, what works in the program, what doesn't," Lopez said, "and we hope

Corine Stofle  |  Staff Writer