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Congestion pricing in Atlanta? Weigh this option carefully, but with urgency

You’ve probably seen the news that New York City will likely adopt congestion pricing in order to bring fewer cars into Manhattan, and to aid public transit. Several big cities worldwide have implemented versions of pricing, and other U.S. cities are already looking into it as well. What about Atlanta?

The Atlanta City Council Facebook account posted a poll last week about whether or not Atlanta should look into it, asking: “New York City will be the first American city to implement congestion pricing to ease traffic congestion. Should the city of Atlanta implement a similar tax?”

With over 400 votes on the City Council poll, “Yes” is in the lead by a wide margin. (And at least one Councilmember is already on board with studying implementation of pricing for certain districts.)

Facebook poll with Yes in the lead

But in the comments for the poll, there are some solid concerns raised about a congestion tax not being appropriate until public transit is expanded as an alternate. A few samples from the post:

  • “[Amanda Rose] We need better public transportation before this would work”
  • “[Michael Polacek] Makes sense cause NYC has efficient public transit but Atlanta?….”
  • “[Marcus Jabreel Johnson-Westbrook] Why would Atlanta want to do this? Our mass transit infrastructure isn’t ready.”
  • “[Anderson W St. James] Atlanta lacks the proper public transit for this to work.”

A lot of people are understandably concerned about any move that could make it harder to drive into the city, since most of the Atlanta region is built in a very car-dependent design that’s hard to serve with transit. Many people here don’t have good access to buses and rail options.

To illustrate, see this map below. It was published in an excellent Streetsblog post a couple of years ago which details the low access people have to jobs in the Atlanta region by transit. Very few of the region’s residents have access to more than 50,000 jobs within a 30-minute transit trip.

Connection of jobs to transit

With the ability to get to work (and other destinations in the center city) being so dependent on driving, it’s no wonder that people would oppose congestion pricing. 

And with the growth of low-income population in the suburbs of Atlanta, the issue involves equity as well. Between 2000 and 2013, poverty in Atlanta’s suburbs had the highest rate of growth of any similar-sized region in the nation. Are we punishing lower-income people if driving into Downtown becomes more expensive?

These questions and concerns are important ones to address before we look into putting a price on driving into the city during peak congestion times. But complicating things further is the need for speed on the matter. 

Reducing car trips is important for addressing climate change. We absolutely cannot halt global warming unless we reduce driving. And it’s important for addressing the health of children in the region – particularly lower-income, non-white ones. 

The connection between good health and reducing car trips is strong

We know that car pollution hurts kids by way of asthma.

A new study indicates that as many as four million cases of childhood asthma worldwide could be caused by air pollution from traffic, about 240,000 of them being in the U.S.

We know that car pollution causes developmental delay in kids.

When researchers recently studied children’s exposure to ozone and fine inhalable particles, two pollutants produced by car traffic, they found that living closer to a major roadway is “associated with almost two times the risk of having a communication delay by the time the baby is 3 years old.”

We know that low-income, non-white kids are exposed more to pollution.

The findings of Yale University research show a widening racial and economic gap when it comes to air pollution, with communities of color and those with high poverty facing greater health risks.

We know that taxing car trips is successful in reducing them.

When Stockholm, Sweden introduced a congestion tax to discourage driving in the center of town, traffic eased and the pollution level dropped – and the rate of asthma attacks among local children decreased by nearly 50 percent.

What should Atlanta do? Study pricing and other options carefully, but quickly

Atlanta needs some very open, honest conversation about addressing the way that measures like congestion pricing could be punitive for the many lower income people who can only afford to live in car-dependent suburbs. If the conversation is being led by privileged intowners, that’s wrong. It’s got to be inclusive and sympathetic, and we need thoughtful study of the potential for pricing.

But it also needs to be urgent. 

We’ve got an imperative to reduce the harm of changes in transportation policy upon people with low incomes, but also to address the sprawl, congestion, and emissions that are a burden on them and everyone else. Maybe congestion pricing isn’t right for us now, and maybe other things need to be tried first. After all, New York City tried pretty much every idea out there before giving in to the last resort of congestion pricing. But something needs to happen in Atlanta, and soon.

Car-dependent sprawl and emissions are serious climate issues and health issues (regarding health, we haven’t even touched on deadly collisions with pedestrians yet). Anything involving natural and health catastrophes impacts the most vulnerable among us the hardest, and is deserving of high priority from leaders. Even if it means making hard decisions about how much we drive in a car-centric region.