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April 02, 2019

Philly considers congestion pricing as New York City's plan moves forward

The initiative intended to reduce traffic would charge drivers a fee to enter downtown areas

Driving Traffic
Stock_Carroll - Vehicles in traffic on North Broad Street Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Vehicles on North Broad Street.

Driving your car into Center City Philadelphia could wind up costing you a fee in the not-too-distant future.

New York City's new "congestion pricing" plan, a traffic initiative that will charge drivers to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, could soon set a standard for car-clogged cities across the country. That is, if it actually has the intended effect.

Our neighbors to the north, led by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, made congestion pricing a centerpiece of a $175 billion state budget. The policy lacks any large-scale precedent in an urban area in the United States, but New York now has the attention of other cities, according to the The New York Times.

Congestion pricing is a dramatic reaction to decreasing car speeds in major cities, which have seen a fairly rapid slowdown in recent years. On average, the speed of cars in urban downtowns fell from 18 mph in 2015 to 15 mph in 2018. Gridlock has been intensified by the growth of Uber and Lyft, Amazon delivery and car owners insisting on solo commutes to work.

Philly is among the U.S. cities watching what happens in New York, and Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney's office, confirmed that Philadelphia is open to examining congestion pricing as a solution to traffic issues, too.

“Philadelphia has never formally considered congestion pricing in the past but is considering it now as part of several initiatives," Cofrancisco said. "We always pay attention to policies in other cities to see if they can be adapted to fit Philadelphia's unique circumstances."

The logistics of enacting a congestion pricing policy remain unclear, even in New York City, where the deadline to implement the program is set for the end of 2020. Internationally, cities like London have used a CCTV system to scan license plate's and assess entrance fees.

In Singapore and Stockholm, gantries are used to scan license plates for E-ZPass-style readers installed in cars.

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it's looking to "minimize the infrastructure footprint" of their system by exploring a variety of tech alternatives. Some ideas have included roadside readers that tap into a car's Bluetooth system or drivers' smartphones' GPS systems, both of which could be intrusive and subject to security vulnerabilities.

Proponents of congestion pricing point to the productivity cost of inaction on the traffic problem in American cities. They also see an opportunity to redistribute traffic patterns, promote safety initiatives like Vision Zero in Philly, boost public transportation use and raise revenue for ongoing transportation needs.

Critics argue that the policy will discriminate against drivers in neighborhoods without direct access to public transportation. It also may result in shifting congestion to other areas, some poorly equipped to handle it, as drivers attempt to circumnavigate fees.

Several other cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco, also have begun to study the potential impact and benefits of congestion pricing.

While nothing is imminent in Philadelphia, New York's experiment shouldn't be overlooked as the first of what could be many dominoes.

"We’ll be watching New York City's experience with congestion pricing closely to see how this can help improve equity, safety, sustainability and mobility," Cofrancisco said.