The Technology That Could Transform Congestion Pricing: As cities like New York move ahead with plans to charge motorists to enter certain urban areas, we need to think about the best ways to manage road tolling
ROBIN CHASE, Co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, co-founder of NUMO, in City Lab
Now that New York City has adopted congestion pricing in an effort to rein in traffic and raise revenue desperately needed to upgrade public transportation, other American cities are taking a closer look at this often-contentious technique. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle have all recently released requests-for-proposals to begin studying the possibilities and implications of congestion pricing. As cities study the ins and outs of charging motorists to enter central districts, there hasn’t been much attention devoted to one critical part of congestion pricing package: the technology. How will tolls be collected? How will cities insure compliance in the charging zone? And how will our data privacy be addressed and protected?
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.
While this system once made sense, it doesn’t anymore.
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.
New York City will reap flexibility and cost savings if the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) adopts an open marketplace approach for congestion pricing. Such an approach would make New York a breakaway leader in the transportation world.
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.”
Of course, the specifics will determine how effective and lucrative the policy turns out to be.
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.
Robin Chase is co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and chair of NUMO, a global alliance that channels tech-based disruptions in urban transport.
The Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, has been adopted by more than two hundred companies and city advisors. If put into practice worldwide, they would not only dramatically reduce emissions in cities, but would also dramatically improve the quality of life for those who live in them. And they could do it without expensive and time-consuming infrastructure investments. Here’s how:
How cities spend their money
Right now, too many transportation investments take us further away from a carbon neutral world, rather than closer. We need to stop investing in new automobile infrastructure and put that money into improving the quality and service of more efficient ways of travel, such as public transit and segregated bike lanes. Not only have these been typically underinvested in, the investments that have been made are not commensurate with the fraction of travel that should be made by these means.
It’s also time to recognize how heavily subsidized private automobile travel is—and remove those subsidies. At the local level, that starts with removing free parking, and pricing this limited resource properly. We should unbundle parking spaces from residential and office buildings, and make residents feel the true cost of that not-free parking. We must recognize the price we pay from local car-generated pollution and integrate those costs into actual transport prices.
More broadly, we have to speed the electrification of urban transport and prioritize those vehicles that travel the greatest distances with the most people, giving us the biggest emissions return for our investment. Buses, shuttles, taxis, and delivery vehicles are the most intensively used vehicles. We should electrify them—and create charging infrastructure that supports their needs—first.
How streets operate
This is a realm that most city governments (but not all) do control. Implement lower speed limits on city streets to 20 mph/30 kph. This saves lives, reduces emissions, and makes a city more compatible with walking, biking, and scooting. (It’s also proven that actual average speeds remain basically unchanged.) Change stop light phasing to give greater priority to walking, cycling (pedestrian-only phases, green waves at 10 mph). Encourage and enable zero-emission modes for the 50 percent of trips that are less than 2 miles (3.5 kms).
There are a host of low-cost, high-impact ways to restrict (high-emission) motorized through-traffic from certain blocks, districts or neighborhoods. Cities can turn streets in front of a school into play areas every afternoon; create car-free nightlife districts to support restaurants, bars, and theaters every evening; and shut large sweeps of roads to support recreation on the weekends. Collectively, such measures can be powerful tools for building community support for lower-emissions transportation.
Cities are facing enormous disruption by new technology-enabled forms of transport such as shareable electric scooters and e-bikes, as well as the rise of on-demand delivery. Rather than banning them or reducing their potential, cities need to give a chance to new vehicles and services that permit more space-efficient and less-polluting travel. Prioritize curb space for pick up, drop off, and parking of intensively shared vehicles instead of idle storage of little-used vehicles. Create lane reallocation for more efficient modes. We need a lot more HOV 3+ and bus-only lanes.
All these shifts share a goal: Providing greater space for pedestrians and people using any vehicle—from a scooter to a streetcar—that is less dangerous and more healthy than riding in a single-occupancy motor vehicle.
How cities can start quickly
Those crying for urgent action on de-carbonizing urban transportation are often corrected by those who call for pragmatism: “It isn’t politically possible to move so quickly!” These changes can generate opposition in the short term. But there is an answer to that, and it is pilots. Demonstrations of pedestrian-friendly projects in New York, Stockholm, Washington, D.C., and Mumbai have been proven to reduce political pushback. Pilots also enable us to learn, iterate, adapt, and evolve, to demonstrate and quantify that not only does the change from the status quo not make the sky fall, it makes our daily lives better. So, start today. It’s only a pilot!
