Budapest mayor István Tarlós recently caused a stir by adding some concrete details to a long-running proposal to introduce a “congestion pricing” scheme for car traffic in the city, and claiming it would finally become a reality by next year. According to the now current plan, drivers who travel in a patch of central Budapest defined by the Hungária körút in Pest and the Margit körút in Buda (map below right, larger version here) will be charged a daily fee of HUF 500, with a likely option of paying a monthly HUF 10,000. Cameras would read the license plates of automobiles entering the controlled area, and motorists would have 24 hours to pay the fee at newspaper kiosks, gas stations and other retailers, or through electronic payment methods such as those currently used for downtown parking.
While announcing that the scheme would go ahead, Tarlós also said he had reservations about the whole idea, which the country apparently signed onto with the EU back in 2009. He said he would prefer for the city to instead charge tolls for car travel across its bridges, or to minimize the size of the congestion fee by having the central government clear the way for the city to impose other taxes on transport and local utility firms.
I would go farther, and argue that the entire business is a disaster in the making, and is likely to end up with one or more of the following scenarios taking place:
Scenario #1: It gets paid for, but never actually built. While the city has apparently budgeted HUF 15 billion for the project, it is all too easy to imagine that EUR 50 million plus getting pilfered and/or frittered away to the point that we’re left with a handful of cameras on a few streets leading into the downtown congestion zone that aren’t connected to anything. Just like all those swanky new Metro 4 station entrances that aren’t connected to, you know, any actual Metro 4 trains.
Scenario #2: It gets built and immediately breaks down. It’s so easy to picture this happening that the only question is whether the systems they put in place to notify everyone that it’s broken will also break down.
Scenario #3: It gets built and works, and everyone works overtime to get around or break it. While there doesn’t seem to be much gaming of the similar “E-Matrica” system used for collecting tolls on Hungary’s motorways, something tells me things will be a bit different when the same system is applied to drivers who have spent their lives crossing into and out of downtown Budapest without paying a toll. One problem is what to do about people who live within the controlled, or “cordon” area. In some congestion pricing schemes such people get a certain number of free entries, or a discounted rate. But such schemes tend to be put in places like Stockholm and London, where people won’t go to the trouble of re-registering their place of residence just to avoid paying a few euros a day to the government. Here they will! Either way, if people are as resistant as I think they may be, the city could end up spending more in enforcement and other counter-measures than it takes in from the toll, which would be a very silly situation indeed. Also note that this scenario has many synergies with Scenario #2, as in people breaking or disabling cameras and then everyone texting each other details of the “no-toll” routes into and out of the controlled, “cordon” area.
Scenario #4: It gets built and works, and everyone stays away. Generally speaking, congestion pricing schemes are introduced in cities that have problems with traffic congestion. Which, aside from a few places, Budapest doesn’t really have. Unfortunately, the flip side of that is that Budapest doesn’t really have any human congestion, either. One morning around noon earlier this year I was in an office looking out over Vörösmarty tér – the main pedestrian square in Pest – and counted exactly six people, and even on a nice day in the summer you can sometimes walk down a street in the middle of the city and have the entire block to yourself. So while cutting down on unnecessary driving and simultaneously raising some money for the city’s perpetually dry coffers may seem like a good idea, with the economy still in the doldrums and shops continuing to close up on every street, the main threat facing Budapest these days is it turning into a ghost town. We already have enough depressing, underutilized pedestrian zones without turning the whole center of the city into one. [Photo by Dávid Lukács/Flickr]