In a move that will be celebrated by transit and bicycle advocates but is sure to anger any remaining downtown or Union Square businesses that are looking forward to a time when they have customers again, county transportation officials in San Francisco are once again floating a proposal to institute congestion pricing — essentially tolls — to enter parts of downtown during busy weekdays.
Proposals to institute congestion pricing in SF date back to at least 2008, and the Board of Supervisors paid for a study of the idea a full decade ago. Similar plans have been instituted in London and Singapore, and New York City became the first U.S. city to approve a congestion-pricing program last year — it's a hike in tolls for entering Manhattan by car or truck, and it hasn't yet been implemented and could be delayed by the pandemic and recession.
As the Examiner reports this week, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) is putting the idea back on the table, well ahead of an expected return to traffic-clogged downtown streets when we finally emerge from this pandemic and people return to work. The proposal, to be workshopped in public forums beginning with one on September 1, would include a $10-$12 fee for drivers entering the congestion zone — around SoMa and downtown — during rush hour.
"People may have a tendency to continue driving [post-pandemic] if we aren’t encouraging people to go back to ways of traveling that are more efficient and taking transit in the same numbers," said SFCTA transportation planner Colin Dentel-Post.
The SFCTA suggests that the vast majority of vehicle trips into downtown, pre-pandemic, were not coming from outside the city, but rather from within the city — from neighborhoods where other transit options are available to get to downtown. (The chart doesn't specify what percentage of these trips are being made by delivery trucks from the industrial corners of the city, versus cars.)
The current idea is that low-income drivers would either be exempt from the congestion tolls, or they would pay 50-percent toll rates to enter the downtown zone.
The boundaries of the zone will also be decided as part of the public-input process, with the zone possibly including all of the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf, or just confined to the grid of streets in the downtown part of SoMa.
Advocates for congestion pricing cite the high number of injuries among bicyclists and pedestrians that occur on the city's most crowded streets, and the ways that rush-hour traffic impedes buses from staying on schedule.
And there are already early signs, according to the SFCTA, that vehicle traffic is rebounding downtown much faster than transit ridership.
There will no doubt be an uproar among suffering downtown retail businesses who do not want there to be any less reason for people to return downtown — though advocates argue that congestion pricing has been shown to push people toward public transit, and won't stop them from coming downtown.
It could be a hard sell! But you can take part by joining the "digital discourse" event on September 1 at 5 p.m., co-hosted by SPUR and the Bicycle Coalition. Or take a survey or play a digital game to make your own congestion pricing plan here.
Photo: Steven Korea