a photo of drivers entering Manhattan
Motorists entering Manhattan will soon be paying for the privilege. How should the city administer their tolls? Mary Altaffer/AP

The Technology That Could Transform Congestion Pricing

As cities like New York move ahead with plans to charge motorists to enter certain urban areas, we need to think about the best ways to manage road tolling.

Now that New York City has adopted congestion pricing in an effort to rein in traffic and raise revenue desperately needed to upgrade public transportation, other American cities are taking a closer look at this often-contentious technique. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle have all recently released requests-for-proposals to begin studying the possibilities and implications of congestion pricing. As cities study the ins and outs of charging motorists to enter central districts, there hasn’t been much attention devoted to one critical part of congestion pricing package: the technology. How will tolls be collected? How will cities insure compliance in the charging zone? And how will our data privacy be addressed and protected?

Right now, every existing congestion pricing program—in London, Stockholm, Singapore, and Milan, relies on automated license plate recognition (ALPR) to document which vehicles pass a specific location on the perimeter of the congestion pricing zone. Video cameras—often offering as many as eight views—are used to capture the license plates and track down motorists who don’t pay with a transponder. This static and location-based method was a natural technological progression from old-fashioned fixed tollbooths and toll collectors; it’s the same system installed on highways where tollbooths (which slowed traffic) have been removed.

While this system once made sense, it doesn’t anymore.

Gantries work fine on highways, but for dense cities with many roads they are expensive, inflexible and require cameras installed at dozens (possibly hundreds) of different locations. Collecting fees from those without a transponder is costly, requiring snail-mail bills sent to addresses where the vehicle is registered, which may or may not be where the driver still lives.

More important are the privacy implications. Car movements are easily re-associated with individuals. Records from ALPR has been used and criticized for their use in tracking immigrants, welfare recipients, Muslims, as well as used in divorce courts. Both the European standard (GDPR) and the new California Consumer Privacy Act note that such data is considered personally identifiable information and therefore subject to strict data-handling protections.

Now that we are considering congestion pricing, let’s not expand the uses and the geographies in which cameras and ALPR are used. Let’s avoid becoming the kind of camera-laden surveillance state that China has become. There’s a better way. It could be as simple as downloading an app on your smartphone which is already GPS location enabled. Maybe you’d have a choice of apps. Maybe you already have the app.

The technology to do this is already exists. Right now, Uber and Lyft use smartphones to calculate routes and determine how much your trip should cost, and just about every corner bodega allows you to pay with a credit card or a tap of your phone when you buy chips. Instead of today’s expensive fixed infrastructure (APLR and gantries), the need for dedicated single-purpose device (in the form of tolling transponders), and a single management contract (currently with Conduent), the government should rethink these outdated, expensive and clunky systems and enter the 21st century.

New York City will reap flexibility and cost savings if the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) adopts an open marketplace approach for congestion pricing. Such an approach would make New York a breakaway leader in the transportation world.

According to a report prepared last year for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the cost of building, maintaining, and enforcing current open-road tolling systems is about 30 cents on the dollar. With more than $1 billion per year projected to be collected through New York’s congestion pricing program, losing hundreds of millions to build infrastructure that duplicates what already exists would be a travesty. New York can take advantage of the fact that GPS, smartphones and wireless exist, are well understood, and have been widely adopted. There are new and better ways to figure how which cars drove where and how to collect that payment.

Instead of the TBTA writing pages with details about how to do it in a request for proposal, the city should establish the what—a set of requirements that includes a fare table, data standards, a consumer bill of rights, audit, reporting, and collection expectations. The private sector will figure out how to do it, and—like a credit card, restaurant, or marketplace app—declare what their service fee would be. In a competitive marketplace, their fees should be a fraction of what is paid now. TBTA would approve all vendors that meet the requirements. Drivers (or fleet owners) can then select the provider whose features and fees best meet their needs. Both government and users stand to gain.

From a privacy perspective, instead of one centralized contractor knowing all our movements, this would offer a distributed decentralized system. Don’t want the government to know when you’ve crossed 60th Street or that you always park in the same garage? Maybe you’d be more comfortable making that payment using an app created by your smartphone provider, or nav system of choice that already knows exactly where you are. Consumer choice would let people pick based on features that they care about, and could mean higher adoption rates.

Adopting a marketplace approach would save the government money. There would be no government lock-in to a single provider. No one would have to suffer through 10-year contracts and fights over the cost and price of system upgrades, as is now the case.

Such app-based technology would also reduce risk. Over time, GPS gets more accurate and smartphones get upgraded; car manufacturers may decide to integrate some new system into every new car. When that happens, TBTA doesn’t have to make any adjustments. All that hardware and software would be owned by someone else; upgrading it and keeping it current would the service provider’s problem, not the government’s.

Avoiding fixed cameras in fixed locations and using decentralized solutions that leverage existing assets—the smartphones most drivers carry in their pockets—would also build in long-term flexibility. Maybe congestion pricing should start at 14th Street; maybe it should be per mile and not based on a zone. Perhaps we’ll also want to pay for pay-as-you-go insurance, or road user fees instead of gas taxes. By moving to a marketplace approach, the government will have the ability to set in motion a whole suite of technology experiments that could prove useful in the future. Whether you’re in the back seat of an Uber or behind the wheel of your own car, in the future we should be paying by the mile to drive, and an app-based road pricing system is the first step toward this new post-gas-tax way of thinking about driving and road uses.

To deal with enforcement, existing license plate recognition at gantries is one possibility. But just as highway police have radar guns to monitor speeds, and many European public transit authorities use spot-checking of passengers for their tickets, we could have spot-checks of license plates to see if there is a corresponding payment; fines and ultimately denial of registration renewal could be penalties, just as they are today.

For cities like New York, congestion pricing is a good idea: It will make us all think twice about whether we really do need to travel by car. It will encourage people to walk, bike, or take the subway more often, using the streets more efficiently and producing fewer emissions. In Manhattan, driving is a luxury, and that luxury tax is needed to finance improvements to mass transit. And by reducing the costs to build, operate, and maintain the system, the TBTA will have more resources left over to devote to that goal.

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