Seattle’s Congestion Pricing Report looked at ten different schemes that could reduce the volume of cars in congested areas, from variations on a toll, to bans on non-electric or non-autonomous vehicles, to allowing only certain license plate numbers on a given day.

Stockholm Cordon Toll (Tage Olson, via SDOT)

After considering environmental impacts, congestion reduction, equity, and feasibility, SDOT ended up with four alternatives:

  • Cordon Pricing, which charges drivers for crossing a boundary into a sensitive area (like Stockholm);
  • Area Pricing, which adds a fee for driving around within the cordon in addition to the boundary toll (like London);
  • Fleet Pricing, which tolls a particular type of vehicle fleet, like commercial vehicles, or taxis and taxi-like services (like New York is planning); and
  • a “Road Usage Charge” that ” restrict[s] access to a zone to vehicles enrolled in a RUC program that levies a per-mile charge,” kinda like the WSDOT pilot for a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax.

Additional equity analysis suggested that variable tolling, with an exemption, and a focus on spending the proceeds on transit and “vulnerable communities” was the option that put equity first. Frank observed that the report didn’t offer any drawbacks to Fleet Pricing, uniquely, and suggested it as “an interim step.” So perhaps we’re headed for an “Uber tax” in the medium term.

As a matter of policy, that’s defensible. Taxi-like services are most likely to truly compete with transit for trips where transit does really well — like peak trips into and out of downtown Seattle, where there would be a toll. Transit trips that don’t involve downtown are noticeably less convenient, and therefore more likely to happen in a car. Broadly speaking, taxis are good when they discourage car ownership and bad when they pull people off of transit.

On the other hand, shielding often wealthy people who drive into downtown while making it harder for gig-economy workers isn’t an obviously equitable way to proceed. Nevertheless, the optics of making “big corporations” pay to reduce congestion may carry the day.

41 Replies to “The congestion pricing report”

  1. The devil is in the details. Any solution that doesn’t remove cars from 1st, 4th, Denny, pike/pine, etc will be a failure even if it is equitably funded.

  2. SDOT needs to keep adding bus lanes and complete the center city initiative and the CCC streetcar. Without the core infrastructure for transportation, how can they start another initiative?

    We all know people who start projects and never finish them, but we don’t need SDOT and other agencies acting in this manner, we just need to get bus service reliable downtown first and then congestion pricing of any kind might actually work in some fashion.

  3. Jon, vastly reducing car traffic downtown will help bus throughput more than any other project.

    I happen to like the CCC streetcar, but it isn’t meant to fix the myriad of buses sitting in traffic each day.

    1. Congestion pricing could be an option to make up the funding gap for the CCC, as well as accelerate the implementation of the RapidRide lines and the basic bike network. Just make sure the money isn’t squandered on more major highway and bridge projects! (Funding spot roadway improvements like roundabouts to replace some of Seattle’s notorious “5-way stop” intersections would also be OK, IMO.)

  4. Thanks for the update. Keep it up.. I am interested but don’t always have the time to learn more. I appreciate the summaries.

  5. I’m personally skeptical that any of this is going to make it through the political process at the end of the day, in a world where people have been indoctrinated in belief of an innate ride to drive anywhere, anytime, for free. For example, for congestion pricing to really address congestion, the toll zone has to include include Mercer St. But, if Mercer is tolled, that means everyone in Queen Anne and Magnolia has to either pay the toll to get to or from I-5, or detour through Fremont and Wallingford, which have their own issues with congestion. As long as most of the people who live in those neighborhoods still own cars and drive them regularly, such a move is going to be very unpopular.

    1. I would agree that the political process will result in it not happening in the near future. Depending on what specific lines are drawn, I could see residents of many areas having fear that it would increase neighborhood crosstown traffic. That includes residents around the CD, Phinney Ridge, Madison Valley, Mt Baker, ID, Queen Anne, Beacon Hill and Crown Hill. There are also those cities along 405 that would pushback because it could increase traffic on that road.

      While going to or from Downtown Seattle has great and soon-to-be-faster transit service, going crosstown often requires and continue to require multiple transfers and/or slower buses. The crosstown issue would have to be addressed and there are no good options to do this. Seattle now has limited single-lane crosstown street options, magnified by many recent crosstown lane reductions — so almost no pavement is left to take for a fast crosstown transit route.

    2. Would it have to include Mercer street? If it starts just south of Mercer, then it basically applies to all traffic using Mercer to get downtown without actually tolling Mercer itself.

