Serendipity! That’s what happened to me recently when I misread the word congestion as combustion and my brain quickly associated with “congestion zone” to result in “combustion zone.” As in, “No Combustion Zone.” This is my Good Idea of the Week and I’d like to tell you more about it. First a little background.
London, England established a Congestion Charge Zone in the core of their central business district with a goal to reduce vehicular traffic and raise funds for their transit system. I can’t speak for the actual effect, but it is easy to imagine that such a toll would compel some drivers to avoid the zone and allow the city to collect funds from those drivers that do not avoid the zone.
My idea is a “Combustion Charge Zone,” a geographically delimited area inside which vehicles are assessed a fee for using a combustion engine. Like the Congestion Charge Zone, the Combustion Charge Zone (CCZ) should reduce congestion and raise funds for the transportation system. In addition to this, the Combustion Charge Zone should help reduce air and noise pollution. But perhaps the most topical application of the CCZ is to remedy air pollution in locations that do not meet EPA air quality standards.
The Combustion Charge Zone would also promote use of electric vehicles (EVs) in dense, urban areas where the smaller range of EVs is not a deterrent. For long-distance commuters the CCZ encourages the use of public transit and park-and-ride systems. Long-distance commuters could also park at the periphery of the CCZ and walk or take public transit from there. The CCZ does not prohibit the use of vehicles with combustion engines, it only affects the economic decision to use one.
The impact of the CCZ has can be varied by changing the amount charged to enter the CCZ. The fee can be raised or lowered to properly balance a reduction in congestion or pollution while preventing desolation of the roadways. Indeed, the London Congestion Charge Zone varies their charge as needed.
The CCZ also reduces noise pollution. If applied in a dense urban setting–where sound echoes between buildings and does not dissipate as easily as in an open-air setting–the quiet will be most welcome. Drivers, cyclists and pedestrians will all benefit from increased situational awareness by being able to hear sounds that were formerly drowned out by noisy vehicles. This results in a safer operating area. Visually impaired persons might even be able to detect oncoming EVs by the noise of their motors and tires.
I admit that enforcing the CCZ could be tricky and I’m open to hearing suggestions for this. My first guess at a feasible solution is to use the well-established EZ-Tag system. All traffic coming into the CCZ passes through an EZ-Tag detection lane. A combustion vehicle is assessed the fee, an EV is not. A vehicle without a tag will has its license plates photographed and the vehicle owner is sent a fine (just like toll roads that do not accept cash and only use EZ-Tag).
Using the EZ-Tag system requires the owner of the EV to take his vehicle for inspection and approval. The EV operator receives an EZ-Tag that indicates the vehicle is indeed an EV. To prevent people from improperly “sharing” an EV-approved EZ-Tag, the license plate cameras are used with a computer-based recognition system to double-check that the EZ-Tag and license plate agree with what is on record. Privacy concerns should not be an issue with this method since the practice of reading license plates from cameras at intersections is already established in major metropolitan areas.
A gray area I haven’t addressed is hybrid electric vehicles. Some hybrid electric vehicles can be placed in an electric-only mode by the driver, others cannot. How can combustion be monitored in this situation? I can imagine a number of technological solutions, all of them more expensive than they are worth. An urban CBD is mostly slow, stop-and-go traffic which is exactly where hybrid vehicles use their electric motor the most. So the simplest solution for charging hybrid vehicles is to assess a smaller fee than combustion vehicles.
One last situation is that of the service vehicles: medium and heavy duty trucks, construction vehicles, tractor trailers, etc. These kinds of vehicles are essential to the proper functioning of any city; however, they are often the largest polluters. The decision whether to exact a fee on these vehicles and the amount of that fee should be decided by the city when creating the CCZ.
Houston has a multiple core business districts – which helps prevent extreme congestion from affecting an one of them – so I do not believe Houston needs a CCZ today. That said, the Uptown/Galleria area is on the brink, and this kind of idea might be relevant there in the near future… However, if Houston ever needs to fix EPA non-attainment or suffers congestion from the coming population, the idea of the CCZ might come in handy.
There also might be other places around the USA that could use this idea, too. In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg tried to raise a bill to enact congestion pricing in New York, but it never even went up for a vote. I wonder how a Combustion Charge Zone would would be received in the current environment where the BP Deepwater Horizon oil leak continues and Nissan received 13000 pre-orders for its all-electric Leaf hatchback.
What do you think? Good idea, bad idea? How can some of the ‘rough edges’ of this concept be smoothed out?