Cities have no excuses. They can tap the excellent expertise and local knowledge of people and nongovernmental organizations that exist in their countries. They can redirect the budgets they do have. They can work with the panoply of new service offerings and newly available technologies that have been disrupting urban transport and changing the quality of current mobility. We just need to organize ourselves and work firmly and consistently in a unified direction, towards a sustainable, livable, and just future. When the house on fire is the planet, there is no safe escape route. The only way to save ourselves and our children is to stop feeding the fire—and fix the house.
City streets are a scarce resource, and they can get very congested. During peak times, we want to move as many people through these corridors as efficiently as possible. On this, I think we all agree.
That sounds like a lot! But Schaller’s framing sets us up for failure. Cities have been congested and transit has been poorly used for years before these companies set up shop.
According to the 2018 Federal Highway Administration travel survey, in urban areas that also have rail (that is, probably including the nine major cities referenced) taxis plus ride-hailing plus carsharing account for just 1.7 percent of miles travelled by urban dwellers, while travel by personal cars account for 86 percent.
Many riders—60 percent, Schaller notes—are using ride-hailing services instead of more sustainable modes of transport, like public transit, walking, or bicycling. Ridership of these transportation network companies (or TNCs) is soon expected to pass local bus ridership.
But when we look at the whole, we see that people choose to ride by bus for 4 percent of their trips, and by personal car for 73 percent. Why wouldn’t we presume that the same fraction of trips taken in a personal car could also have been accomplished by foot, bike, or transit? Good question! But neither the federal travel survey, nor New York’s own mobility survey thought to ask.
Transportation is a network of multiple modes: by foot, bike, scooter, metro, bus, for-hire car, shared car, personal car, or a combination. We usually have choices, based on price, duration, convenience, and ability. And these choices are profoundly influenced by government policy: parking requirements for buildings, public rights of way and lane/curb space allocations, and basic price signals. Is metered parking appropriately priced? Is there congestion pricing?
The primary point of Schaller’s analysis is that the ride-hailing companies that are expanding their shared-trip offerings like Lyft Line and UberPool do little to reduce congestion (and might add to it), that people use these services instead of transit, and that therefore we should apply surcharges to trips and cap their vehicle volumes before … before what? Streets are congested and too few people choose mass transit now, like last year and the year before that and the year before that.
Needless to say, as a co-founder and former CEO of the car-sharing service Zipcar, I am a fan of the potential for shared trips and shared cars. What I learned from Zipcar is that when people give up their personal vehicle and have to start paying full costs each time they use a car, they will start to choose to walk, bike, and ride transit a whole lot more. In cities with great public transit networks, ride-hailing has encouraged some people to give up their own car. These new economics have surely come into play for them as well.
I am disappointed that the shared trip offerings aren’t yet delivering on getting more people into each vehicle. But we are at the earliest stages of this whole shift. We need more people participating to get the origin-destination-timing match volumes we need to make it sing. Today, 75 percent of personal car commutes are alone.
What we need is not demonizing of ride-hailing services for “new” traffic problems but fair user fees across all modes to encourage more efficient use of our streets. So far, more than 100 cities and companies, including Uber and Lyft, have committed to supporting this idea through the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities.
Part of the reason this debate is so important now is the shift to autonomous vehicles in urban settings appears to be just around the corner. Schaller notes that “without public policy intervention, the likelihood is that the autonomous future mirrors today’s reality: more automobility, more traffic, less transit, and less equity and environmental sustainability.” I totally agree.Special taxes, fees, and caps on ride-hailing vehicles are not the answer. My strong recommendation for cities is to make walking, biking and all shared modes of transit better and more attractive than driving alone—irrespective of the vehicle (personal car, taxi, or autonomous vehicle). Reallocate street space to reflect these goals. And start charging all vehicles for their contribution to emissions, congestion, and use of curbs.
When it comes to public transit, you can’t accuse Berlin of holding back on cash.
This week, the city announced its transit masterplan for 2019 to 2023 (with a period of focus that actually extends to 2035), and a major overhaul of the city’s transit networks is in the cards. The funds allocated are generous, to say the least: Berlin is committing a remarkable €28.1 billion, or just under $32 billion, to transportation projects.
That huge investment won’t all come in one burst, of course, but will be spread out over the years between now and 2035. That still means a phenomenal €2 billion every year pumped into the system until 2035, a level of consistent investment that would make the average American public transit official weep with envy.
