Congestion and the Global Pandemic
Amid the global pandemic, San Francisco’s first priority has been to keep our communities safe and healthy. At the start of the pandemic, congestion had mostly vanished, but we’re already starting to see it increase again.
The future beyond this pandemic is uncertain, but in the past, San Francisco’s economy has been resilient. We expect the economy will rebound and without intervention it will bring the return of congestion and its negative impacts.
Preparing a congestion pricing program will take at least three to five years, so the work we do now can help us make sure this tool is ready to use once traffic reaches unacceptable levels. By promoting the use of transit, walking, and biking, congestion pricing can help build a stronger downtown that is not impeded by gridlock.
The Transportation Authority is exploring how a fee to drive downtown could get traffic moving and achieve goals around street safety, clean air, and equity. This is a strategy called congestion pricing.
To significantly reduce congestion, we estimate a congestion pricing program would need to reduce downtown car trips during rush hour by at least 15% from pre-pandemic levels. This could help us achieve four key goals:
- Get traffic moving so people and goods get where they need to go
- Increase safety for people walking, biking, and driving
- Clean the air to support public health and fight climate change
- Advance equity by improving health and transportation for disadvantaged communities
The best practice is to combine the congestion fee with discounts, subsidies, and incentives to make the system fair and encourage the use of sustainable transportation modes like transit, walking, and biking.
Frequently Asked Questions
The study team has completed several tasks, including:
- Finalizing study goals
- Initial round of outreach
- Identifying a list of three options for further study
Next steps include additional public outreach and technical work to determine a feasible congestion pricing option that is effective and fair. We plan to present recommendations in 2021.
Policy Advisory Committee
The Downtown Congestion Pricing Study receives guidance from a Policy Advisory Committee comprised of neighborhood, business, advocacy, and community representatives. We expect to hold eight Policy Advisory Committee meetings throughout the course of the study. The public will have the opportunity to attend and provide public feedback at these meetings.
- APA Family Support Services
- Bayview Hunters Point Citizen Advisory Committee
- Central City SRO Collaborative
- Chinatown Community Development Center
- Commission on the Environment
- El Centro Bayview
- Excelsior Action Group
- The Greenlining Institute
- Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association
- La Raza Centro Legal
- Mission Economic Development Agency
- Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association
- SF Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association
- SF Bicycle Coalition
- SF Chamber of Commerce
- SF Council of District Merchants Associations
- SF Giants
- SF Human Rights Commission
- SF Labor Council
- SF Transit Riders
- SF Travel
- Senior and Disability Action
- Southeast Asian Community Center
- South Beach | Rincon | Mission Bay Neighborhood Assn.
- Transportation Authority Citizens Advisory Committee
- UCSF Mission Bay
- Union Square Business Improvement District
- Walk San Francisco
- West of Twin Peaks Central Council
- Yellow Cab of San Francisco
Get Involved: Community Engagement
Through 2021, we will work with community members to shape various scenarios for what a downtown congestion pricing program could look like.
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Potential Congestion Pricing Zone
The congestion pricing zone under consideration is in northeastern San Francisco, including the Downtown and SoMa neighborhoods. Here is the congestion pricing boundary proposed for further analysis in the study’s next step.
Drivers would pay a fee to cross this boundary during rush hours.
The project team developed this example to include the most congested streets and freeway ramps while following natural neighborhood boundaries where possible. The boundary would also need to be large enough to prevent people from driving around it and clogging nearby neighborhoods.
Making Sure Pricing Programs Are Fair
One question we often hear about congestion pricing is whether we can make the system fair.
Inequities have long been ingrained in our transportation system and are still present today. More cars on the road disproportionately affect low-income communities of color because they are more likely to:
- Ride the bus, which is stuck in car traffic
- Live in areas with higher rates of traffic collisions
- Have health impacts like asthma from polluted air
- Spend a disproportionate amount of income on transportation, especially those who drive
We’re looking at congestion pricing to flip this dynamic. Most of the drivers downtown during peak hours are in households making over $100,000. By charging a fee to drivers who can afford it and providing discounts and exemptions for those who can't, we can get traffic moving and improve transit, bike and pedestrian options. And by prioritizing travel, safety, and clean air improvements for the people who need them the most, we can advance equity in our transportation system.
