During my time as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, I became intimately familiar with our most vexing transportation challenges. Congestion easily ranked among the most serious and confounding. Congestion has been steadily rising in our fast-growing cities for decades, and it will not easily turn back the other way. But change is possible.
Many strategies should be employed at once, including ones I championed at U.S. DOT such as public transit service, expanded bike lanes, safer sidewalks and even technology. Our Smart Cities Challenge pushed the envelope on integrating new technologies to help.
When I joined Lyft last fall, I was thrilled and proud to join a company that is transforming transportation in our cities through private sector action. In my first nine months at Lyft, we’ve been hard at work to bring even more affordable transportation options like Shared Saver, bikes and scooters, and in-app information about public transit to our customers. All of these initiatives continue to push the needle on reducing congestion by reducing the need to own a car and drive alone. For the first time, we have a true set of alternatives to driving alone — and can help fill gaps while more time-intensive transit projects are being built.
But there is yet one strategy that can make an even bigger dent in reducing traffic: congestion pricing.
What is Congestion Pricing?
At its core, congestion occurs when the demand for travel exceeds the available supply or road capacity. As our country climbed out of the recession, more people were on the move again. Americans were traveling to jobs, seeing friends, spending money in their communities, and connecting with one another. In some ways, congestion could be tied to a healthy economy.
Because we’ve built our cities around cars — multi-lane highways instead of wide sidewalks, multi-story parking garages instead of parks — driving alone has become the default way to get around. Build more roads or widen more of them? That’s been tried so many times. We now know it doesn’t really work. In study after study, new road and expanded road capacity leads to “induced demand.” New and expanded capacity does not automatically reduce congestion or travel times because, in an already congested area, the new capacity attracts more drivers than before. Soon, we’re right back where we started — or worse off.
Congestion pricing offers an effective way to change our behavior and help us break out of this cycle. But it only works when charging all vehicles a small fee to use areas where there is high demand during peak times. These higher prices incentivize travelers to choose alternative routes, times of day, or travel modes. Congestion pricing (and other similar road pricing models) have been introduced globally with remarkable success in reducing traffic, increasing transit ridership, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving public health by increasing the number of people walking and bicycling to get where they need to go.
Lyft Supports Universal Congestion Pricing
As Lyft co-founders John and Logan have written before, pricing roads also plays a critical role in reducing traffic in our cities. Congestion pricing is as an effective and proven method for reducing transportation demand, and we support congestion pricing efforts that are applied to all vehicles in an equitable way.
While congestion pricing has seemed nearly impossible to bring to the United States until very recently, after over a decade of hard work, congestion pricing will be coming to Manhattan’s central business district. We are proud to see New York be a leader in congestion pricing and look forward to helping the New York State Legislature finalize the plan’s details before it goes live in 2020.
We know other communities are beginning to study congestion pricing as a solution to traffic. This has encouraged us to think more comprehensively about how to best implement congestion pricing. To achieve many of our shared policy goals around equity, sustainability, and mobility- and ultimately redesign our cities for people, not cars — we embrace the following congestion pricing principles:
Universally Apply to All Vehicles
We have to remember that over 76% of Americans drive alone to work. If the goal is to reduce congestion, it simply cannot be done without attention to that fact. The most effective congestion pricing model is one that applies to all vehicles on the road, including private automobiles, ridesharing, and commercial vehicles such as trucks, limousines, coach buses and taxis. You read that right — we do not expect our industry to be exempt from congestion pricing but we also do not believe the larger purpose of reducing congestion will ever be served by imposing such pricing only on our industry. Exemptions should apply to certain vehicles such as emergency vehicles, public transit, and wheelchair accessible vehicles. But, to be clear, no significant reductions in congestion will occur until we include private cars and commercial vehicles into any pricing approach, which can represent anywhere from 87.2%- 98.9% of the vehicle miles traveled in some of our most congested regions.
Incentivize High Occupancy Vehicle Trips
Congestion pricing can be even more impactful in reducing traffic if policies are designed to incentivize more people to travel in fewer vehicles. If congestion pricing schemes charge people who are carpooling at a lower cost, we can further reduce the number of cars on the road. This is one of the reasons we offer our own Shared ride services, our most affordable mode which helps people who are heading in the same direction get matched with the same driver and share the ride.
Promote Clean Transportation
Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and Lyft is taking big steps to bring more clean vehicles onto the platform. We’ve launched our Green Mode, which allows passengers to request an electric or hybrid vehicle on our app and is now available in Seattle and Portland. As cities think about congestion pricing, they should charge hybrid and electric vehicles less in order to help accelerate mass adoption of clean vehicles.
My childhood was spent in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the shadow of two major freeways. These highways disconnected us from the rest of the city and made it hard to access the rest of the transportation system. This experience showed me firsthand the complicated ways that transportation can sometimes create and reinforce socioeconomic disparities. We must continue to think about the communities who have been historically on the wrong side of transportation decisions and make sure that congestion pricing is always designed in a way to support equity and access for underserved neighborhoods. Following the recommendations of one Lyft’s leading equity partners, TransForm, we urge policy makers to consider a means-based pricing model rather than more regressive models.
Reinvest in the Transportation Network
The most successful congestion pricing program is one that continuously re-invests funds in the transportation network, helping support alternatives that further reduce traffic. We’d love to see these funds be used to add capacity for more mass transit options like subways, ferry service, or bus rapid transit, or redesigning street networks to help get more people walking, biking, and riding scooters.
The Road Ahead
Congestion pricing is tough to make happen. Already we can see that happening as the Southern California Association of Government explores charging all drivers to enter a zone on the western side of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. But we are excited by the growing interest among U.S. cities in congestion pricing as a policy tool. We look forward to continuing to work with cities to see how Lyft’s mobility ecosystem of transportation options can work alongside comprehensive congestion pricing to help solve many interconnected challenges around traffic congestion, the environment, and economic opportunity in our communities.