Berlin’s spending on improving public transit has always been generous—last year, for example, the city pledged €1 billion for new subway trains. The promised level of investment is still remarkable, even in Europe. London’s Crossrail link, for example, is a major 74-mile heavy rail route due to open this autumn that has required the construction of new stations and new tunnels beneath the city core. Its initial budget was around $20 billion. The Grand Paris Express, a massive expansion of the French capital’s metro system into its suburbs that entails the opening of 65 new stations, will cost around $28 billion. Both projects are seen as remarkable, even grandiose transformations of the way their cities connect to their regions. Their funding still falls comfortably short of what Berlin plans to spend in a metro region that has far less than half the population of either London or Paris.
So what does $32 billion buy you in Berlin? A fair bit, it seems. The headline item from the masterplan is a massive expansion of the city’s streetcar network. For years now, Berlin’s trams have been spreading out from East Berlin—where the state retained them long after they were junked in the West. This trend is continuing, with major lines due in the western districts of Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, and Spandau. According to the plan, the city’s the network in 2035 will be 28 percent more extensive than it is now, with the length of its lines increasing from 194 kilometers to 267 kilometers. When complete, Berlin’s tram lines placed end to end would be enough to cover the distance between Houston and Austin. Trams on this expanded network will also be more frequent than they are currently, as a major expansion of the fleet will increase Berlin’s current number of trams by 38 percent.
There will also be significant extensions to the S-Bahn—the city rail network that, while running somewhat more commonly above ground and being somewhat more suburban in reach than the U-bahn, is actually quite difficult to tell apart from the subway in both function and frequency. Berlin’s new S-Bahn lines will be concentrated in the north and run mainly on a north-south axis. In a spirit of pragmatism, they won’t be newly constructed, but mainly consist of former railway lines that have been left unused in the past few decades.
Bus services will likewise get a complete overhaul. The plan calls for every bus in the city to be electric by 2030, while more lines will have their timetables packed to ensure a bus at least every 10 minutes. For far-flung parts of the bus network where stops and passengers are few, the city will also experiment with a hail-a-bus service, by which passengers in less-frequented areas can summon a mini-bus (hopefully within a short waiting time) by letting the depot know they’re there.
Other changes could be similarly transformative, but still require feasibility studies before exact plans are published. Chief among these are four proposed subway extensions, including U-Bahn lines out to both the new BER airport (if that ever opens) and to the old airport at Tegel, which is due to become a tech park when it is finally allowed to retire as a passenger terminal. Meanwhile there are some other rumblings of investigating whether it’s feasible to ship goods around the city using the tram network. All of this will come at a cost. Some of that cost will come from increased fares, which are scheduled to go up by 1.4 percent. Elsewhere, increased ridership should also provide some funds—not just from people using the new lines, but from the ongoing expansion of Berlin’s population, which by 2030 should rise to beyond 4 million from its current level of 3.63 million.
It’s no coincidence that Berlin—always a city with good public transit—is going big on these plans right now. The Green Party is currently part of the city’s ruling coalition, along with majority partner the center-left SPD and the left-wing Die Linke. It is pushing hard, (with encouragement from its partners) for greener ways of running the city. Armed with a sense of mission, the Green Party is currently trying to get the masterplan’s targets written into the city’s soon-to-be-renewed contract with its main public transit body BVG, so that its aspiration can’t be watered down by a subsequent administration.
That might be over-cautious, as polls suggest that Berlin continues overall to be a broadly left-leaning city. Indeed, if Berlin’s population does continue to grow at the rate projected for it, this major public transit expansion may increasingly seem like a necessity.
Update, 3/31/19: Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York state assembly, and the New York state senate agreed on a budget that includes a plan to implement congestion pricing.
They said this time would be different—just like the last time. But congestion pricing finally looks poised for arrival in New York City.
Leaders in the New York state Senate and Assembly are expected to approve charging fees on vehicles entering the most trafficked parts of Manhattan, the New York Times reported on Monday. If the measure in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget gets the green light by the April 1 deadline, New York City would be the first place in the United States to adopt the policy known as congestion pricing.
It’s been a long time coming. Thanks to low gas prices, a growing populace, and the meteoric rise of ride-hailing converging with a decaying subway, traffic is noticeably worse in midtown Manhattan than even a few years ago. As of last year, average car speeds fell to 4.7 mph, not much faster than walking. It’s been estimated that such slow-downs cost the metro-area economy some $20 billion a year, and they result in rising vehicle emissions.
