Chuck Marohn has been on a tear lately against the goal of "fighting congestion." He got going on this particular tear in September with a post about the empty stroads of Kansas City, arguing that by eliminating congestion, the government drove the life out of town. I have no idea why he didn't pick up on my snot metaphor from February, but I'm glad he's posting this stuff.
I want to add a data point here: with pricing you can reduce congestion and still have a vibrant urban center. But the pedestrian environment suffers. I'm talking about the case of London.
From the beginning I was a supporter of congestion pricing here in New York. Some of my first blog posts were about congestion pricing. I fought hard for it. I still think it's done some good things in New Jersey, and would be an improvement over what we have now. But until recently I had never seen it in action. I have now been to London for the first time since congestion pricing was implemented there, and I have some serious concerns.
While in London I almost never saw a traffic jam. Wherever I went, cars seemed to be flowing freely. In theory that's good: people and goods get where they need to go, without being stuck in one place polluting too long. But in order to get the cars to move that freely, London's traffic engineers made the pedestrian environment much worse.
It's my understanding, based on the work of Ben Hamilton-Baillie, that Greater London started making things difficult for pedestrians long before congestion pricing was enacted. The photo above illustrates a suite of anti-pedestrian tactics employed to speed cars. The Earl's Court tube station, on the right, is a very high-traffic pedestrian "destination" (in that the pedestrians temporarily become transit riders); you can't see that many of them, but there are a large number of people waiting to cross Earl's Court Road, the two-lane street in the picture.
Earl's Court Road is only two lanes wide, but it's one-way in order to allow faster cars to go around slower ones. There is no parking allowed on this section of the road, to provide more space for driving. The side streets around the Tube station are one-way in opposing directions, so that no driver has to cross the road. Because of this, the only reason for the traffic lights in this picture is to give pedestrians a chance to cross the street.
The lights themselves were timed to allow lots of cars to move through the intersection, while forcing pedestrians to wait and then rush across as soon as the light changed. There may have been a "beg button" as well; I certainly saw a lot of them in London. The lights were also spaced fairly far apart; there were several times when I saw an interesting shop or restaurant on the other side of the street, but couldn't get to it without going two or more blocks out of my way. Even though Earl's Court Road is narrower than most Manhattan cross streets, there was very little jaywalking because the cars came so fast.
Throughout London I saw plenty of other devices designed to speed cars at the expense of pedestrians. There were fences, Z-crossings and dedicated turn lanes. Despite having wide sidewalks and lots of street life in many places, it was not a very pleasant place to walk. The side streets tend to be calmer, with neckdowns and raised crosswalks, but it's very hard to go anywhere in the city without spending some time on larger streets like Earl's Court Road or worse.
What I'm describing are feelings of anxiety and frustration that I had as a pedestrian, but are they justified? I don't have hard data for London, but in July staffers at the Utah Department of Transportation found that people tend to die and get injured in car crashes more in places with low congestion.
So what can we take away from this? First of all, I think congestion pricing can still help. But we have to keep congestion in perspective. That means that as cars start to flow, we would improve the pedestrian environment, thus slowing them down. Restoring two-way traffic, restoring curbside parking, adding lights at more intersections, removing fences, giving more time to pedestrians - these are all relatively cheap strategies that can be implemented for almost no cost. I hope that London will continue along that path, and that if New York does implement congestion pricing, that we use some of the same strategies to keep the streets calm and safe.