Congestion Charges – Effective Traffic Management Tool?

Many urban cities around the world are dealing with constant growth and as a result, traffic in city centers is becoming a challenge to manage. In Toronto, there are discussions on how to decrease the strain in the downtown core. Gas and parking prices have all increased, but traffic seems to be getting worse. One suggestion is implementing a congestion charge. This is where a fee is paid to travel within a certain area during peak hours in an effort to decrease unnecessary traffic.

Do congestion charges and tolls really work?

London, England introduced the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ) in 2003 and extended the zone in 2007. Within the first month, traffic was consistently down at least 15%. However, updates in the timing of traffic lights and completed construction were also factors. After 6 months, there was a 60,000 vehicle decrease.  Around 50% of this reduction was attributed to use of public transport, 25% to avoiding the zone, 20% switching to car pooling, and the remainder to reduced number of journeys or travelling outside the hours of operation, and increased use of motorbikes and bicycles. Journey times were found to have been reduced by 14%.

In many instances, congestion charges are part of a larger initiative where traffic light timing is updated and public transportation routes are being optimized, so it is not the only factor in decreasing congestion.

Congestion Charge Implementation Worldwide

Beijing is currently planning to impose congestion charges at an attempt to control the city’s gridlock and encourage public transportation. Since the 2008 Olympics, there have been many attempts to decrease traffic (with limited success) including increased parking fees, constructing parallel roads, widening busy intersections and subway expansion.

Many cities across the world have implemented these charges, including Singapore, Rome, Valetta, Stockholm and Milan. Some cities have used this as a means to pay for infrastructure costs such as Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen. Recently New York City dismissed this initiative, while San Francisco will be moving forward with a congestion pricing trial.

ALPR Technology for Congestion Tolls

The technology used for congestion tolls is Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR – or in the UK, ANPR). Cameras records passing vehicles and use infrared technology to identify the license plates. Using infrared lighting allows the camera to take the picture at any time of the day, including at night.

In order to forecast the need for congestion toll usage and traffic management, planners can utilize ALPR cameras initially for Origin-Destination and Travel Time studies to provide data and understand the traffic needs and heaviest traveled routes of the city. Also, the cameras can be used for a before/after analysis for traffic volume and travel times.

Whether the congestion charges are effective, or just part of a larger initiative, these cities are experiencing decreased traffic as well as a means for funding additional infrastructure projects. The key in effective implementation is to understand the needs of the city, what the infrastructure can adequately handle and then, move forward with a strategy that utilizes relevant traffic flow data to optimize accordingly.