The hold-up in New York has been a matter of politics. The last serious attempt at passing a congestion pricing plan was under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City in 2008. But a lack of support in the state Assembly meant it never even saw a vote, partly due to concerns that commuters in the outer boroughs would be disproportionately hurt by the proposed $8 fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan. A related criticism, that congestion pricing is regressive and would saddle the poor, has been current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reasoning for his own lack of support. For months, he has advocated for a “millionaire’s tax” to generate subway revenues instead.
But the landscape has been shifting. Governor Andrew Cuomo first voiced support for the concept of tolling midtown in 2017 (amid the so-called “summer of hell” aboard New York’s various rail lines), and commissioned a robust plan that outlined how to fix the city’s transportation landscape. That “FixNYC” plan included a charge for cars entering Manhattan, an idea de Blasio rejected. Advocates had hoped that the governor’s moves were a sign that congestion pricing would make it into his 2018 budget. But it was an election year, and state representatives facing an election shied from a real debate about how it would work. Instead, New Yorkers got hit with surcharges on taxi and Uber trips (roughly the cost of a subway fare) into the heart of Manhattan.
And it might have been a way to test the waters politically for Cuomo, who is among the country’s most effective political dealmakers when he chooses to be. “Without him pushing and pushing and driving and driving, this would not be happening,” said Charles Komanoff, an author and activist who has closely covered the congestion pricing debate for Streetsblog and other publications. This time, the Blue Wave of the 2018 election served in the governor’s favor. For just the third time in 50 years, Democrats—many of them young, progressive, and themselves transit riders—gained control of the state Senate last year. Democrats had already dominated the Assembly.
Meanwhile, transit service has scarcely improved. In earlier eras when a congestion pricing measure was attempted, “conditions on the subway had not deteriorated to the point they’re at today,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, the CEO and president of the Partnership for New York, a group representing local businesses that has long advocated for a road pricing plan. Local advocacy groups kept up the pressure in rallies and campaigns like #FixTheSubways and #CuomosMTA. Pro-business groups like Wylde’s came out with hearty endorsements, as did anti-poverty groups, including the venerated Community Service Society, which published a statement with research rejecting the mayor’s position that the fee would harm the poor. The organization wrote:
We found that only three percent of the city’s low-income working outer-borough residents (with incomes below 200 percent of poverty) would potentially pay a congestion fee as part of their daily commute. This compares with 61 percent who rely on public transit and would theoretically benefit from a congestion pricing plan that supports both improved transit services and fare discounts.
Beyond rough revenue projections and a projected start date of 2021, details are scarce on what the plan would mean for New Yorkers. How much would the charge be per vehicle? What streets might be exempted from the midtown swath? Would fees be lower at non-peak hours, as with many congestion pricing schemes? And would lower-income drivers be eligible for reduced fees? Some of these questions are to be determined during the budget negotiations, and others by a new oversight committee appointed by Cuomo after the law is set.
France Plans Congestion Pricing for Big Cities FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN A new bill would let cities charge drivers for using the road. Will local governments jump at the chance?
If the French government gets its way, drivers will soon have to pay to drive into France’s big cities.
The announcement comes in the first draft of a new blockbuster transit bill that was released to the media last Wednesday and is due to be voted on in the spring. Among a legion of new measures (most of them quite small scale) comes a new law that would allow any city of over 100,000 inhabitants to levy a congestion charge on vehicles seeking to access their city cores. While the decision to introduce the charges would ultimately rest with local rather than national authorities, the bill could bring about major changes in driving habits and pollution levels across the country. It also sets the scene for a major stand-off between drivers and the authorities.
The charges laid out by the proposed law are fairly modest. Cities of over 100,000 residents would be permitted to charge cars €2.50 (about $2.87) each time they enter a congestion-controlled zone; larger vehicles could be charged up to €10 ($11.50). All charges would be paid online, though the exact method is not stipulated and could vary from place to place. For cities of 500,000 or more, that charge could rise to €5 ($5.74), and up to €20 ($22.94) for trucks. Compared to London’s £11.50 ($14.90) charge for cars to drive into the city core, this is fairly modest, but the cost is still high enough to act as a major deterrent for regular driving.
The draft bill contains wording that suggests these zones will be large—French media are discussing electronic toll barriers “at the entrance” to cities, rather than limited to only the knottiest streets in a city’s core. As a sweetener, France would also introduce a €400 tax bonus for commuters who cycled or car-pooled to work.
