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By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Fees for driving, parking on specific roads could improve DC public health: report

The+GW+Sumner+R.+Redstone+Global+Center+for+Prevention+and+Wellnesss+report+on+road+pricing.
Photo Illustration by Sage Russell | Assistant Photo Editor
The GW Sumner R. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness’s report on road pricing.

Imposing fees on drivers driving and parking on specific roads could improve public health outcomes in D.C., according to a report published earlier this month by GW’s Sumner R. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness.

Rachel Clark and Claire Summa of the Redstone Global Center and Catherine O’Donnell of the GW Climate and Health Institute — both located within the Milken Institute School of Public Health — found that implementing a road-pricing scheme on busy urban roadways across D.C. would discourage driving demand and lessen traffic congestion. Clark said road pricing can help decrease carbon emissions and air pollution which would address chronic disease and climate change crises in the District.

Road pricing, also known as congestion pricing, is a policy tool that charges motorists for driving and parking in particular areas by establishing a boundary that drivers must pay a fee to cross. The scheme could be toll-based or nontoll-based — when cameras photograph each driver’s license plate to charge the fees.

Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan have successfully implemented road pricing and experienced improved climate change and public health outcomes, according to the report. New York City is expected to become the first American city to implement a road pricing program in late spring of 2024.

Clark, the policy director of the Redstone Global Center, said the District’s traffic congestion has currently returned to pre-pandemic levels while public transit ridership remains low. D.C. recorded the most traffic-related deaths in more than 15 years in 2023, and Clark said road pricing will be an effective way to address traffic safety.

Clark and her co-authors analyzed global road pricing models and found that they successfully reduced the number of cars on the road, which led to decreases in carbon emissions and air pollution, increases in the use of active transport and improvements in street safety. Clark said these programs dedicated their revenue toward improving public transportation infrastructure like for buses and cycling, a path the report says D.C. should use to improve community health.

“Road pricing would provide revenue for street safety investments to build safer environments for active transport and physical activity and to improve public transportation infrastructure,” Clark said in an email. “Cities implementing road pricing have seen huge increases in bus and rail ridership, as well as increases in trips by public transportation, walking and cycling.”

Clark said the D.C. Department of Transportation conducted a study in 2019 evaluating the potential outcomes of a road pricing scheme in the District, with a deadline to release the findings by July 2020. Clark said DDOT failed to release the study, and the D.C. Council mandated that DDOT update and release the study by Jan. 1, 2024. DDOT did not meet the deadline again, Clark said.

“Our hope is that this white paper, as well as future research, will help decision-makers see road pricing policy — and all transportation policy — as essentially linked to health outcomes,” Clark said.

Clark said road-pricing programs, especially any implemented in D.C., must be carefully designed with “thoughtful” pricing structures, which may provide targeted exemptions to ensure low-income families in D.C. are not penalized by needing to pay. Clark said road pricing can potentially mitigate existing health inequalities like air quality disparities by improving street safety and public transportation, which would decrease air pollution in low-income regions.

Experts in transportation policy and urban planning said road pricing is a helpful policy tool to improve public health outcomes in cities.

Jonathan Hall, an associate professor of economics and real estate at the University of Alabama, said the biggest benefit of road pricing is the time it saves drivers because it encourages people to use other methods of transportation beyond cars, like public transportation. He said that while there would be visible improvements in air quality, the driving time improvements would be the most prominent perk of road pricing in the eyes of drivers.

“If you put a cordon toll around D.C., a bunch of people who currently drive switch to public transportation and stop driving,” Hall said.

Hall said he is unsure whether road pricing would decrease traffic violence, with drivers possessing a natural inclination to speed, which was seen during the pandemic when drivers felt more inclined to speed when there was less traffic.

Emilia Simeonova, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a co-author of a widely cited paper from March 2018 studying the influence of congestion pricing on Stockholm, said she found that road pricing reduced ambient air pollution by 5 to 15 percent, which in turn lowered acute asthma attacks among young children. Given that Stockholm is not considered a highly polluted city compared to those in the U.S., Simeonova said the health benefits she and her co-authors discovered have a good chance of being replicated in cities like D.C.

“If I had to hypothesize, the effects in D.C. and the region would be larger,” Simeonova said in an email. “The difference in disease prevalence and the correlation between family socio-economic status and child health also suggest that the effects of reducing traffic pollution in D.C. would be relatively larger.”

Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the primary aim of congestion pricing is dynamic traffic control, not improving public health. He said road pricing’s environmental benefits also help low-income people, who are more likely to live in areas with air pollution.

“It is important that as a co-benefit, you do often get a cleaner environment, and the effects of that cleaner environment are often quite progressive,” Manville said. “They benefit lower-income people more simply because lower-income people tend to be more exposed to pollution, especially pollution from motor vehicles.”

Manville added that the issue of equity has also been a drawback of congestion pricing. Critics of congestion pricing argue that many lower-income individuals may be “priced out” of traveling, he said.

But Manville said a well-designed road pricing scheme, like one that takes a redistributive approach, can and should be able to address such an inequity.

“The congestion charge does raise a considerable amount of revenue,” Manville said. “I think a well-designed program could set aside some of that revenue to help people who are below a certain income so that they are not unduly burdened by the toll.”

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