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Boston’s Congestion Problem Is Taking a Toll. Is Congestion Pricing the Solution?

By Ethan Brown

On January 29, 2019, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission released the Carbon Free Boston report, detailing a path for Boston to achieve carbon neutrality (no net release of carbon into the atmosphere) by 2050 through vast changes across several sectors. Immediately following the presentation, The Boston Herald published an article titled “Carbon Free Boston Panel Pushes $5 Charge for Cars on City Streets” accompanied by a graphic saying “CARBON CRAZY!” in large capital letters. The Boston Herald, quickly followed by large swaths of the city, zeroed in on one small proposal in the report: the congestion tax. The purpose of the congestion tax—reducing downtown traffic, decreasing air pollution, and raising money to improve bike lanes and public transit—was not worth a fee to drive in and out of downtown Boston. The backlash led to Mayor Walsh declaring that Boston will not be implementing congestion pricing at this time.

According to the INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard, Boston is the most congested city in the country, topping Washington DC (#2), Chicago (#3), New York City (#4), and Los Angeles (#5). Boston drivers on average lose 164 hours, or $2,291, per year sitting in traffic. For every minute a driver is stuck, the driver loses time that could be spent more productively at work or at home, and their car emits more carbon into the atmosphere. Boston’s congestion problem is beyond just a nuisance. It is taking a major economic and environmental toll on the city.

The congestion tax aims to tackle this problem by incentivizing drivers to get off the road and into subways, commuter rails, busses, and bike lanes. Every driver entering or exiting downtown Boston would automatically pay a fee collected through overhead cameras and an expanded version of E-ZPass technology, and the money raised from that fee would be used for projects such as improving subway and commuter rail service, making rapid transit bus lanes, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes, and reducing the price of public transportation, or even making it free. Without a congestion tax, the options are to use a decent-to-mediocre public transit system or lose $2,291 per year in traffic. With a congestion tax, the options are to use an efficient and reliable public transit system or spend some money and drive on traffic-free roads. In other words, instead of $2,291 per person per year going into the void, it would be put toward improving Boston’s transportation sector.

By providing an incentive for people to use public transit and bikes instead of cars, the congestion tax also makes huge strides toward reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. According to the Carbon Free Boston Report, the congestion tax, coupled with other incentives to reduce parking and increase carpooling when ride hailing, would lead to an 184 kiloton (368 million pound) decrease per year in greenhouse gas emissions—over a 9% drop. This drop would lead to cleaner air in the city and a reduction in global warming.

Congestion taxes have worked in other cities, such as London, Singapore, and Stockholm. In London, since their fee was implemented in 2003, traffic delays dropped by 30%, nitrous oxide and particulate matter emissions dropped by 12%, and millions of dollars were raised for transportation infrastructure improvements.

Despite its good intentions and previous successes, the majority of Massachusetts voters oppose the congestion tax. A 2018 poll found 38% of voters supported raising tolls during rush hours as a way to decrease traffic, while 55% of voters opposed it. Boston already has tolls and parking fees, and many, such as executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts Chris Dempsey, have proposed lowering those prices during off-peak hours to reduce rush hour traffic instead. Dempsey also cites public distrust as a factor, noting Boston’s last major transportation venture—the Big Dig—which cost $14.8 billion (after a $2.4 billion budget) and led to tunnel leaks and casualties.

Many opponents of the congestion tax worry that the plan would be inequitable for people who live inside the city center, as well as low income communities who are already afflicted by high costs of Boston living. If Boston’s congestion tax cost $10 to $15 per trip, as the Carbon Free Boston report proposes, a daily commuter would spend far more than $2,291 per year. People have also expressed concern that businesses in the city center would relocate due to the increased cost. Exemptions and reduced fees have been proposed for low income communities, people with disabilities, people who live inside the congestion zone, and people traveling to and from medical appointments. However, every exemption reduces the effectiveness of the congestion tax, and the tax would have to be raised more and more to get enough people off the roads to reduce traffic, reduce carbon emissions, and raise enough money to renovate public transit.

But public opinion may be changing. In March, New York City became the first city in the United States to adopt a congestion tax, which applies to all trips into lower Manhattan below 60th Street. The plan, which will come into effect in 2021, will raise $1 billion per year, money which will be used to secure $15 billion in bonds to improve public transit. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland are also considering congestion taxes.

New York economist Charles Komanoff posits that a congestion tax runs counter to “America’s car-loving culture in which driving wherever the road may lead is often seen as the ultimate freedom.” Though it may not be apparent, driving has never been free. Whether it’s paying a congestion fee or sitting in traffic for 164 hours per year while emitting excess greenhouse gasses and harming the environment, “driving wherever the road may lead” comes with large costs. Perhaps congestion fees are expensive and unjust, and perhaps Boston is not ready to adopt them. But if done equitably and correctly, providing people the choice between biking in a renovated bike lane, taking a rapid transit bus that crosses Boston University’s campus in 2 minutes, riding a cheaper, more reliable subway or commuter rail, and paying to drive unimpeded on the city streets may be the ultimate form of transportation freedom.


Carbon Free Boston Summary Report 2019(Rep.). (2019, March). Retrieved https://www.greenribboncommission.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Carbon-Free-Boston-Report-web.pdf

Hu, W. (2019, March 27). Over $10 to Drive in Manhattan? What We Know About the Congestion Pricing Plan. New York Times. Retrieved from online

Hu, W. (2019, April 1). Congestion Pricing: N.Y. Embraced It. Will Other Clogged Cities Follow?

New York Times. Retrieved from INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard(Rep.). (n.d.). Retrieved http://inrix.com/scorecard/

Ng, J. & Sutherland, B. (2019, January 30). Carbon Free Boston panel pushes $5 charge for cars on city streets. The Boston Herald. Retrieved from

https://www.bostonherald.com/2019/01/29/city-backed-report-calls-for-5-congestion-fee-per-car-trip-made-into-boston/?clearUserState=true

Walker, C. F. (2018, February 27). Mass. voters don’t want higher rush-hour tolls. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/02/26/mass-voters-don-want-higher-rush-hour-tolls/IjNA0tLVPEmXH8JGE0s24M/story.html

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