Whether local authorities would actually take up the government’s offer and introduce the charges is not fully clear. In the past, the city of Paris has rejected the idea because it risks creating a two-tier system that prices out poorer drivers without deterring the wealthy. So far the city has preferred such measures as phasing out the most polluting vehicles, an approach also adopted in France’s second city, Lyon. Paris has also introduced car-free days and closed some congested routes entirely to vehicles. National governments have until now shared this reticence on charging, focusing elsewhere, such as on (also ambitious) plans to phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2040.Following the draft bill’s release, however, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she was not necessarily against it. The measure might work, she suggested, if it were not restricted to Paris’s official borders, but also covered parts of the wider metro area. It would also need to compensate or even offer incentives for drivers who chose to use the roads outside of peak hours, she said.
Greater Paris is nonetheless far from being France’s only heavily congested urban area. Traffic jams are even worse in Marseille, France’s third city, while congestion also slows road journeys in Bordeaux and Montpellier by a third. Any measure that abates that congestion and encourages a modal shift to cleaner transit will surely have an effect on pollution in general, and carbon emissions in particular.
Or would it? The lessons to be learned from London’s experience with congestion charging are positive, but nonetheless mixed. When the city started charging vehicles to enter a central congestion charge zone in 2003, the number of private cars in the area did indeed plummet, resulting in air quality improvements and less congestion overall. In the intervening years, however, traffic levels have crept up again, powered no longer by private drivers but by delivery vehicles, taxis, and Ubers, whose use has all grown and, as businesses, are not necessarily deterred by charging. London’s example thus shows that road pricing can indeed cut private car use, but that other measures, such as surge pricing, might be needed to curb the commercial vehicle use that takes its place.If fully adopted, France’s congestion charge plan may well succeed in reducing private car use on the country’s urban roads. To continue from this to slash the number of vehicles on the road overall, however, the law may well ultimately need to find some way to evolve and refine itself.
Feargus O’Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation. SHARE
My first view of the Schwebebahn was from my living room as a 10-year-old watching the Travel Channel on TV. I remember being amazed by the dinky rail cars, precariously suspended above a river by wrought iron trusses. The centenarian transit system in Wuppertal, Germany, looked like a cross between Disneyland’s monorail and the Eiffel Tower.
Years later, the Schwebebahn segment still sticks with me. After all, a great transit system that endures for generations is not only an efficient means of moving about the city, it is also a portal to an imagined future—a past vision of a better, more modern city. While visiting Germany last November, I made a point to stop in Wuppertal, half an hour from Düsseldorf in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to see how that vision was working out, nearly 120 years into its lifespan. There may be no better place to study not only the economic and political power of high-quality mass transit, but also its social and emotional power.
I caught my first unmediated glimpse of the Schwebebahn from a hill overlooking the Ohligsmühle station, near the center of this industrial city of about 350,000 residents, just days before the system was shuttered until next summer for a fallen power rail*. Like the majority of stations on the one-line, suspended monorail system, this one stands about 30 feet above the Wupper River. I watched trains come and go with surprising frequency: The Schwebebahn runs 18 trains per direction, per hour during the day—making it more frequent than just about any transit line in the U.S., and many German lines, too. It’s also an exceedingly rare train design. The wheels sit atop the singular rail, and the trains hang below it, connected by supports that look like the Iron Giant’s knuckles.
The first train I boarded was the newest model, from 2015, with a baby-blue exterior and an Apple-Store-white interior. It was packed, despite the fact that the last train going in that direction had departed only moments before. Each Schwebebahn train is two cars long with a total capacity under 200 people per car. They’re also narrower than conventional trains, with enough room for two seats, an aisle, and a solo seat running the width of each car. The system’s high frequency is necessary to transport an average of more than 65,000 passengers per weekday.
I maneuvered my way to the back of the train where, through a window, passengers can see the Wupper River unfurling beneath them. The Schwebebahn traces the river for nearly its entire length, but the scenery is remarkably diverse. In the central Elberfeld Mitte neighborhood, handsome 19th-century buildings hug the river, interspersed with a few wacky mid-century mid-rises. The hard, masonry landscape soon gives way to tranquil wooded riverbanks near the Wuppertal Zoo, and then becomes a surreal tangle of colorful pipes near the Bayer plant.