      1. That is one of the big issues with the plan. It isn’t like Manhattan, where there is an obvious line to draw.

        That being said, if I drew a line, it would be just south of Mercer, if not Denny. The former considers South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne as part of downtown, while the latter does not. Either way it is a pretty simple designation, and would be unlikely to lead to people driving well out of their way to avoid the toll. The freeway is the obvious line to the east, which means First Hill is free. Yesler then becomes the line to the south. You could make a strong argument in both cases that you are leaving out parts of downtown, but in both cases you aren’t likely to get weird driving patterns to avoid the tolling. In general people would either take transit, pay the toll because they want to drive to downtown, or use the freeways to avoid it. That is basically what we want.

    3. Maybe start with the immediate downtown core, then Mercer street users will see the reduced congestion and clamor for expanding it to SLU?

      1. I agree with the start small concept. It’s easier to get something done if you start small. Of course there will be riots at first no matter how small but eventually that dies out, just like the uproar over the HOT lanes on 405. Or, for that matter the controlled onramp lights we now take for granted everywhere. I don’t recall the exact boundary but how about starting with what was the old RFZ?

    4. Why does it have to “include Mercer”? Simply set the cordon scanners immediately to the south of Mercer. From Elliott to Third West Mercer Way has no right turns. Then, first First North to Fifth it has no turns except into Seattle Center lots. That’s nearly half the distance between Elliott and I-5 where no cordon structures are necessary.

  6. One interesting aspect that we could get out of a downtown-focused Uber/Lyft tax is an incentive for people that current ride Uber/Lyft cars downtown to truncate their rides at Link stations – even in cases where the car ride is as long, or longer, than the train ride. For example, using UW Station as an intercept when coming from Redmond or Kirkland, the future Northgate Station as an intercept when coming from Mountlake Terrace or Bothell. Or, use Capital Hill station as an intercept when coming from Madison Park. Or, even SODO Station as an intercept when coming from West Seattle.

    Right now, almost nobody bothers to do this for multiple reasons. 1) People pulling out their Uber/Lyft apps are generally not thinking about public transit options. 2) The way the services are currently priced, the cost savings is just not enough to be worth the bother for most people, and in some cases (e.g. group travel), truncating the ride at a Link station may actually *increase* the cost, once you add in the Link fares.

    But, if you had to pay a $8 surcharge for each trip that starts or ends downtown *and* the Uber and Lyft apps automatically suggested a truncate-to-Link option, showing you how much money you’d save, this form of travel could start to get more adoption. (Right now, when you plug in downtown as a destination, the app doesn’t even tell you what the price would be if you truncate the ride unless you manually change the destination around to ask it).

    Of course, the ideal would be for people to take buses to the Link Stations, but I can understand reasons some people might have for not doing that. The walk to the bus might be too far, or the bus might spend too much time at bus stops picking up other passengers along the way, or take a less-than-direct route. Or, the bus might run too infrequently and not leave when you want to leave.

    FWIW, I have experimented with taking Uber from DT Kirkland to UW Station and riding Link downtown when the 255’s schedule didn’t work out. The door-to-door travel time to downtown Seattle is indeed faster than riding the 255 all the way, and whatever time is spent in the overhead of leaving the freeway, driving two blocks down Montlake, and waiting for the train, I make up by skipping South Kirkland P&R and other bus stops along the way. Of course, having the Uber car drop me off right at the actual station, rather than on Pacific St. definitely helps (which is why we need the proposed Montlake triangle improvements for the buses to happen).

    1. I do think some people are doing this, just probably not that many. I know someone who routinely calls a cab (typically Uber/Lift) to take him to the UW station when he is headed to the airport. I agree with your general point, though, I think a lot more people would take the train out of downtown then take a cab to their destination, when the savings is more than a couple bucks.

  7. For this to work buses need to be useful for short inner city travel. As it is right now, if you’re taking a bus from a neighborhood next to, but not in Downtown, your options are either a forced diversion to Third or the unreliable 8. Why take a bus trip that can easily stretch to 30-40 minutes, when the rideshare will take 10 even if you pick the ‘shared’ option? (E.g. South Lake Union/LQA to First Hill)

    Put a decent, frequent bus on Boren and the Lakeview Blvd bridge and it looks less ridiculous.

