Seattle’s mayor has announced a vague proposal to toll downtown streets in order to relieve congestion. While the Antiplanner supports congestion pricing, I oppose cordon pricing, which is more of a revenue-raising scheme than a congestion-reduction program, and it isn’t yet clear which of these two the mayor is proposing.
Tolling has a bad reputation in Seattle because stiff penalties on people who failed to pay bridge tolls were so oppressive that they put some people into bankruptcy. At the same time, a well-designed tolling system can be good for low-income people, in the same way that they are better off paying market prices for groceries rather than having food allocated by the government, which generally results in little or no food available at all.
The downtown congestion that the mayor wants to fix is a problem of the city’s own making. Thanks to a variety of subsidies and incentives, the number of jobs in greater downtown Seattle — which covers a little more than 10 percent of the city — grew by 30 percent to 262,000 between 2010 and 2017. Although only a quarter of downtown employers drive to work, that’s more than the number who drive to work in downtown Portland, where more than half the employees commute by auto but has only around 100,000 jobs.
In 2016, when downtown Seattle had 247,000 jobs, the city of Seattle had about 420,000 while the Seattle urban area had 1.74 million. This means that nearly 60 percent of the jobs in the city of Seattle, but only 15 percent in the urban area, are located downtown. Seattle’s decision to not just allow but encourage this concentration of jobs is one reason why the region’s transit ridership is growing. But it also has negative consequences including severely increasing congestion.
Although not many people understand it, the reason why true congestion pricing works is that uncongested roads can move more vehicles per hour than congested ones. Tolling thus increases everyone’s access to jobs, housing, consumer goods, and other economic benefits by increasing the number of vehicles on the road. In other words, congestion price works by tolling people onto the road rather than off of it.
But Seattle’s goal is explicitly to reduce, not increase, the number of cars on the road. The city wants to “get from 25 [percent commuting by car] down to 20 percent and take a few more of those cars off the road, so people that are still driving would be able to get there easier,” says one city council member. This means the city is more likely to propose cordon pricing rather than true tolling.
Seattle’s real problem is that city officials have an early twentieth-century vision for their city, one with few cars and most jobs downtown. While that may boost the city’s transit ridership, the negative consequences in terms of increased housing costs, traffic congestion, and other problems will prove to be overwhelming in the long run. So far, Seattle, like Portland, has benefitted from being “not California,” but today more people are moving towards cities in the center of the country, which are more spread out and more affordable.