For the Schwebebahn’s first riders at the turn of the 20th century, these vistas along the eight-mile route must have been a revelation. Many of them would have ridden trains and elevators, but the unobstructed, straight-down views from the suspended monorail would have been novel, if not terrifying.
The varied neighborhoods on display from the train begin to tell the story of Schwebebahn, and the city it united. By the late 19th century, the Wupper valley towns of Elberfeld and Barmen had become major manufacturing hubs, explains Elmar Thyen, head of Corporate Communications and Strategic Marketing for the Schwebebahn. Friedrich Bayer founded his namesake chemical company in Elberfeld in 1863, which began by providing dyes for the region’s textile mills, like the ones owned by Friedrich Engels’s father. The large and powerful capitalist class was eager to leave its mark on the city with civic projects like the Elberfeld Zoo, founded in 1879. The zoo quickly proved to be such a success that it caused major horsecar traffic jams on weekends, while the thriving manufacturing sector required ever more workers to travel longer distances to work.
“We had a situation with a very rich city, and very rich citizens who were eager to be socially active,” said Thyen. “They said, ‘Which space is publicly owned so we don’t have to go over private land?… It might make sense to have an elevated railway over the river.’”
In the 1820s, an Elberfeld steel mill played host to a test track for a horse-drawn suspended monorail, recently invented by the English engineer Henry Robinson Palmer. Decades later, city leaders felt that the electrified version of that old concept being developed by German inventor Karl Eugen Langen would fit their geographic constraints. The privately funded line connecting destinations in Elberfeld and Barmen began operation in 1901, following a ceremonial test run with Kaiser Wilhelm II the year prior. The Kaiser was both emperor of Germany and king of its most powerful state, Prussia, with a taste for neo-Baroque architecture and other outward projections of imperial power.
“In the end, this is what the merchants wanted,” Thyen said. “They wanted the emperor to come and say, ‘This is cool, this is innovative: high tech, and still Prussian.’”
The line saw high ridership from the beginning, but the Schwebebahn was also something of a showpiece for the young German empire, says transportation historian and CityLab contributor Jonathan English.
The Ruhrgebiet—the mega-region encompassing the Wupper Valley and the nearby cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne—could be called “the Silicon Valley of its day,” English said. “So it’s not at all surprising that this unique, experimental technology was first tried out in a place like that.”
While there was backlash to the undulating new landmark—one turn-of-the-century cartoonist called it “the devil’s work,” according to Thyen—the Schwebebahn quickly became an essential part of life in the region. Local German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schuler dubbed it the “iron backbone of the city,” and that is literally what it became. Once Barmen and Elberfeld were linked by the Schwebebahn, it made increasingly little sense for the cities to go on as two distinct entities, so in 1929 they merged and became Wuppertal.
“It didn’t change the city, it created the city,” Thyen said. “Wuppertal without the Schwebebahn—you can’t imagine it. We would still be separated without the Schwebebahn. That thing gave us a backbone.”
After World War II, the city fell on hard times, as manufacturing began to flee the region. “It literally is Germany’s Rust Belt,” English said, noting that the city continues to have a working-class reputation.
But the Schwebebahn links the city to its glory days, and provides a great deal of emotional, as well as practical, value to city residents. “Unique transportation infrastructure often becomes this civic symbol, or a source of civic pride,” English said, also citing the Personal Rapid Transit System in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the extra-narrow subway cars of Glasgow’s original “Clockwork Orange” subway line. None of these systems proved to be significant harbingers of new transportation technologies. Still, the Schwebebahn, in particular, works for its hometown, linking this linear city and providing connections to local and regional transportation. “It shows that showpieces can work, even if the technology is theoretically a failure in terms of universal adoption,” said English.
And it is precisely this lack of mass adoption that makes the Schwebebahn interesting from a historical perspective. At the time of its planning and construction, there was little precedent for urban rail mass transit, no global handbook of best practices. The Schwebebahn is an urban Galapagos, a vision of a different evolutionary track that never quite spread beyond the Wupper Valley. It calls to mind the familiar yet fantastical depictions of European cities in Miyazaki films like Howl’s Moving Castle—but instead of transporting novice witches, this thing takes people to dentist appointments.
As dusk began to settle on the city beneath the rail, I saw a little girl with pigtails gazing out of the back window with even more intensity than I had been. Maybe she could see river sprites splashing in the currents below. Maybe she felt like she was flying with them. Of this I was certain: With infrastructure like the Schwebebahn, it’s no wonder Germany continues to produce generation after generation of transit supporters.