How Singapore improved traffic with congestion pricing

The problems of COVID recovery are new, but congestion is not. Recent CMAP analysis has shown that travel by car has returned to the region, while transit trips remain well below pre-pandemic levels. More congestion will worsen air quality, quality of life, and the health outcomes of nearby residents. 

As part of our mobility recovery work, CMAP is looking at global policy initiatives, learning from others to bring innovation to northeastern Illinois. One approach is charging travelers more to drive during times and in places with high traffic. Congestion pricing not only reduces congestion, but could also raise revenue to support a more equitable transportation system through investments in transit and other sustainable modes.

Cars driving on highway

As an example, Singapore implemented congestion pricing nearly 50 years ago. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Singapore’s population and economy were growing rapidly. With that came a rise in car ownership and congestion, especially in the central business district where employment grew fivefold

To combat congestion, Singapore introduced the Area Licensing Scheme in 1975. Drivers paid a flat fee to enter the “restricted zone” during peak morning hours Monday through Saturday. This reduced congestion in the restricted zone by 20 percent within the first few months. 

Although the Area Licensing Scheme initially succeeded at reducing congestion, it faced several challenges by the 1980s. The system’s flat fee failed to account for cars that made multiple trips into the central zone per day. The system also relied on a labor-intensive and error-prone fee collection system, a problem that intensified as the restricted zone expanded. At the same time, car ownership continued to increase and congestion worsened outside the restricted zone. 

To address these problems, Singapore launched Electronic Road Pricing in 1998. Today, it is a fully automated system that sets rates for drivers to use the road based on location, time of day, vehicle type, and real-time speeds. Electronic Road Pricing reduced traffic in the restricted zone and led to more reliable travel times. 

By combining congestion pricing with investments in public transit, bicycling and walking networks, and transit-oriented development, Singapore increased bus and train ridership and decreased greenhouse gas emissions in the city center. 

Northeastern Illinois can draw inspiration from the system in Singapore. In ON TO 2050, the region’s long-range plan, CMAP recommended adopting a form of congestion pricing known as managed lanes. As CMAP works with regional leaders to implement ON TO 2050, we can pursue opportunities to pair congestion pricing with investments in transit and other sustainable modes. As seen in Singapore, the combination can mitigate congestion and improve travel for both drivers and other road users.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is working with regional leaders on mobility strategies for an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. As we develop recommendations, CMAP will periodically share insights on innovative policy ideas or best practices that can ease congestion, sustain transit, and increase resiliency in northeastern Illinois.