Rising traffic congestion has been an inescapable part of living in the Bay Area, and during a talk on Tuesday in Oakland, transportation experts have said that charging drivers for the social costs of driving could be a plausible way to reduce traffic, pollution and noise.
The “Is Driving Really Free?” talk, which was organized by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), presented proposals to fine drivers for these social costs.
Austin L. Brown, executive director at UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, the Environment and the Economy, said that while people have been paying for their vehicles and fuel, they do not pay for infrastructure, congestion, parking, and pollution. “Once something is free, it’s really, really hard to go back,” said Brown.
Brown proposed several pricing schemes for governments to implement. The vehicle miles traveled tax (VMT), which had previously been experimented with in California, would be an effective way to charge drivers for pollution, as it’s a policy of charging motorists based on how many miles traveled.
In order to tackle traffic, Brown suggested congestion pricing based on the vocation the driver is in or the time of day that a driver travels. He explained that this policy had been used effectively in cities such as London, where the government charges motorists a fee within a “congestion charging zone” in Central London between 7 am and 6 pm on Mondays to Fridays.
Brown warns, however, transportation pricing schemes may negatively impact low-income communities.
“One of the questions that comes up again and again when we talk about any sort of attempts to price transportation is ‘how do you make sure that it doesn’t negatively impact equity?’” Brown said.
He proposed that building express lanes could prove especially effective in maintaining equity in pricing, as drivers who are willing and able to pay more would be able to skip traffic using the express lanes, while indirectly subsidizing lower-income drivers who cannot afford it.
He finally added that if transportation charges prove difficult to implement, the government should try and incentivize other initiatives such as vehicle sharing.
“My little wax poetic line on why public policy is such a wonderful thing when you get it right is that the world in my view would help you do the things that are hard but are still a good idea if we can get there at the end of the day,“ Brown said.
According to a 2017 report by Wallet Hub, San Francisco and Oakland respectively ranked worst and second worst cities for drivers in the United States. Meanwhile, the stretch of Interstate 80 between Highway 101 and the Bay Bridge was ranked the 12th worst traffic bottleneck in the U.S, according to a 2015 report by the American Highway Users Alliance.
David Vautin, analyst and senior planner at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), has said that the MTC had received several proposals over the years to implement transportation charges.
He said that they are currently studying converting carpool lanes into express lanes on several highways in the Bay Area, including lanes on Interstate 880 between Oakland and Milpitas.
“We found them to be moderately cost-effective. They do have benefits significantly above their costs, but their support for regional goals like housing and greenhouse gas emission reduction is a little bit less,” said Vautin.
For the most part, planners discussed changes specific to San Francisco, such as implementing the congestion pricing policy in Downtown San Francisco and Treasure Island, and using the revenues to improve transit services. Vautin said that this policy proved to be both cost-effective and supportive of the regional goals.
“They do generate significant benefits for health and safety as more people are deciding to walk and bike as an alternative to driving,” Vautin said.
Implementing such policies, however, would prove difficult, the panelists said.
Jeff Hobson, deputy director for planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), said that while there are currently intentions to implement the congestion pricing policy in Downtown San Francisco, the policy was introduced seven years ago and still has not come to fruition.
In the late 2000s, SFCTA was studying the implementation of the policy, where it found that it would result in 12% fewer trips, 21% reduction in congestion and 60 to 80 million dollars in revenue. Elected officials ultimately voted down the proposal, partially because there were doubts regarding San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s handling of the implementation of the proposal. Hobson, however, added that politics played a part, as a lot of the politicians’ voters were drivers.
“When you decide to price a previously unpriced good or service, you have to get your facts straight because people will care very deeply about it and you have to suffer through very significant public backlash,” said Brown.
Vautin in an interview after the talk added that there are currently no pricing proposals specific to Oakland, which currently suffers from aging transit infrastructure.
Some city residents also face health problems related to the transit system. A 2008 report by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) found that West Oakland residents were exposed to diesel pollution that was almost three times higher than the average levels in the Bay Area. A 2015 study by the Alameda County Public Health Department revealed that the health of West Oakland residents was worse than those in surrounding area, such that residents had two times higher rates of ER visits related to asthma, and higher rates of deaths from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease. For example, compared to a White child living in affluent Oakland Hills, an African American child born in West Oakland would be three times more likely to die of stroke.
According to the report, “high outdoor air pollution levels from motor vehicles, refineries and power plants increase coronary heart disease deaths and stroke deaths, and increase lung cancer rates.”
In an interview following the talk, Brown attributed this uneven distribution in pollution to freight travelling to the Port of Oakland, while Vautin added that the tearing down of Interstate 980 could potentially improve equity in the area. The I-980, which separates West Oakland from the city’s downtown, was initially constructed as a highway to a bridge that was never built. West Oakland is now completely surrounded by freeways, which effectively increased pollution in the area.
Brown stressed the importance of including input from low-income communities in any decision-making process when it comes to transportation pricing strategies.
“The most important thing, though, is making sure that there is a voice in those communities. Because historically they’ve been almost ignored in the planning process, and often dealing with impacts that they’re not really aware of,” said Brown.