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Congestion Pricing: Is There a Perfect Technology Solution?

As New York and other cities eye congestion pricing plans, transportation experts say coupling the cost with better, cheaper alternatives could go a long way in reducing traffic in dense urban areas.

The technology supporting traffic reduction efforts like congestion pricing largely mirrors toll road technologies, and is poised to venture further into video and GPS-based systems in the future.

Conversations around congestion pricing have picked up as more cities — largely internationally — have adopted the measure as a means to reduce car-related congestion in dense urban areas.

New York City is set to adopt a congestion pricing plan in parts of Manhattan in 2021, where it would cost motorists about $10 to drive south of 60th Street, making it the first U.S. city to adopt such a plan.

Other cities like Los Angeles and the San Francisco area are also eyeing congestion pricing plans. In February, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously to “further explore congestion relief pricing and new mobility fees for ride share companies,” according to an L.A. Metro statement.

Difficult, but Not Impossible

“It’s really not all together different than the standard, typical tolling technology that’s used in a regular tolling scenario,” said Kevin Hoeflich, with the transportation engineering firm HNTB.

“So you have your transponders … The transponder technology is probably the most straightforward. Probably the most reliable. And probably the most tried and tested,” he added. 

U.S. cities will likely look to places like Singapore, London and Stockholm, which have adopted congestion pricing traffic control programs. Singapore, a city covering only about 250 square miles with a population of about 4.5 million, was one of the earliest to adopt congestion pricing in the 1990s. It used overhead gantries and short-range radio technology similar to California's FasTrak.

“It was essentially variable tolls on the major freeways,” said Alexandre M. Bayen, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, adding that the system was not considered hugely revolutionary at the time, but is still all but unthinkable stateside.

“With some form of adaptive pricing — and the notion being that if you want to decongest, you price more — you publish the fares ahead of time, and then people won’t use it,” said Bayen, explaining the concept further.

The next generation of the system is set to be released and will place technology in every car in Singapore that is “essentially a GPS box” that allows the state to charge the car for the use of the highways and streets, said Bayen.

“With a system like this you can essentially change the fares very quickly, and you can price people everywhere,” he added.

Other systems, like the one in London, rely on video-enabled license plate readers. The congestion pricing geofence affects a roughly 16-square-mile section of central London and has resulted in a roughly 15 percent reduction in traffic, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

However, the video license plate reader system can be "fairly equipment intensive,” Hoeflich said.

“What you get with cameras is you have to take a picture of the license plate, then you have to track the person down,” he explained. 

This requires the motor vehicle agencies to have accurate addresses attached to car registrations for billing — a process that could prove problematic, given that each U.S. state runs its own motor vehicle agency.

A system that uses only cameras also presents problems when capturing multiple lanes of traffic or heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic, as opposed to reading a transponder signal, Hoeflich explained.

For now, a GPS-based system may not be the best option in the United States, Hoeflich said.

“I don’t think GPS is quite there yet. But that’s probably going to be there at some point,” he added. “You know, you have GPS on your phone. You have GPS in your vehicle.”

The expansion of 5G networks could also open the door to more innovative tolling technologies, but the technology is not mainstream throughout all of the U.S., Hoeflich said.

“So again, as you get into those technologies, I would say two things: They’re not ready for prime time, and as you go down that list, they get less proven and less reliable,” he added. 

The best system today, Hoeflich said, is one that includes transponders and a video backup.

Cause for Privacy Concern?

In an age when cities are increasingly collecting large amounts of data related to how people move through the urban landscape, personal privacy and the security of that data is a growing concern. However, when it comes to location data, much of this has already been handed over to the likes of Google, Apple and other large tech companies, said Bayen.

“The point is the data that the government would get, or an agency would get, or even the private sector running it on behalf of the government … would only get a tiny, tiny, tiny subset of the data that Google already has,” he added. “So that privacy argument doesn’t really hold, unless you’re worried that that government contractor might have that data.”

Congestion pricing systems using a transponder would logically collect location and time-of-day data when the transponder is read, said Hoeflich. But again, this is a minimal amount of information when compared to the vast vacuuming of personal data collected by smartphones.

Pairing Cost with Other Options

Data concerns aside, targeting the wallet has proven to work as a congestion mitigator and a powerful force for behavior change.

“There’s a couple hundred years of capitalism that shows that price affects behavior,” said Jon Orcutt, communications director for Bike New York, a bicycle advocacy group in New York City. “And this would be a pretty significant price increase for the act of driving into the central business district.”

“In New York, we think it’s going to be a game-changer,” he added.

Where congestion pricing can be really effective, Hoeflich said, is when it’s partnered with other mobility options. By improving existing transportation options, like more buses or light rail, cities could further the mission of guiding commuters away from their cars.

“What you’re effectively trying to do is price people out of driving into downtown,” Hoeflich said. “You’re not trying to keep people out of the downtown, you’re just trying to stop them from driving into downtown. You want to give them another solution, or improve the solutions they already have.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.