richard skeen
Dec 5, 2019 · 5 min read
photo credit: David Anderson, Upsplash

As New York, Seattle and San Francisco Weigh the Economics of Fair Congestion Pricing, Does a Start-Up in Music City have a Smarter Solution?

How we commute is changing fast, fueled by a mobility sector flush with venture capital, expanding tech-enabled smart-mobility and policy-makers re-calculating road access soon to affect a lot of wallets. But as the transportation landscape transforms from the steering wheel to our phones, the commuter reality remains grim: getting to work has never been slower, and for many, more expensive.

Traffic congestion plagues every American city as leaders struggle to keep pace with growing vehicle volume, stubborn single-occupancy rates and tech-enabled mobility that has so far underdelivered on faster downtown travel (and profits). The toll on commuters is staggering, and growing. The Washington Post recently reported the average American worker spent 225 hours commuting in 2018, while a Texas A&M study showed commuter hours lost to congestion has climbed to 54 hours a year on average. The average cost of those hours to each commuter: $1010 annually.

Gridlock’s threat to economic growth and urban livability is driving bold new ideas. Congestion is projected to cost the New York area $100 Billion by 2022, while Seattle’s dramatic growth and subsequent gridlock currently costs the city $5 billion a year. For employers, bad commutes have become a major impediment to finding and keeping workers. A survey of American commuters by mobility app Scoop showed most won’t even apply for a job because of commute time, while 23 percent of workers quit a job over a bad commute. With congestion burning 3.3 billion gallons of wasted fuel annually, emission’s costs on the environment are also under scrutiny as cities consider livability measures.

Relief is coming as both public and private leaders focus on solutions that change commuter behavior over expensive road expansion which numerous studies have shown can create higher traffic. This new thinking was on display last week as hundreds of mobility experts gathered for the Association for Commuter Transportation gathered in Seattle to explore ideas and celebrate tangible success in both the public and private sectors.

Seattle is among a handful of cities pioneering boldly changing the way cities fight congestion. While Seattle and New York are polar opposites in most ways, both share bold plans girded by a belief that limiting cars downtown is central to reducing congestion and creating more livable cities. In 2021 New York will become the first city in America to charge drivers for entering highly congested areas, using the revenue to modernize an aging mass transit system. Seattle is weighing a similar plan, while just this week San Francisco announced it is considering leveraging congestion pricing. All three cities have a clear message: Drive into congested downtown and you’ll pay.

American cities have been car-centric for nearly a century, making punitive pricing limiting downtown car access unthinkable. But as congestion’s economic and livability costs becomes clearer — and commuter frustration rises — the unthinkable is emerging as sound policy. New York Governor Cuomo referred to congestion pricing as “an idea whose time has come”. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, hoping to deploy congestion pricing by the end of her first term in 2021, has said, “My goal is to make our downtown healthier, with fewer cars, a more equitable transportation system and less climate pollution.”

For anyone stuck in a tunnel headed into Manhattan or experiencing the Seattle “squeeze” (I’ve suffered both, and feel your pain), change can’t come fast enough. But are these congestion pricing plans missing an incentive component — a carrot to the punitive pricing — that would add leverage in their effort to change commuter behavior while ensuring an equitable deployment that doesn’t unfairly burden low-wage workers? A look at a Nashville start-up suggests there is a flip-side of the coin to congestion pricing that might provide a key addition to any effective congestion plan.

Early last year, Hytch Rewards, a tech start-up based in Nashville, launched a unique program that provided cash incentives to commuters sharing rides via the free app. The public/private initiative’s goal was to accelerate shared rides to reduce “Music City’s” growing commute traffic. Using support from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Nashville-based companies like Nissan and partnerships with locale universities and Nashville Connect, Hytch took aim at single occupancy commuters by rewarding verified shared commutes tracked and paid via the app’s unique Mobility Rules Engine™.

The result: rewarding smarter commuting works. In less than a year, Hytch gained 11,000 downloads and thousands of regular commuter users who shared over 8.5 million miles and 250,000 rides. Hytch proved to be an impactful tool to manage and measure Nashville’s growing traffic challenge (the city’s interstate design that has almost every route headed downtown). For sponsors, Hytch allowed employers to reward verified carbon-neutral commutes, free-up scarce parking and help workforces connect (Hytch doesn’t match strangers, but rather allows co-workers and friends to connect).

Hytch’s results make it clear incentives can play a role in changing commuter behavior, can make congestion pricing more fair as an offset to punitive pricing and can leverage social and worker networks for smarter mobility.

While measuring the full effect on Nashville’s commutes in on-going (Middle Tennessee State University is a research partner), Hytch’s impact is clear, making the app popular with leaders looking to keep Nashville’s growth humming (Amazon is among many corporations adding jobs in already clogged downtown). Hytch continues to win key government investment and grant support; LaunchTN a public-private innovation accelerator, invested in Hytch with a second round recently, signaling the start-up’s potential.

CityLab’s Laura Bliss has pointed out the idea of commuter incentives is not new, but rarely actually implemented at scale or paired with punitive pricing. While successful in cities like London and Stockholm, congestion pricing faces concerns about fairness from critics, which cities like San Francisco are studying closely “to understand whether congestion pricing could be an effective and fair tool to reduce congestion.” Hytch is a founding partner of an ambitious Bay Area Council coalition initiative looking to innovate commute solutions , a top priority for almost every San Francisco area employer.

We are in a moment where bold action in needed to off-set congestion’s dramatic cost to our cities, our environment and our livability. Punitive pricing and policies limiting car access to busy business districts have had success in Europe that may translate to success here. But adding an incentive element to the punitive pricing, changing commuter behavior becomes easier and fairer. As Hytch’s co-founder Mark Cleveland points out, “Hytch offers a common sense and cost-effective solution that rewards people for making better mobility choices”.

richard skeen

Written by

Strategist and fundraiser leveraging media experience (Wall Street Journal, New Yorker) to help nonprofits focused on climate, mobility and Israel.

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