    1. Good Point. We are long overdue for a restructure for what I would call the greater Central Area (which includes First Hill and Capitol Hill). In my opinion, it will happen as soon as Madison BRT is built. That bus line will have a bigger impact on the buses in the area then the single, solitary light rail station that was added a few years ago. I came up with a bunch of ideas for new bus routes, but as I mentioned in that post, what Metro has proposed for that area is excellent (I’m just trying to add a little frosting to a very tasty cake). My ideas are listed here: https://seattletransitblog.com/2018/11/15/east-seattle-bus-restructure/, and it of course includes all the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown (not just the C. D.).

      1. RossB, the restructure could be done without Madison BRT. It is quite costly and misses Link. We want very short walks for bus-Link transfers. We want intense use of the electric trolley bus infrastructure. Yesler Way is a congestion-free pathway between First Hill and the 3rd Avenue transit spine.

  8. I think we need to start with the right goals and priorities rather than blindly throwing around strategies. I would define the goals as: improve non-car mobility, improve walkablility, and ideally decreates the negatlve externalities of cars. Would any of these tolling mechanisms do these? Maybe indirectly, but no guarantee.

    It’s similar to the debates on whether a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is more effective. Historically I’ve leaned toward a carbon tax because it seems more transparent and harder to game, but there’s a counterargument that if the problem is emissions, cap-and-trade addresses it directly by decreeing how much emissions there will be, whereas we have no idea what tax rate would guarantee the desired level of emissions.

    Downtown Seattle is also geographically unique in being in the middle of an isthmus, much smaller than central Manhattan or London, and having downtown-adjacent neighborhoods on three sides with limited access alternatives. For instance, to get from Capitol Hill to Costco in a car, you can either go downtown and take 2nd or 5th Avenue (congestion charge), or down Broadway or Boren to Jackson (congestion charge), or down 12th to Beacon Hill (Beacon Ave/Holgate St, a kind of ridiculous detour with a steep winding narrow hill that’s hard for some elderly people to drive). To get from Queen Anne to east Seattle you have to take Denny Way. Lower Manhattan is at the end of a penninsula, London has a centuries-old center that’s wide open around it and the cordon zone includes more than downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, the U-District, and Fremont combined. Downtown Seattle is just right in the middle with not a lot of ways around it.

    There was also a controversy about closing Pine Street at 5th when Westlake Park and Station were built. The proponents said it would create pedestrian space. The opponents said it’s right in the middle of a crossroads that wasn’t designed to be closed. I tend toward the latter. If we want to create a pedestrian plaza at 5th & Pine, then we need to redesign the streets around it, and give the Pike-Pine buses something better than turning twice to Union in traffic and ending up annoying far from Midtown.

    1. A very neat solution to the “can’t avoid tolls” is to subsidize the 99 tunnel with congestion pricing funds and make it free. The 99 toll encourages people to take surface streets, which is not what we want.

      1. Exactly. I understand your point, Mike, but one of the big ideas of congestion pricing for downtown is to discourage people from driving *through* downtown on a surface street. Go ahead, join the mobs on I-5. Pay the fee and drive on SR-99. But please don’t drive on the surface during rush hour. Outside of rush hour, be my guest.

    2. As for carbon tax versus cap and trade, it is all politics. Of course a carbon tax is simpler, easier to implement and more effective. But people hate the word “tax”, so when dealing with an ignorant electorate (in, say, America) you try a different approach.

      This is similar, and Martin pretty much nailed it. No one is saying that Uber/Lift or traditional cabs are the primary cause of congestion in downtown Seattle. But they make for an easy target, because older Seattle drivers simply don’t use them that much. It is very similar to the tax on rental cars. It is designed to tax those who visit Seattle, but it applies to residents to. If you can’t afford to buy a car, but occasionally use one, you are out of luck. If you simply choose not to own a car, but occasionally rent one, tough. The same would be true with this tax.

  9. I am 100% in for Cordon Pricing. But there is a serious issue with equity. This would basically make all the roads for rich people only; and be far more detrimental to people with lower incomes and less mobility (ADA). To remedy, I would suggest offering each license plate X “free trips” into downtown per month. These free trips would be far more than enough for infrequent downtown users to drive in for a doctor’s visit, trip to the movies, baseball game or aquarium. People who heavily use downtown will get charged in excess of X visits. This could also push commuters to cut their car usage! Many people who drive 20x per month (4 business weeks) might then only drive X, and then find another way the other 20-X times.