In order to design an equitable congestion pricing program, the study process itself must also be equitable. The project team is collaborating with underinvested communities throughout the course of the study. This includes kicking off the study with listening sessions with leaders in underinvested communities, hosting co-creation workshops with community partners, and convening a Policy Advisory Committee with strong representation from equity-focused organizations.
What Pricing Policy Could Meet Study Goals?
The Downtown Congestion Pricing Study team has conducted analysis to understand what scenarios will meet our goals, including a 15% vehicle trip reduction and protecting low-income households from transportation cost increases. We have developed three scenarios so far, all of which will undergo further refinement based on feedback.
All three scenarios feature:
- A full exemption for the lowest-income drivers, plus different discount levels for other low- and moderate-income drivers
- A discount for drivers with disabilities
- A per-trip fee for Uber/Lyft rides
- A 20-25% increase in transit service to accommodate additional ridership plus additional potential investments in transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and other improvements.
The fees for higher-income drivers would range from $7 to $14, but scenarios under consideration include discounts for groups including drivers who paid a bridge toll, drivers with disabilities and residents of the congestion pricing zone. More details on options we are studying are on page 32 of this presentation (PDF).
Public input will continue to help shape these scenarios.
Congestion pricing would reduce the number of cars driving downtown, making it one of the most effective tools we can use to reduce congestion.
Cities around the World are Using Congestion Pricing
Congestion pricing has worked in cities around the world and New York will soon be the first American city to launch a congestion pricing program.
We will be working with community members and technical experts to understand what an effective and equitable downtown congestion pricing program could look like. This study will culminate in one or more recommendations based on technical analysis and community engagement. After this study is complete, our board, which is comprised of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, may ask us to continue to look into how a congestion pricing program could be implemented. Several years of technical analysis, community outreach, and coordination—along with state approval—would be needed before San Francisco could implement a congestion pricing program.
How We Got Here
Record Level Congestion in 2019
Traffic congestion in San Francisco reached record levels in 2019. People were driving more than ever due to a growing population, a strong economy, and demand for travel by ride-hail vehicles.
Congestion was particularly severe in downtown and in SoMa. This impacts not only people who are traveling, but also surrounding residents’ quality of life, safety, and health, and disproportionately affects low income communities of color.
San Francisco has had success in reducing congestion through updates to parking pricing as well as by encouraging more efficient travel: from adding transit-only lanes, to installing protected bike lanes, to taxing ride-hail trips to support transit, walking, and biking.
Better Transit Helps, but it’s Not Enough
While these efforts helped, they were not enough. Investments like transit-only lanes successfully improved transit speeds relative to auto speeds, but growing congestion downtown meant transit riders’ trips were still delayed by traffic. Buses can be delayed by cars turning, parking, blocking intersections, or illegally using the transit-only lane.
We cannot build our way out of our congestion problem – there was too much demand for driving and not enough road space to accommodate the demand.
We estimate that when our economy rebounds and congestion reaches unacceptable levels again, we need to reduce the number of peak period car trips downtown by at least 15% to get traffic moving and make walking, biking, and transit improvements work.
Learn more in the Why Congestion Pricing? Briefing Paper (PDF)
2010 Congestion Pricing Study
The aim of our 2010 Congestion Pricing Study (PDF) was to assess whether implementing a congestion pricing program in San Francisco makes sense. Through the study's technical feasibility assessment and a public input process, the Transportation Authority determined that a congestion pricing program could deliver significant benefits to the city. Our current study serves as an update to this past work on congestion pricing, with new data and public engagement.
Our 2010 study on congestion pricing in San Francisco found the following benefits:
12% fewer peak period auto trips
21% reduction in vehicle delay
20% – 25% transit speed improvements
16% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the priced area
12% reduction in pedestrian collisions
Business effects broadly neutral
Policies & Plans that Recommend Downtown Congestion Pricing
Plan Bay Area 2040, 2017 (PDF)