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Clog the Streets, Pay a Premium

From parking apps to freeway tolls, the Bay Area is experimenting with congestion pricing

trafficJay Primus’ small office at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency could be mistaken for that of a science professor. The walls are covered with giant maps and colorful charts, all aimed at helping to illuminate one of the big mysteries in the life of any city dweller: how to find a parking space.

Primus runs SFPark, a recently launched experiment that seeks to eliminate congestion by changing the dynamics of parking. The approach is twofold: to change the price of a parking space according to demand and thereby keep spaces open on every block, and to lead drivers to open spaces using an array of sensors, eliminating congestion caused by circling drivers.

Primus is part of the vanguard of public officials around the Bay Area who are pushing sophisticated traffic and parking solutions built on the theory of congestion pricing. Though Primus and other traffic specialists sprinkle their conversations with jargon like “availability targets” and “gradual periodic price change,” the basic idea behind congestion pricing is a simple one: charge more to use streets and highways at the busiest times, and discourage those who don’t want to pay a premium at peak hours.

Congestion pricing is already in place in cities including Singapore, London and Stockholm, but it has made few inroads in this country. An effort to charge motorists for driving into Manhattan, championed by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, failed in 2008 in the face of virulent opposition from legislators in the city’s four other boroughs and the suburbs.

But the Bay Area is pushing ahead, albeit gradually. Last year, the toll on the Bay Bridge was raised to $6 from $4 during the rush hours in an effort to loosen congestion. In September, a toll lane whose price increases as traffic does was opened on Interstate 680, a historically jammed stretch for commuters heading from the East Bay to Silicon Valley.

SF Park appMore projects are on their way: toll lanes are slated for Highway 237 in the South Bay, and for Interstate 580 in the East Bay; higher tolls during peak hours are being considered for other bridges; and San Francisco officials have floated a plan to charge motorists driving into downtown San Francisco.

So far, the experiments have yielded mixed results.

Traffic on the Bay Bridge has dropped 2.35 percent during the morning commute and 3.45 percent in the afternoon since the toll was raised last July. Between 5 and 10 a.m., and 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays the toll is $6 — $2 more than the regular rate.

“I think that a small number of people who can do a time shift have done so — they’re either taking their trip earlier in the day or later in the day,” said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “The numbers are small, but just tinkering at the margins can have a significant effect on the commute traffic.”

The result, measured by the MTC, is that the time it takes to drive five miles from University Avenue in Berkeley to the Bay Bridge toll plaza has been cut by three minutes to an average of 24 minutes during the morning rush.

Fred Foldvary, a Santa Clara University professor who has studied congestion pricing, said the MTC needs to crank up the Bay Bridge toll even more.

“They have to keep increasing the charge during the peak times, and maybe even reduce it at other times, to see a real change,” Foldvary said.

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