Downtown congestion peaked in 2019 due to a growing population, a strong economy and a significant increase in rideshare vehicles. While the pandemic caused a drop in traffic this year, officials say it is on the rise again. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

With traffic on the rise, city looks to congestion pricing as a possible fix

SFCTA survey asking for input on proposal to charge fee to vehicles driving downtown

Downtown San Francisco might be a ghost town now, but city officials anticipate congestion will climb back to the same record-high levels it held as recently as last year.

Unless, that is, the agency can figure out a way to move cars off the road.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority is seeking public input on what a congestion pricing program, which would charge a fee to drivers entering the highly trafficked areas of Downtown and SoMa in an effort to reduce the number of cars, might look like in San Francisco.

Residents can participate in a town hall, participate in a workshop on September 1 or complete surveys in four different languages over text to learn more about the research and give their opinion.

Gridlocked traffic during morning and evening rush hours in these downtown neighborhoods has historically led to travel delays, less reliable Muni arrival times and greater injury risk for people traveling by foot, bike or scooter.

Low-income communities and people of color are especially hurt by congestion. They’re more likely to be transit-dependent and disproportionately affected by delays, and they tend to live and work in zones with higher rates of traffic collisions.

Advocates for congestion pricing say a pricing scheme that discourages personal and rideshare drivers from traveling downtown during peak hours won’t keep them out of San Francisco’s major commercial zones altogether. Rather, it will encourage them to use public transit or alternative transportation options.

They say benefits include safer streets, lower greenhouse gases and more equitable travel.

(Courtesy SFCTA)

“We’re really thinking here about the future after the pandemic,” Colin Dentel-Post, a transportation planner at SFCTA, said of how the study has had to pivot since its original 2019 launch.

The current scenario being tested includes a $10-$12 fee for drivers entering the congestion zone during rush hour with fee-free exits plus plans to exempt the fee or dock it by 50% for very low-income and low-income drivers, respectively.

Public input will shape the specifics, according to an SFCTA press release.

SFCTA must also now evaluate major post-pandemic unknowns including whether businesses will reopen and if people who have switched over to driving during the pandemic will continue to prefer cars over transit.

“People may have a tendency to continue driving if we aren’t encouraging people to go back to ways of traveling that are more efficient and taking transit in the same numbers […],” he said.

San Francisco’s peak congestion in 2019 was attributed to a growing population, a strong economy and a significant increase in rideshare platforms over the ten years prior.

The City and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority collaborated to deploy additional parking enforcement officials, increase the number of parking meters, install more bike- and pedestrian-safety improvements and even pass a tax on ride-hailing app users that went into effect earlier this year.

But congestion endured until the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, and early indicators show it’s climbing back up at a much faster pace than public transportation ridership.

“Even when we put in some of the infrastructure, it’s hard to make that work as it’s supposed to if there are too many cars on our streets,” Dentel-Post said. “We need to reduce the number of cars downtown to make transit improvements work.”

(Courtesy SFCTA)

The fee on cars entering the northeastern part of San Francisco must work in concert with improved reliability and accessibility of Muni and other modes of transportation to achieve the goals of congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing isn’t a concept born here. It’s been implemented in cities across the world such as New York City, Portland, London and Singapore, and it’s shown to greatly mitigate some of the harm factors associated with too many cars on the road.

This also isn’t the first time it’s been floated in San Francisco. City Hall commissioned its first study in 2010, which, at the time, concluded a program could lead to 12% fewer peak period auto trips, a 21% reduction in vehicle delay, 20 to 25% increase in transit speeds, and fewer collisions and greenhouse gases.

SFCTA wants to reduce the number of peak car trips by 15% as compared to last year’s levels.

However the road to implementing congestion pricing in San Francisco would be a long one.

A study recommendation is expected to be presented to the SFCTA board by next year. If approved, it would need an additional two years for implementation to secure funding, complete thedesign and lobby for local and state legislative approval.

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