Sunday, August 9, 2009

A proposal to fight street congestion

By John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in New City,]

It should be easy to travel Chicago, especially the Loop, without a car. The flat grid makes walking a breeze. We’ve got over 100 miles of bicycle lanes and more than 10,000 bike racks. CTA, Metra, taxicabs and even water taxis and pedicabs offer eco-friendly options for getting downtown and around town.

So why is the Central Business District clogged with cars that foul the air and endanger walkers and cyclists, while transit faces perpetual budget shortfalls? Answer: while the City of Chicago fails to invest in green transportation (Federal money paid for those bike lanes and racks, and the city spends a measly $3 million per year on the CTA), it continues to encourage driving, especially downtown.

Mayor Daley lifted a longtime ban on new Loop parking garages and built Millennium Park on top of a three-level garage with room for more than 2,000 cars. Recent zoning changes force developers to provide a parking spot for every housing unit. The Traffic Management Authority has changed traffic signal times to favor cars over pedestrians, and removed crosswalks on Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, making it easier to drive and harder to walk.

Instead, Chicago needs to start discouraging driving and promoting healthier modes by charging motorists a toll for the privilege of driving into the Loop, and using the cash to fund bike, ped and transit projects. Sounds crazy? This scheme, called “congestion pricing,” is nothing new.

In 2003 Mayor Ken Livingstone took a big risk by instituting a $12 congestion charge for motorists entering gridlocked central London. The policy is enforced with video cameras and drivers who don’t pay face stiff fines. At the same time the city added hundreds of buses to its fleet to make transit more appealing. Traffic flow and air quality improved significantly and bicycle use skyrocketed. The gamble paid off—Livingstone won the next election by a comfortable margin.

Hizzoner has shown that he can bulldoze Meigs Field in the middle of the night and still get reelected by a landslide, so why not take bold action on this? Slap a hefty fee on commuters and tourists who selfishly choose to drive into the Loop, or better yet the whole Central Business District between Division, Halsted, Roosevelt and the lake. Sit back and enjoy the results: a safer, greener, friendlier Chicago.


Aaron said...

I couldn't agree more with the policy prescription. However, I think it's wrong to describe those that drive to the loop as "selfish," and bad politics to boot. This isn't an issue of people acting selfishly, but rather rationally, as the costs of their actions (congestion, pollution, etc.) aren't borne by anyone person in particular, and one person's decision to act differently can't fix the problem. Your solution - and London's, and (almost) Bloomberg's - places the cost of that externality back on drivers in order to make a more informed, but again entirely rational decision.

And, of course, it's bad politics to call drivers selfish. Stick to quality of life arguments. After all, status quos are sticky, and there are more people who can't imagine giving up their cars than there are committed "foot voters."

John Greenfield said...

Good point, Aaron. When I saw this essay in print, the "selfish" line did seem a little harsh, especially regarding tourists who might not know what the alternatives to driving are.

You're right: better to institute the toll and then let people decide for themselves whether or not it's worth it to drive downtown.


John Greenfield

Mark Kenseth said...

The costs of air and water pollution clean up and car infrastructure far outweigh the political risks of changing Chicago to a greener city. Great blog post once again.

I'm looking for a statistic to compare the dangers of cars to smoking. There are so many risks with so many cars.

John said...

I'm all for bike, ped, and transit improvements, but I'm not sure the Loop is congested enough to justify a congestion charge. Traffic moves pretty well most of the time. It's definitely not as bad as London or NYC.

Dottie said...

I have that print framed and hanging in my living room.

I wish there would be congestion pricing. Even without it, parking is so expensive that driving downtown is ridiculous. I'll never understand my colleagues who pay $300 a month to park in the building.

Sebastian said...

I agree with your points (and I love your blog!!), except I do not think that the time is ripe. Traffic is simply not bad enough, gas prices are not high enough, and neither politicians nor public care enough. Mr. Daley belongs to an older generation that at best embraces the ideas but marginally puts them into practice, and gets away with it. How else can one explain the deplorable state of Cinderella's Travel Attempts, the deteriorating bike paths (where's the paint??), and street refurbishing designed to keep bikes out (e.g. Congress). Change will come, but slowly, and out of necessity, not conviction.

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