Interview with Tom Fisher about Congestion Pricing in the Twin Cities

london congestion zoneA while ago I was attending a parking policy seminar as part of my role as a Saint Paul Planning Commissioner. We had a great panel discussing how to cure our downtowns of their predilections for surface parking lots (among other things).

One of the guests was University of Minnesota Design School Dean Tom Fisher, who spoke eloquently about the need for new attitudes and policies towards parking in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. For example, he called for lower parking minimums and different zoning approaches to manufacturing which, in the future, might look very different than they have in the past thanks to technologies like 3D printing.

Towards the end of the discussion, however, Fisher made an interesting comment about the potential of (something like) congestion pricing to work in the Twin Cities. As you are probably aware, congestion pricing is a technology that charges driver a toll for entering a CBD. It is used in European cities like London and Stockholm, and (where it works) has proven to be surprisingly popular and effective, reducing traffic and generating revenue for road and transit budgets.

Could such a thing be possible in the Twin Cities? I recently called Fisher up and asked him about his ideas. We didn’t dive into the specifics of what congestion pricing might look like in the Twin Cities, but did talk for a long time about why the theory behind it might make sense.

[transcript follows]

Q: You once mentioned to me that you thought congestion pricing might work in the Twin Cities. At present, the idea seems a bit far fetched. Can you explain why congestion pricing might be a good idea?

Tom Fisher (TF): Part of the conversation is that our public policies are locational neutral.  We tend to treat all roads alike. For example,  with our utilities, we tend to charge based on usage rather than location. The fallacy of that is that location matters.  With sprawl, if you’re gonna live 40 miles out from the power plant, the power plant has to get the power 40 miles away. But they charge the same usage as someone only 1 mile from power plant. It means that the utility company charges everyone the price of maintaining the overall infrastructure, even though some people are not using as much as others.

Q: So you’re saying that ignoring distance leads to problems.

sherco plant

The Sherco coal plant in Becker, MN.

TF: Some people might look at a system and figure out how to take maximum advantage of it, shifting the cost for the group. The same thing works for building transportation infrastructure. We’re getting to the point where we can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure we have in transportation.

There’s this nonprofit [Strong Towns] that has the idea of transportation as a Ponzi scheme. Basically the development community puts in new development and sinks the cost of the infrastructure into the price of the houses they sell. And then the municipality has to maintain all these roads into the future without the tax base needed to maintain the roads by continually growing. Right now, we’re pay off our maintenance costs because we keep growing, but once communities get fully built out they can’t grow any more.

Q: That’s the Strong Towns argument. Chuck and the folks over there are doing great work.

TF: Yes. To me, this is where the ‘location neutral’ approach to infrastructure’s game is up. We have to rethink this because we don’t have sustainable tax structure to maintain the infrastructure we have. One thought going forward is that bigger cities like London have been quite successfully operating a congestion pricing system. They do that on transportation. If you want to come into the center of London, you have to pay for it. If you want to take public transportation or ride your bike or walk or use any other means, that’s fine. There’s a cost to the City of London to dealing all these cars.

Q: Wouldn’t there be some problems with this kind of structure in the Twin Cities?

TF: Some argue that this just favors the rich. The rich don’t mind paying, and therefore only the rich will have cars in the city of London.  But I would argue that they’re not just making London a place for the rich. By controlling the cars, actually having a car in London is now less convenient than not having a car in London. The same is true in New York City. You don’t want to have a car in those places. The only people who are gonna drive are the people who absolutely have to drive, for example, if they’re picking up something that’s too heavy to take on public transportation.

Q: So this is kind of an anti-sprawl approach?

levittown PA

Levittown, PA

TF: Well let’s start by looking at location pricing on utilities. It’s not explicitly against sprawl. But if you want to live far out, you’ll have to pay more because it costs us all more to get all the infrastructure to you. One of the drivers of sprawl has been that its been cheaper to live out on the edge than in the city.

It actually should be the obverse. Living on the edge should be more expensive, because it’s costly. So essentially, since WWII this country has had a set of anti-urban public policies that have strongly favored leaving the city. We’ve been basically shifting the costs onto urban residents for the extraordinary expense of suburban sprawl. It’s a the tragedy of the commons. We’ve set up this scheme where the cities are funding their own depopulation.

Q: Do you think congestion pricing is actually realistic, or is this a pie in the sky?

TF: It’s a realistic public policy. It costs money to plow and pave streets. And the more streets we have, the more power lines we have to maintain, we have to build into our public policies enough revenue to maintain the systems.  It is going to force us to ask ourselves, just how much infrastructure do we want? How much do we need? And how efficiently are we using the infrastructure we have?

Low density development is continually expanding our infrastructure without using the infrastructure we have more efficiently.  So the question is going to be, do you want taxes to go way up? That’s one option. But if we want to live this way, we’re gonna have to pay for it. Congestion pricing or higher taxes are two solutions. Although I suspect, given the way people think about taxation these days, the conversation will really be about how we use our infrastructure more efficiently, and is there is any infrastructure we can do without.

Q: Yeah I think about places where they’re un-paving roads, like in some parts of cash-strapped Michigan.

TF: They’re taking roads out, unpaving them or using the rights-of-way (ROWs) for other things like habitat corridors or water cleaning through bioswales. Or they’re putting in solar farms along public ROWs. There are many other thing we could be doing in the public ROW than constantly paving it for cars and vehicles.

Q: Thanks for talking to me.

nate hood cul de sac

Random people standing in a Twin Cities’ cul-de-sac.


Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.