» Comparing the approaches taken by Paris and London suggests that to ease traffic U.S. cities can attempt other, more politically palatable solutions than pricing.
When it comes to transportation economists, there’s pretty much one answer to every problem: Equate pricing of all modes with their greater societal impacts. In general, this means that we (in the U.S.) ought to be charging drivers more to make up for the negative effects they have on the environment and the roadway infrastructure, and that we ought to be increasing subsidies to encourage people to take transit.
This approach could be implemented in a variety of ways depending on location, but one model that has been particularly appealing to planners interested in reducing the perceived negative economic and social effects of traffic has been that of London, which in 2003 implemented a congestion charge on drivers entering its central business district. Revenues from the program went to increasing transit service. The method, unsurprisingly, has been a major success in terms of reducing traffic: Between 2002 and 2007, overall car movements in the district decreased by 39%. Meanwhile, travel on public transportation increased correspondingly over the same time period: By 24% on commuter railways, 16% on the Underground, and 18% on buses.
These are excellent results and the effects have been overwhelmingly positive for commuters and residents of London’s central areas.
But what if congestion charging is just too much of a hot topic for even progressive American cities to handle? The effort to instate a similar system in New York City in 2008 was so thoroughly brought to its feet that it is hard to imagine wanting to repeat the fight.
Yet there’s an alternative, and it may prove just as productive if the goal is to reduce traffic: Paris’ systematic engagement to make it harder to drive in the city. The French capital has proceeded in a manner far different from that of London, choosing to avoid paid penalties on drivers in order to prevent the further development of the already-existing sense that the City of Paris is attempting to isolate itself from its suburbs, which are already cut off by a ring road. 40% of drivers within the city’s borders are inhabitants of the surrounding areas.
As a result, the administration of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has since 2001 prioritized the creation of bicycle, bus, and tramway infrastructure along with the reduction of vehicle lanes along both major boulevards and side streets. Huge sections of the city have been designated 30 km/h zones and biking is now allowed in both directions on most streets, even those that are one-way for automobiles. Free parking has been mostly eliminated. This spring, the city reinforced its efforts to commit far more street space to biking and expand that mode’s travel share.
Streetsblog’s Ben Fried provided an excellent overview of the city’s program in April 2008.
Looking back, the results have been astonishing: Even with no direct financial reason to abandon driving, the city saw a 17% decrease in driving between 2002 and 2007, a trend that is continuing (according to the most recent information, it may now be 24%). In the same time period, travel on the regional rail network increased by 16%, by 8% on the Metro, and by 2% on buses in the city. Weekend traffic has seen the most significant gains. This has reduced further the already extremely low share of overall commutes made by car or motorcycle in the city: Just 16.3% in 2008. In the near suburbs, the equivalent statistic is 40.2%, though those areas are soon to be better connected by a system of tramways and bus-only routes (and eventually by a massive circumferential metro).
Paris’ accomplishment, though not as large in percentage change as London’s, was arguably more significant since it affected the entire city of 41 square miles, versus the original eight square miles of the London congestion zone (later roughly doubled).
Moreover, these statistics fly in the face of the commonly-cited idea that “congestion pricing is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reduce traffic congestion,” to quote transportation policy experts David King, Michael Manville, and Donald Shoup. For cities truly concerned about finding ways to limit the number of cars traveling down the street, whatever the purpose, this example demonstrates that a concerted effort to get cars off the street by limiting the space available to them can be an effective technique.
There are, of course, dissenters who make the argument that the Parisian approach limits economic productivity and results in a “decrease in mobility” because car drivers no longer are able to move as easily as they once were. That interpretation, however, is based on the fact that overall passenger-kilometers have decreased; yet that statistic favors trip distance thereby discounting the value of, say, walking to the neighborhood store — an essential trip for people living in an urban place. Also, economic discussions focused on “mobility” fail to reflect the fact that inhabitants of neighborhoods with fewer cars benefit significantly in terms of quality of life.
Arguments that suggest that bus ridership has not gained enough passengers to reflect the decrease in car traffic do have some merit, though there is no doubt that certain interventions, such as the installation of a new tramway along the southern edge of the city limits, have significantly increased public transport use.
The major failing of Paris’ approach is that it does not guarantee a new revenue source for the public transportation system. Whereas London was able to use its congestion charge to reinforce spending on its local bus system, Paris has had to continue relying on other funds to ensure the increase in services provided on increasingly packed buses and trains. Even so, that may be a compromise worth considering for other cities wanting fewer cars without the political nightmare that is congestion pricing.
Image above: A bus in Paris with policemen on bikes, from Flickr user Daniel Lobo (cc)