Could “Congestion Pricing” Work In San Francisco?

You could say our real problem is that we have it too good in the Bay Area. Our lifestyle, weather, geography and environment have made it so desirable to live here that the mere number of people hampers our ability to move about in cars during peak driving times. Currently, one million daily trips are made into the downtown, SoMa and Civic Center areas of San Francisco, half of which are by car. As a result, 60% of surface streets in downtown have average car speeds of less than 10 miles per hour during peak times. Traffic is manageable at best right now, but with 150,000 more residents and 230,000 more jobs expected in the city in the next 25 years, serious planning will be needed to avoid total gridlock. To see an extreme example of what happens when cities don’t plan for future traffic growth, see this recent New Yorker article and accompanying video on traffic in Moscow, where bread lines have been replaced by traffic lines: “”.

Congestion and traffic is a growing threat to cities and communities throughout the country. As of 2005, the Federal Highway Administration calculates that roughly 2.9 billion gallons of fuel are wasted and 4.2 billion hours of time is lost by American commuters each year due to congestion and traffic. As a result, the FHWA has been dangling millions in study grants and hundreds of millions in implementation dollars to cities throughout the country, enticing them to implement strategies to reduce congestion. The most publicized of these strategies is called “congestion pricing.” Simply put, congestion pricing charges cars and trucks a fee for crossing into a heavily trafficked business district of a city during peak drive hours. Normally, the charge is collected through an automatic and electronic system similar to FasTrak. Instead of attacking traffic on the supply side, by constructing new lanes and roads, congestion pricing attempts to alter the demand side of traffic, by reducing the number of vehicles driven.

Successes Abroad, an Attempt at Home

While congestion pricing isn’t new (it was first established in Singapore in 1975), it has been gaining momentum over the first decade of the century. Probably the most well-known example is London, which in 2003 established a congestion pricing system that charged drivers $16 a day to enter into a central city zone. The program resulted in a decrease in travel delays of 30%, an increase of average automobile speed from 5 to 10 miles per hour and reduced CO2 emissions by 16% without significant displacement of traffic onto local roads outside the central zone.

Another recent example comes from Stockholm, where drivers are charged between $1.50 to $3 to cross into or out of the City Center zone. This has reduced Stockholm’s traffic by 22% and reduced CO2 emissions by 10%. While business owners within City Center feared the effect of the congestion program on their bottom lines, studies have shown that sales at businesses within the zone actually increased by 5% since the program’s enactment.

In 2008, the City of New York came very close to enacting a congestion pricing program proposed by Mayor Bloomberg in Manhattan south of 60th Street. Cars would have been charged $8 and trucks $21 to enter into this zone during weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. With the support of numerous business, environmental, labor and public health organizations (and the majority of votes in favor coming from the other boroughs) New York’s City Council passed the measure. The New York State Legislature, however, failed to even bring it up for a vote, thereby killing the measure due to lost federal funding.

A Future in San Francisco?

The federal government has awarded San Francisco’s transportation authority a grant of $1 million to study the feasibility of a congestion pricing program in the city. The study is nearing completion and several public workshops have been held this summer leading up to the planned publication of the final study this fall. Preliminary study results have been provided at these workshops. Specifically, the study suggests a “cordon” zone that is bounded by Laguna Street, 18th Street and the Bay to the north and the east. A smaller zone more narrowly focused on the Central Business District is also put forward in the study. Crossing into or out of the zone during the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. would cost drivers $3, with a maximum of $6 a day. Certain exemptions and reductions for emergency vehicles, low-income and disabled drivers, and cordon zone residents would apply. In the cordon zone, the city expects the program to reduce automobile trips by 12%, reduce total delay times by 21%, reduce CO2 emissions by 16%, reduce collisions by 12%, increase the ride/bike share of transportation by 5% and increase the public transit share of transportation by 7%. Fees are estimated to total up to $80 million a year, which would be used to fund traffic improvements and upgrade public transportation. Several limited pilot programs are also promoted as ways to test the program before fully implementing it.

Will congestion pricing work, or is it needed, in San Francisco? While the vastly-larger London is not a good comparison, Stockholm has roughly the same population as San Francisco. However, peak drive time commuters already pay a $6 toll to cross the Bay Bridge and a $5 toll to cross the others, and pay up to $30 a day to park downtown. Will a congestion pricing program that charges $6 a day to commuters that enter and leave the downtown area during peak times really discourage drivers that are paying up to $36 a day to drive there already?

Congestion pricing won’t be established in San Francisco overnight. Approval by the Board of Supervisors and the state of California and local and federal environmental clearance will be necessary before the program takes effect. To learn more, go to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s website at “”.

REMINDER: Grandfathering Deadline Approaching for Projects in the Eastern Neighborhoods

The Eastern Neighborhoods area plan established new zoning, fees and affordable housing requirements applicable to future development projects. Some projects that submitted an application prior to the enactment of the EN plan are eligible to be “grandfathered” out of some of these new requirements. You can see if your project is grandfathered by referring to this helpful chart: “”.

These grandfathering provisions don’t last forever. Grandfathered projects must obtain Planning Commission or Department approval by January 19, 2011. For projects that require Planning Commission or Zoning Administrator approval, such approval must be obtained by this date. For projects only requiring a building permit, the building permit must be signed off by Planning staff by this date (Section 311/312 notice must occur before then as well). If approval is not obtained before this date, the grandfathered status is lost, and all current zoning regulations, increased affordable housing requirements and the EN impact fee will apply.

Once Planning Commission or Department approval is obtained, building permits must be obtained for the project within three years of the approval.

Due to the length of time to obtain entitlements in San Francisco, we recommend all project sponsors of grandfathered projects that wish to take advantage of that status to pursue entitlements now. For more information, contact John Kevlin.

Planning Department Extends Applicable Date of Increased Planning Fees by Three Weeks

We reported to you last week that the annual increase in Planning Department fees would go into effect on August 9. Since then, the Planning Department has moved that date three weeks until August 30. You can view the new fee schedule here: “”.

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