    1. I tend to agree with having a number of “free” (or reduced fee) days. This tends to retain the flexibility for those who only “occasionally” drive in to downtown–often with the intent to spend money at area businesses while attending an event/show or meeting up with people. It could be a sliding scale, like if it’s under X days it is free, but it goes up to $2/trip once you get up to Y days, then $5/trip, then $10/trip if you get up to 20 days (e.g., four work weeks driving every day). This still does not directly address equity, but you can address it on the “backend”, e.g., if you get ORCA LIFT, the allowance for “free” trips is increased (but not eliminated–you want people to actually use the ORCA LIFT as much as they can!). It provides a structure which allows equity to be addressed, and businesses don’t have to worry about losing customers who (occasionally) drive in to downtown.

    2. The roads are only for rich people now anyway. In this state, you pay a gas tax. It is nowhere near what exists across the border in B. C., but it still adds up. You also pay tabs. These are taxes that make owning a car more expensive (not that owning car would otherwise be cheap). Unless and until we have rioting like Egypt or France, I really don’t care.

      I can think of far more onerous taxes. The tobacco tax, for one. Last time I checked, you weren’t allowed a certain number of cigarettes because you were poor. Nope, you just paid the extremely high cost of continuing your addiction. But the government, of course, will fully fund a program to get you clean, as well as pay for whatever drugs (like anti-depressants) you might need to kick the habit. Ha — I kid. They won’t pay for any of that.

      Compared to that, this is nothing. The only reason people come up with these ideas to avoid the tax is because it is new. Put it this way: Let’s say I’m poor and taking care of three kids. I go into Fred Meyer and buy them notebooks, pencils and pens for school. I also buy them clothes because they have outgrown or worn out their old ones. Do you think Fred Meyer is going to have pity on me, and tell me that I don’t have to pay sales tax? Is there some government office where I can get a refund? Of course not.

      Sorry, but driving downtown is not a right. Neither is driving over 520, and last time I checked, that cost money too. It is unfortunate that many of these taxes hit the poor harder, but it is far more important that we build a system that provides for the lower classes. Study after study has shown that spending money on government projects (like better transit) makes up for the tax penalty of regressive taxes (like this one).

  10. Agreed that drawing boxes will never work, the geography is too complicated and there are too many externalities. It’s a political disaster full of winners, losers, and unforeseen consequences.

    The entire approach needs to be implemented and sold to the public around making transit faster. Right now there are serious problems with buses, including Rapid Ride lines, getting stuck in traffic. Everybody already knows this.

    Identify the choke points and toll them. Put ALL of the revenue from the tolls into the specific bus line(s) that are being improved. Some people will inevitably try to find meandering routes around the tolls–there is no need to try and prevent this as long as the bus routes are kept clear.

    As for ride-hailing apps…I would set up a dozen geofences for pickup/dropoff and ban it everywhere else. With technology these days they should be integrating the apps with transit, selectively taxing rideshare trips if there is a transit alternative, and using the revenue to subsidize other rideshare trips to transit deserts.

    The phrase “congestion tax” needs to be stricken from the policies entirely. These are “rapid commute corridors” with “speed and efficiency improvements”, and “consistent travel times” that will be revenue-neutral.

    1. 100% agreed with having designated rideshare pickup/dropoff points. Makes pickups and dropoffs–the most stressful part of rideshare–easier both for drivers and riders.

    2. I wouldn’t rule out the idea of drawing a box (see comments above by Frank and myself).

  11. I find the report terribly light on geographic specifics and it indiscriminately bounces around between citywide and Center City references and possible impacts. It’s so light on these that I have to wonder if the intent is to say “we studied it” and put it to collect dust on the shelf.

  12. The thing about fleet congestion is that, even as a “transitional” system, it doesn’t actually address the issue at hand–traffic congestion. The only time a substantial fraction of the cars in downtown are Uber and Lyft is at bar hours, when there isn’t much traffic congestion. Well, except for the Pike/Pine area–which is not even “downtown”! In fact, it may be self defeating as people will say, “Look, it’s just a money grab. and traffic congestion didn’t get any better!” The only way to address traffic congestion is with a policy that actually applies to a *majority* of cars in the area at peak traffic times.

  13. Skimming through this study, I don’t see any actual data on the effects of congestion pricing. Just some very handwavy stuff about about “equity.”

    How much would congestion pricing effect traffic? How much money would it raise for transit, and what could we build with it? How much would reduced traffic speed up transit through downtown? What area of the city would be effected?

    Section 4.1 sketches out a 9 step plan for “policy development,” where they don’t even start asking basic questions until step 5. This report is step 1.

    It seems like the plan is to kind of dither around until people forget about this.

    1. That’s what Jenny Durkan is apparently best at, in City Hall.

      That and rolling over and playing dead for the cop unions.

