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Uber gets on board with congestion pricing in Seattle

The city is currently studying the feasibility of tolling busy downtown streets

Checubus/Shutterstock

Late last month, ride-hailing (and now bike-share) company Uber announced it would be devoting much of its lobbying energy to pushing for congestion pricing, or targeted tolls to reduce car traffic on city streets. Uber spokesperson Nathan Hambley confirmed to the Seattle Times that the company’s efforts would include lobbying for congestion pricing in Seattle.

“We applaud mayor Durkan’s commitment to put Seattle at the forefront of U.S. cities taking bold steps to address climate change and traffic congestion,” an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “As we’ve said before, we believe that one of the most effective ways to manage vehicle congestion is through road pricing. We therefore look forward to working with the mayor, Council Member O’Brien, and others to create incentives for everyone to share our limited space more efficiently, and to bring attention to the benefits of comprehensive congestion pricing from both an emissions and traffic reduction standpoint.”

Directing that effort to Seattle makes sense—Mayor Jenny Durkan has pushed to make the city the first in the nation to implement such a policy. Durkan announced an intent to study congestion pricing as part of a slate of climate action items in April, directing the Seattle Department of Transportation to begin studying possible models. then announced further funding for study as part of her proposed budget last month. The City Council is currently in the process of building its own budget.

Seattle is a city where Uber has gotten used to throwing its political weight around—starting with a 2014 referendum to suspend a city ordinance that would have implemented additional regulations and recently by rallying a parade of riders and drivers to speak against a city effort to study increasing per-mile fees. Having some support in Durkan’s corner could help raise public opinion of a policy in a tax-fatigued city already wary of tolls.

While a program like this hasn’t been implemented yet in the United States, we’re not the first U.S. city to have this conversation—and similar programs have seen success in Europe. In 2003, London started congestion pricing in many of its central neighborhoods, charging around $15 USD to drive a vehicle through between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. The program raised around $1.6 billion USD in the first 10 years. That money has gone toward mobility improvements that don’t rely on single-occupancy vehicles, including the city’s bus network and bike infrastructure. Other cities have gone so far as to ban certain types of vehicles from downtown streets altogether.

Still, Seattle has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country, and flat-rate tolls have a disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes. But proponents of congestion pricing argue that free roads have a disproportionate benefit to the wealthy.

“Free roads function like a matching grant for drivers: the more money people can invest in driving, the more benefit they get from unpriced streets,” UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville told KUOW back in April. “If, conversely, you can’t afford to drive at all, free roads don’t help you.”

A Lyft spokesperson also confirmed to the Seattle Times that the company is supportive of congestion pricing.

This story has been updated to add a statement from Uber.