Driving in the middle of a crowded city can be miserable. One moment, you’re cruising along a major thoroughfare, surrounded by majestic tall buildings, the next, you’re hemmed in on all sides by a phalanx of exhaust-spewing motor vehicle traffic. At times, it can feel like the walls are closing in, with each turn to avoid thick knots of cars another dodge into something worse.
It’s no secret that heavy motor vehicle traffic increases air pollution and slows down a city’s ability to function, to say nothing of its psychological impacts upon motorists. According to the World Health Organization, poor air quality increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic respiratory illness.
Urban lawmakers around the country are starting to look at ways to reduce traffic in city centers, where it’s especially likely to impact commerce and air quality. Just this week, legislators in New York announced that New York City is taking steps to become the first US city to institute congestion pricing – which will involve electronic tolling in Manhattan – for drivers traveling in and around the busiest parts of the city center. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle – a trio of the nation’s most traffic-choked cities – are also considering congestion pricing.
While not an outright ban, congestion pricing would discourage motorists from coming into the city by making it more expensive. Theoretically, that would ease congestion and lower air pollution, as well as creating new revenue for public transportation. But the traffic issue isn’t as simple as just keeping private cars out of busy areas. It’s directly tied into population density, affordable housing and future development. While the terms elected officials use to describe such things often hinge upon political leanings, the desired outcome is generally the same – higher density development where it isn’t currently allowed so that more available housing can lower prices. By mixing in different types of development – residential, commercial and recreational – planners hope to create more walkable communities, negating the need for more cars and more parking. But more people packed into one place intensifies the need to minimize air pollution.
In Europe, the desire to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is more overt than in the US, where the current crop of elected federal officials are often reluctant to address climate change. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have released its most dire warning within the past year, but several European cities had already established low-emission zones (LEZs), in which only alternative fuel vehicles, gas-electric hybrids and zero-emission vehicles are allowed. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom all have LEZs in place. Aside from climate change concerns, cities like London hope to reduce air pollution that has affected the health of its school age population. Zero-emission zones (ZEZs) take the LEZ concept a step further and allow only electric public transport and private automobiles – in addition to bicycles – to lower emissions.
There aren’t currently any cities in the US set up that way, but if more adopt congestion pricing, it’s not inconceivable that low- and zero-emission zones could follow, particularly as urban voters become more engaged in the climate change debate. In any event, congestion pricing is likely to put more pressure on public transportation systems, as well as compel more commuters to purchase battery electric vehicles.
Anything can happen at this point, as market forces, politics and even the weather can have so much of an impact upon the next several years of transportation development in the US. One thing is sure – if congestion pricing takes off and urban housing density increases, the continued flow of people into the city could change the way many people live.