  14. Instead of having solo drivers pay in terms of money, why not have them pay in terms of time.
    In place of having bus lanes, we have a single car lane on every street within the core downtown. Rest of the ROW is dedicated for transit, bike/scooter and pedestrians separately.
    If you want to drive into/around downtown, sure. But be prepared to spend a lot longer time sitting in traffic than it would take by bus/train/bike/walking.
    No need to have scanners and counters, No privacy concerns. This also helps with the scooter and e-bike safety issues by having a dedicated lane for them. Also, this might arguably be more equitable too.

    1. I do think this should be a general approach, especially for lanes heading into Seattle. For example, north of I-5, Rainier Avenue is three lanes heading towards downtown. That is ridiculous. Heading out it should have lots of lanes, but heading in there should be few.

    2. “In place of having bus lanes, we have a single car lane on every street within the core downtown. Rest of the ROW is dedicated for transit, bike/scooter and pedestrians separately.”

      That gets into the difference between pragmatics vs ideals. Ideally I want to prioritize walking and non-car mobility first and cars last, like Paris explicitly does. But realistically it won’t happen until a majority of voters and councilmembers agree. The council’s top priority is keeping the car backups at stoplights and freeway entrances short. That’s what happened to the City Center mobility plan. The council drew up plans to address the mobility crisis between buses evacuating the tunnel and several construction projects starting, and then threw most of it away because it was afraid of increasing SOV backups and the Seattle Times editorial board saying we should vote out the councilmembers. It’s worth articulating our ideals and refining them, but we need to distinguish between ideals vs the next incremental step that might have a chance of passing.

    3. The only problem with this is that the resulting congestion would probably make the air quality much worse for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. No traffic > moving traffic > stop-and-go, mostly idling traffic.

  15. Every place is different, but I see some similarities between southern Manhattan and Downtown Seattle. Southern Manhattan is at the end of an island. As defined, it’s about 6 miles up the island. But if you’re driving from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Queens, or Long Island, you’ve got to cross southern Manhattan. I don’t know Seattle that well, but I wonder if there aren’t some possible north-south routes that could be kept out of the congestion price to deal with this issue.
    It’s certainly true that any congestion pricing plan should be part of a broader transportation and transit plan. Goals should drive actions, though they so rarely do.

    At any event, this will take a while. It took New York–the American city which seems most suited to congestion pricing–years and a transit crisis to get a conceptual approval. Don’t give up hope!

    1. I am pretty sure the general plan will exclude the freeways, even though they go through downtown. In other words, if you are on I-5, I-90, or SR-99, you won’t pay a congestion fee. If you exit the freeway downtown, you will. If you drive on a surface street through town, you will pay as well. If you draw the lines the way I sketched out above, I really don’t see a problem. There might be some people who are hugging the west side (i. e. going from Elliott Avenue to Alaskan Way to SR 99) or people who are trying to go through the city on 4th, but not that many. Besides, the whole point is that those folks should think twice about cutting through the city during rush hour.

    2. Seattle can’t toll I-5; it’s an interstate built with federal funds. If it could that would be the first choice because that’s where most of the congestion is.

      1. Tolling I-5 would mostly result in that traffic spilling over into untolled local streets. It’s a bad idea if the entire point of congestion pricing is ‘divert people away from local streets’.

  16. Local Lyft/Uber driver chiming in here. I’m from Seattle and have seen the change over the years with regard to the growth in traffic. Now, I don’t know the best option to reduce traffic in the core downtown area or the arterials that lead into the city. But I will say that I think Lyft/Uber rides into the city should be more regulated. Maybe not at the level of taxies, but I see first hand how people who use the service and there are a lot across the socio-economic spectrum that use either platform to commute. Either because of its convienance or the lower price point then a taxi. This induced demand does create more traffic in my opinion. Not to mention the Uber stop and pick up someone special in the middle of an arterial special while I block traffic, among other poor driving courtesies.

    I think one way to reduce this traffic and still allow drivers to make living is to put a mandatory surge price in place during the Mon-Fri commute. Say from 7-10am and 3-7pm all pricing is automatically 50-100% more or???. Now I know drivers/Uber/lyft will not like this but I believe it can be done to benefit every party. I think drivers may give a couple less rides but they would still be able to make more money but at the same time it would push people to walk/bike/bus more leading less traffic or at least keep it from getting worse.

    Believe me I pick up a lot of people downtown that only wanna go 8-12 blocks regularly. This may sound annoying to some people but if passengers paid a more true cost of what it take to ride in a vehicle I think they would put more effort into how they move around.

    What are your thought on this?

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