Right now, every existing congestion pricing program—in London, Stockholm, Singapore, and Milan, relies on automated license plate recognition (ALPR) to document which vehicles pass a specific location on the perimeter of the congestion pricing zone. Video cameras—often offering as many as eight views—are used to capture the license plates and track down motorists who don’t pay with a transponder. This static and location-based method was a natural technological progression from old-fashioned fixed tollbooths and toll collectors; it’s the same system installed on highways where tollbooths (which slowed traffic) have been removed.
Gantries work fine on highways, but for dense cities with many roads they are expensive, inflexible and require cameras installed at dozens (possibly hundreds) of different locations. Collecting fees from those without a transponder is costly, requiring snail-mail bills sent to addresses where the vehicle is registered, which may or may not be where the driver still lives.
More important are the privacy implications. Car movements are easily re-associated with individuals. Records from ALPR has been used and criticized for their use in tracking immigrants, welfare recipients, Muslims, as well as used in divorce courts. Both the European standard (GDPR) and the new California Consumer Privacy Act note that such data is considered personally identifiable information and therefore subject to strict data-handling protections.
Now that we are considering congestion pricing, let’s not expand the uses and the geographies in which cameras and ALPR are used. Let’s avoid becoming the kind of camera-laden surveillance state that China has become. There’s a better way. It could be as simple as downloading an app on your smartphone which is already GPS location enabled. Maybe you’d have a choice of apps. Maybe you already have the app.
The technology to do this is already exists. Right now, Uber and Lyft use smartphones to calculate routes and determine how much your trip should cost, and just about every corner bodega allows you to pay with a credit card or a tap of your phone when you buy chips. Instead of today’s expensive fixed infrastructure (APLR and gantries), the need for dedicated single-purpose device (in the form of tolling transponders), and a single management contract (currently with Conduent), the government should rethink these outdated, expensive and clunky systems and enter the 21st century.
According to a report prepared last year for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the cost of building, maintaining, and enforcing current open-road tolling systems is about 30 cents on the dollar. With more than $1 billion per year projected to be collected through New York’s congestion pricing program, losing hundreds of millions to build infrastructure that duplicates what already exists would be a travesty. New York can take advantage of the fact that GPS, smartphones and wireless exist, are well understood, and have been widely adopted. There are new and better ways to figure how which cars drove where and how to collect that payment.
Instead of the TBTA writing pages with details about how to do it in a request for proposal, the city should establish the what—a set of requirements that includes a fare table, data standards, a consumer bill of rights, audit, reporting, and collection expectations. The private sector will figure out how to do it, and—like a credit card, restaurant, or marketplace app—declare what their service fee would be. In a competitive marketplace, their fees should be a fraction of what is paid now. TBTA would approve all vendors that meet the requirements. Drivers (or fleet owners) can then select the provider whose features and fees best meet their needs. Both government and users stand to gain.
Adopting a marketplace approach would save the government money. There would be no government lock-in to a single provider. No one would have to suffer through 10-year contracts and fights over the cost and price of system upgrades, as is now the case.
Such app-based technology would also reduce risk. Over time, GPS gets more accurate and smartphones get upgraded; car manufacturers may decide to integrate some new system into every new car. When that happens, TBTA doesn’t have to make any adjustments. All that hardware and software would be owned by someone else; upgrading it and keeping it current would the service provider’s problem, not the government’s.
Avoiding fixed cameras in fixed locations and using decentralized solutions that leverage existing assets—the smartphones most drivers carry in their pockets—would also build in long-term flexibility. Maybe congestion pricing should start at 14th Street; maybe it should be per mile and not based on a zone. Perhaps we’ll also want to pay for pay-as-you-go insurance, or road user fees instead of gas taxes. By moving to a marketplace approach, the government will have the ability to set in motion a whole suite of technology experiments that could prove useful in the future. Whether you’re in the back seat of an Uber or behind the wheel of your own car, in the future we should be paying by the mile to drive, and an app-based road pricing system is the first step toward this new post-gas-tax way of thinking about driving and road uses.
Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former city commissioner, points out that the debate has largely coalesced around generating revenue for the MTA, rather than the implied purpose of congestion pricing, which is alleviating gridlock—and by extension, improving road safety, air quality, and carbon emissions. That was an “artful” move on Cuomo’s part, he said. By de-prioritizing those aspects, congestion pricing “becomes a simple calculation of who you don’t charge and what that costs you in lost revenue,” Schaller said. For elected leaders, “it becomes a simple political tradeoff.”
But if New York finally bites, it may embolden other cities around the U.S. Virtually every major city has debated what the idea might look like locally, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. Once outsiders see a year’s worth of covetable results in New York—fresh cash to pay for transit fixes, measurably improved traffic—“they’re likely to be enthusiastic about trying it themselves,” said Wylde.
Then again, New York City is a town where half of commuters get around on transit, making the state’s political calculation different than most. It has taken a decade to get the proper political stars aligned to pass congestion pricing, if it makes it into the New York State budget next week. Most cities are far more car-reliant, and will likely still face tough odds slapping fees on the transportation mode that most Americans heavily rely on.
But with the vast majority of public bus and rail systems in decline, other U.S. cities could draw inspiration from the relentless energy and public attention that advocates and reporters have created to call attention to the cracks in the Big Apple’s transit spine. Said Schaller: “What changed was the subway crisis.”
To deal with enforcement, existing license plate recognition at gantries is one possibility. But just as highway police have radar guns to monitor speeds, and many European public transit authorities use spot-checking of passengers for their tickets, we could have spot-checks of license plates to see if there is a corresponding payment; fines and ultimately denial of registration renewal could be penalties, just as they are today.
For cities like New York, congestion pricing is a good idea: It will make us all think twice about whether we really do need to travel by car. It will encourage people to walk, bike, or take the subway more often, using the streets more efficiently and producing fewer emissions. In Manhattan, driving is a luxury, and that luxury tax is needed to finance improvements to mass transit. And by reducing the costs to build, operate, and maintain the system, the TBTA will have more resources left over to devote to that goal.