Interview: Matthew Roth on the price of driving

Photo courtesy Streetsblog San Francisco.

From HOT lanes to congestion pricing, cities across the region are rethinking how we get around – and how much it should cost. For the past two years, Matthew Roth has been watching these changes unfold from his position as a reporter and editor for San Francisco Streetsblog. Roth’s moving on to other things, but before he goes, KALW’s Casey Miner stopped him long enough to talk about the Bay Area’s transportation future.

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CASEY MINER: I wanted so start with this controversy that’s sort of exploded over the past couple days. The Board of Supervisors voted this morning to continue studying options for a congestion pricing scheme, where drivers would be charged a certain amount of money to enter the city from different points. I’m wondering, could you explain what are options under consideration, also why this is controversial?

MATTHEW ROTH: I think congestion pricing is an interesting idea that’s been tried in other cities – they tried to make it happen in New York City, but it never got all the way to the point of implementation. It’s essentially an idea that in especially crowded areas you charge for driving into those areas. The goal is to reduce peak hour commute traffic, to encourage to take other modes of travel, including transit. And then with the revenues you gain from charging people who still choose to drive, pay for better transit, pay for better streets for pedestrians and for cyclists. What the Board of Supervisors did today – it’s kind of ironic how much attention has come to this. They basically they just voted to continue the study the various congestion pricing cordons.

MINER: It’s sort of interesting what you were saying, because people coming in from Oakland and Marin County already pay a great deal of money to cross the bridge and come into San Francisco. It’s something we accept as the cost of doing business. I wonder if you have ideas about why this in particular is really riling people up to the degree that it is.

ROTH: It makes sense: I mean think about it, it’s driving and it’s tax, quote unquote tax – it’s really a fee – those are two of the most American things in the world, to hate taxes and love driving, and driving as free as you possibly can. I think it’s understandable you would have as much turmoil as you do about it because it’s a novel idea, it’s something people get quote-unquote for free right now – the other costs of actually maintaining the roads, and pollution, and the harmful effects health and otherwise, those are all subsumed socially, it goes into other taxes, so you don’t really see the impact you have driving. Why would you want to pay for something you get for free now?

On the Bay Bridge, they recently changed their toll structure so you have a congestion charge. So if you come in between I think 6 and 10, it’s more than it is after 10. Everyone complained when they were about to change the toll structure, they said it would be a horrible thing to ding drivers. And what you saw, including media in the sky, and helicopters the day of the charge, was that people changed their patterns. Some people paid for it, others waited and came into the city after 10, which achieved the exact goal they had, which was to disperse the congestion. Really, streets are not congested all day in San Francisco in the downtown corridor, it’s really at those peak hours. It’s when everyone’s driving into work and when everyone’s leaving in their cars. Those are also the peak hours for Muni or for other transit, for cyclists. Everybody’s condensed in this area at the same time, so that’s when you want to make the improvements.

MINER: And so has that success of the congestion pricing on the Bay Bridge, you were saying people did change their habits, is that something that has lasted in the subsequent months?

ROTH: Yes, from what I understand from the data, there has been a shift, and you have less traffic in the most congested hours.

MINER: And so would it be reasonable to expect that you’d see similar results in San Francisco with a congestion pricing structure?

ROTH: All the models they’ve created tend to suggest that you would have quite a bit of savings in congestion and also a lot revenue – revenue is anywhere between 60 and 80 million dollars, and you could see upwards a 10, 12, 15 percent reduction in traffic, according to the models. Of course they don’t know, these are just models. One of the things that remains to be seen is a pilot. And if we do a pilot, then we’ll have a real-world example of whether or not it’s a success.

MINER: We’re talking to Matthew Roth, deputy editor of Streetsblog San Francisco. Speaking of bridge tolls, in cities like New York, tolls are much higher than they are in the Bay Area. I’m wondering if we can expect to see our own tolls continue to go up, and how you think people would react to something like that?

ROTH: I think we’re going to see higher tolls, in my opinion, we’re going to see a cost of driving that better reflects actual external costs to environment, to our health, in congestion and lost productivity because of traffic.

MINER: Do you think that’s something that the public will be on board with, or will it have to be to be forced on people?

ROTH: I think it’s going to be a difficult pitch to get the public excited about paying more, but if planners do a couple of things, they start out, elaborate the issue very well, and they talk about the problem and clarify what that is, then say here’s the solution, here’s how we’re going to do it, and you show that through demonstration projects or pilots, and you deliver on the promise, I think people will be less upset about it. But I think at some level, there’s going to be a degree of it where we look and we say: these are our values, climate change and how we want to address it. All the driving we do right now is inimical to those values. I think we’ll get to a point where we look back on this period of a great deal of driving, of vehicles that are not very fuel efficient, and we’ll think to ourselves, how did we live in that?

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