Almost as soon as he dreamed up a pricing scheme to manage the congestion on his city’s streets, London Mayor Ken Livingstone began urging others to follow his lead. Charging for access to central London on weekdays has slashed congestion by a third, has quickened travel times, and hasn’t stopped Livingstone from winning re-election. Inspired perhaps by that last point, U.S. mayors such as San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom have expressed interest in the idea—but the British solution is unlikely to translate well across the pond.
Londoners must pay a whopping $14 a day to enter the “congestion zone,” eight square miles in central London during weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. That’s a pretty blunt traffic management tool: It ignores the fact that congestion ebbs and flows during the day, forcing motorists to pay the same amount whether they enter the zone during rush hour or at noon, for five minutes or for five hours.
Congestion pricing isn’t a bad idea in itself, especially if it reduces surface congestion and weakens the bureaucratic love affair with expensive rail projects. But there are potential pitfalls, including the possibility of waste. While London officials have made good on their promise to use toll revenue only for transport purposes, American politicians have a habit of steering toll money into nebulous slush funds and turning transport bills into free-for-alls. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, the most recent federal transportation bill is packed with nearly 6,500 pork projects.