8 Bay Area Traffic Reduction Policies, Ranked

From congestion pricing to parking fees to transit incentives.

Image AP Photo/Ben Margot
Cars sit in traffic on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on December 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

If you’re a Bay Area commuter stuck in rush-hour traffic, Steve Raney has some ideas for how to ease your pain. Eight, to be exact.

The mobility guru at Joint Venture Silicon Valley recently outlined that many congestion-relief schemes for the Bay Area. He then asked a handful of transportation experts (one federal, two state, and one local, alongside himself) to rate the policy plans from 1 to 5 on five weighted dimensions: congestion reduction, greenhouse gas reduction, cost-effectiveness, equity, and ease of implementation. Finally, he tallied the scores into a table, redrawn below to rank the plans from highest to lowest:

CityLab

It’s an “inexact” exercise, writes Raney in an accompanying working paper. The dimensions, for instance, are weighted pretty subjectively: GHG reduction counted most (26 percent of the total) and cost-effectiveness least (16 percent). The congestion benefits are based on the Urban Land Institute’s Moving Cooler book, but the precise reductions might vary in the Bay Area, with wealthy tech workers likely less sensitive to changes in gas, road, and parking prices than most Americans.

Still, the technology exists for all eight schemes to be fully implemented within a decade. Let’s take a closer look at some of the proposals:

1. Gas Tax Increase ($5)

This one’s pretty straight forward: over the course of 10 years, the gas tax would increase incrementally until it hit $5 a gallon. The increase would give California among the highest gas taxes in the world. Accordingly, it would lead to a 28 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled in the Bay Area, per Raney. The plan’s chief downside is that the gas tax is regressive toward low-income drivers, though that flaw can be mitigated by redistributing revenue to another means, such as public transit.

2. SOV Charge + Non-SOV Incentive

Under this plan, those commuters who drive a solo-occupancy vehicle to work would pay a daily parking charge of $3.33, and those commuters who travel by public transport or carpool would be given a cash incentive. It’s not the easiest scheme to implement, nor does it offer the greatest congestion benefits. SOV commuting would drop 28 percent, but that amounts to just a 4 percent regional dip in VMT and GHG. On the plus side, the policy is progressive, potentially transferring money to lower-income workers.

3. Per-Mile Driving Fee ($0.20)

The per-mile driving fee is a well-tested, powerful policy tool with a great deal of flexibility—you can wield it to shift rush-hour patterns or incentivize green vehicles—and revenue potential. After its full phase-in, a 20-cent per mile fee in the Bay Area would lead to a 28 percent decline in VMT and GHG emissions, according to Raney. It’s costlier than the gas tax and tougher to implement, but the behavioral benefits are huge, largely owing to the fee’s clarity relative to the gas tax, which is hidden in fuel costs.

4. Pay-As-You-Drive Insurance

This idea would alter the existing insurance model of monthly fees into one where drivers paid for coverage per mile. The charge would be on the equivalent of an $1.40-per-gallon gas tax; long-distance drivers would pay more than they currently do, but many drivers would pay much less. The policy would be good for a modest 8 percent VMT decrease but gets the lowest ratings for traffic and GHG reduction, with experts skeptical that the whole insurance industry would undergo a transformation.* It also “penalizes” electric cars, according to one of the experts involved in the ranking.

5. Non-SOV Incentive ($5)

The “carrot” half of the second-ranked scheme, this plan gives workers the chance to trade their office parking space for cash if they agree to commute by transit or carpool. Similar programs has seen significant SOV commute shifts; in Minneapolis, solo-driving dropped 18 percent. Raney predicts a 14 percent SOV mode decline for the Bay Area, though the overall reduction of VMT is only 2 percent. Truth is the incentive would have to be much steeper to outweigh the lure of free or cheap parking.

6. Job Center Cordon Fee ($5)

The idea here is a congestion pricing zone localized around big Bay Area employment centers. The rush-hour traffic savings are big, with a 28 percent reduction in solo-car commuting, but the regional VMT and GHG savings only reach 4 percent, since the fee is limited in time and place. The license plate-reader technology needed to enforce the cordon is tough to implement, but the charge zone could be equitable if low-income workers got a discount or if some of the revenue went toward transit.

7. Job Parking Fee ($5)

The “stick” half of the second-ranked scheme, a $5 daily workplace parking fee is easy to understand. But given that Raney is a big believer that high parking fees are the key to shifting commute modes, it’s a bit odd to see this plan so far down on the list. (It’s especially unclear why the related parking plans would have higher “ease of implementation” ratings—3.8 to 2.2.) The solo-car reduction is a full 28 percent, but the regional VMT benefit is just 4 percent, since the plan only covers 9-to-5 workers at firms with at least 50 employees.

8. HOT Lane + Express Bus

This plan would create a HOT lane on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, using one of the lanes for a new express bus service. It would lead to a 15 percent mode shift away from solo-driving within the 101 corridor, but the overall Bay Area VMT and GHG reductions would be a miniscule 0.2 percent. HOT lanes are only mildly regressive, especially if the car revenue goes toward bus service. But the service plan would be an expensive one, and taking a general traffic lane for transit is always a tough sell to the public.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning the larger problem of political will plaguing all eight of these plans. When Raney’s group of experts rated the “political viability” of each idea, only two received an aggregate rating of 3 or higher: pay-as-you-go insurance, and an SOV charge with non-SOV incentive. If past policy initiatives are any indication, the rest had basically no chance of getting anywhere—much like a car sitting in Bay Area rush-hour traffic.

*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the per-mile insurance plan had the “worst” traffic- and GHG-reduction powers of the policy options, which it does not. It does, however, get the lowest ratings on these two dimensions, based on other expert skepticism.

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