Martín Echenique is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, formerly at CityLab Latino. His work has been featured by The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Clarín, Univision, El Espectador, La Tercera, El Nuevo Herald, and other outlets.
Something must be done as car sales increase and cities grow. A new study envisions a plan for Mexico City, Bogotá, and Santiago, but says improving public transport is essential.
Latin America is home to several growing megalopolises and an expanding urban landscape. According to UN-Habitat, São Paulo and Mexico City are the 5th and 7th most populated metropolitan areas in the world, with 21.3 and 21.1 million people respectively, while other cities in Latin America––like Santiago, Bogotá, Lima, and Buenos Aires––sprawl from about 7 to 15 million.
Currently, approximately 80 percent of Latin America’s population is urban and according to estimates, by 2050, more than 90 percent of inhabitants will end up living in big, congested cities––in a region where car demand is soaring. Automobile consultant Jato reports that car sales in Latin America skyrocketed by 14.6 percent in 2017. More than 3 million new vehicles were sold with Brazil leading the market, followed by Argentina and Chile. So yes, you guessed it: Vehicular transportation will be key in the future of these cities. And so will congestion charges.
Congestion charges are an emergent territory not only for Latin American cities, but virtually everywhere in the world. Only a few cities currently have congestion pricing, among them: London, Singapore, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Milan, and Valetta. New York and San Francisco have tried, although unsuccessfully.
Buenos Aires is one of the only cities in Latin America that has begun to implement some form of congestion pricing.
In April, the Argentine capital began charging an annual fee equivalent to approximately $77 to every driver who wants to enter 70 blocks of city’s downtown area between 11 am and 4 pm on weekdays. In October they plan to institute a second phase, expanding the perimeter and the hours of the charge. The expansion will be 142 blocks west and charging will be enforced from 9 am to 6 pm. Residents are exempt, and drivers must own or rent a parking space in the charging zone before they can apply for the permit.
But no other large city in the region has even tried to implement more traditional congestion charge mechanisms. “It is a highly unpopular measure in high-income sectors, who also happen to be ones commuting by car too,” says Rodrigo Díaz, a Chilean urban planner from MIT and Development and Investigation Director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Darío Hidalgo––a Colombian transportation expert and Director for Integrated Transport at the World Resources Institute feels that political leaders are wary for this reason. “Congestion charges are perceived by decision makers as something negative that affects them directly,” says Hidalgo.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently published a study where researchers hypothesize how congestion charges might work in three Latin American capitals: Mexico City, Bogotá, and Santiago.
The study suggests areas in each city where congestion charges could be applied, taking into account mobility patterns, commuting times, job locations, access to public transportation, previous literature, and recent local transportation studies. The investigation also lays out the mechanisms that can be used to enforce payments, such as non-electronic means––stickers and physical tolls––or free-flow tolls and cameras, among others.
Financially, the IDB estimates that congestion charges could collect a large amount of money for the cities: Santiago would accumulate $447,000 on a daily basis, while Mexico City and Bogotá could raise up to $611,000 and $154,000 per day, respectively.
But how much is that in a year? CityLab did the math for you: If charges were applied for 12 hours, five days a week, the Mexican capital would be able to make more than $146 million per year; Santiago would receive around $107 million, and Bogotá about $36 million. These figures are much lower than the $333 million collected by London in 2017, but closer to the almost $100 million gathered by Stockholm in 2014––which is a much smaller city than Mexico City, Bogotá or Santiago.
But, according to the study, implementing congestion charges in these cities requires addressing each city’s unique challenges including their history of charging private vehicles, and one shared challenge: improving public transport systems. Because congestion charges might encourage residents to switch to more sustainable mobility––such as bicycles and buses––while also reducing pollution levels, the policy should be implemented with a comprehensive plan that aims to improve the quality, frequency, and coverage of these cities’ public transportation systems, say both Hidalgo and Díaz.
Bogotá doesn’t have previous experience in pricing private transportation, but more daunting for the future of congestion charging in the city is the poor condition of its mass transit.
“In the case of Bogotá, approving congestion charges has been very complicated,“ says Hidalgo. “The city council knows precisely that there is no quality public transport, therefore it has already rejected projects related to congestion charges four times.“
Hidalgo says the revenue collected by the Colombian capital from congestion charges wouldn’t be enough to solve the deficit faced by the city’s public transportation system: Some estimates place the deficit at around $204 million.
Bogotá’s broken transportation system––including its famous BRT network called TransMilenio––isn’t really an incentive for people to switch to other modes. Bogotanos highly value the safety and conditions associated with private transportation, even when they spend 75 hours in traffic each year according to Inrix. The firm placed Bogotá as the 6th most congested city in the world, only surpassed by Los Angeles, Moscow, New York City, São Paulo, and San Francisco.
Even though it looks as if the city is finally on the brink of building its long-awaited first subway line, “the congestion fee would have to be outrageously high before drivers want to switch to public transportation,” says Hidalgo.
The Mexican capital already has some experience in charging drivers for the use of certain infrastructures: The highly-congested, massive two-floors, high-ring road––also known as Anillo Periférico––currently has a toll system in some sections.
But as in Bogotá, Mexico City’s public transportation system is an issue. It is poorly maintained and tremendously congested during peak hours, a fact that also needs to be linked to the social connotation that public transportation still has in Mexican society, according to Rodrigo Díaz from ITDP.
“The city’s mass transit isn’t democratic at all. While disadvantaged residents ride the metro or take the bus, every single wealthy Mexican uses the car,” says Díaz.
While, like most major cities, Mexico City has some ways of charging private vehicles, such as parking meters and speed cameras to aid in catching and fining drivers, the destination of these collected funds is a major concern among Mexicans.
“The experience with charging private vehicles in Mexico is linked to a lack of transparency. It has happened with the parking meters, with the speed cameras. Nobody knows where the money goes,” says Díaz. “The non-transparent management of money conspires against the implementation of future charges. So to implement a congestion charge system is difficult, it is unpopular.”
Of the three cities, the Chilean capital seems the best prepared to implement congestion charging. Chile’s biggest city is planning to inaugurate a brand new 13-mile long subway line by 2019, and another one by late 2023. Currently, Santiago has the longest subway system in South America, with six lines that stretch throughout 73 miles of tracks.
Also, since 2004, the capital has been charging vehicles throughout its 109-mile long urban highway system. The charging is enforced through free-flow toll technology known as pórticos de peaje. Most cars in Santiago already have the electronic device used to electronically pay tolls––similar to the E-Z Pass in the Northeast or FastTrack in the Bay Area––which would make the implementation process much easier than in Bogotá or Mexico City.
“It is already internalized by drivers. If they wanted to make a congestion zone, they could do it quickly,” says Díaz. But like the other cities, Santiago has a public transport issue: Its Metro still lacks connectivity on an east-west axis––its main subway line, Line 1, is overcrowded ever since the city’s transportation system was reformed in 2005. Four out of ten Santiaguinos travel through it every day, and the line’s operational design of three passengers per square meter already doubled that in 2016.
“Probably that line would collapse,” says Díaz. “But, one could perfectly improve the bus service if there are fewer cars circulating after the implementation of the charges.”
Although there are challenges, reimagining these cities with congestion charge areas is something regional experts think urban planners should be doing: “What Latin-American cities have to do is to restrict spaces, take space away from the car and give it to other modes; and charging for the use of the vehicle,” says Díaz.
"But this has to be done along with a strong commitment to improving public transport. Without that, is virtually impossible.”