Cordon Pricing: An Underutilized Emissions Mitigation Tool

April 12, 2023 by John Powers

Image of Vehicle Traffic Congestion. David Angerer, Getty Images. Image from:

By John Powers, Staff Contributor

In 2020, the transportation sector accounted for twenty-seven percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributing sector of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.[1]  Light-duty vehicles such as passenger vehicles and trucks were the largest emission source within the sector, responsible for fifty-seven percent of the greenhouse gas emissions, with a typical passenger vehicle emitting about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.[2]  Put another way, light-duty vehicles were responsible for roughly fourteen percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, or about 932 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

3The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation primarily regulate motor vehicle emissions through promulgation of national emissions standards.  State and local agencies, however, also have their part to play.  In recent years, congestion pricing has become a popular tool utilized by state legislatures to create market incentives for motorists to shift to other transportation modes.[4]  Variably priced lanes and tolls are used throughout the United States to manage highway traffic flow in areas of peak congestion.  These pricing strategies often serve a dual purpose: increasing vehicular throughput and reducing total emissions.[5]  However, another congestion pricing strategy with the potential to drastically reduce urban greenhouse gas emissions remains underutilized in the United States: cordon charges.

Cordon charges are a form of road pricing that charges drivers who drive into and within a specific area; they assist in the management of traffic and reduce emissions within dense, urban areas.[6]  They are implemented by placing tolling infrastructure on all roads accessing the “cordon zone.”[7]  The London Congestion Charge Zone is one of the largest in the world; it was designed to discourage road congestion and to improve air quality in central London.[8]  London established the cordon charge in 2003, and implemented stricter regulations in 2015 with a particular focus on reducing hazardous pollution within the cordon zone.[9]  Revenues from the cordon charge are used to partially subsidize London’s public transit network.  Early studies on the environmental impact of the Congestion Charge Zone showed that traffic and speed changes led to a sixteen percent reduction in CO2 emissions within the zone.[10] Likewise, a more recent study on the aggregate impact on air pollution in London school zones found that “the stricter regulations significantly reduced particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene at locations of schools within the Congestion Charge Zone.”[11]

In the United States, instances of cordon charges are limited.  Proposals to establish cordon charges in New York City extend back as far as 2007, but have not been implemented.[12]  Recent proposals have been met with backlash about the potential economic burden they may impose on commuters.[13] However, exemptions for drivers based on socio-economic status, fuel type, vehicle occupancy, and residency may dramatically limit the potential economic impact on drivers.[14] Properly structured, cordon charges can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

State and local legislatures in the United States should not shy away from cordon charges as a means of curbing vehicular greenhouse gas emissions.  Rather, they should follow London’s example, with modifications to ensure equitable implementation. Effectively utilized, cordon charges can positively impact the urban environment by improving air quality and reducing congestion, making our cities cleaner, greener, and healthier.

[1] Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Env’t Prot. Agency (July 14, 2022),

[2] Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle, Env’t Prot. Agency (June 30, 2022),

[3] EPA, supra note 1.

[4] What Is Congestion Pricing, Fed. Highway Admin., Dep’t of Transp. (May 3, 2022),,using%20low%2Dtech%20daily%20charges.

[5] Id.

[6] Portland Bureau of Transp., Moving to Our Future: Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (2020),

[7] Id.

[8] London’s congestion charge, Centre for Public Impact (April 15, 2016),

[9] Melinda Mills, What was the impact of the London congestion charge on air pollution & school attendance, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science (June 1, 2022),

[10] Transport for London, Central London Congestion Charging: Fourth Annual Report, 108 (2006),

[11] Mills, supra note 12; see generally Risto Keivabu & Tobian Ruttenauer, London congestion charge: the impact on air pollution and school attendance by socioeconomic status, 43 Popular Env’t 576 (2022).

[12] A proposal approved in 2019 is anticipated to take effect in late-2023.  See Ana Ley, Why Drivers Could Soon Pay $23 to Reach Manhattan, New York Times (Aug. 22, 2022),

[13] See Press Release, Nicole Malliotakis, Congresswoman, House of Representatives, Malliotakis, Gottheimer Announce Federal Action to Fight NY’s Congestion Tax (Aug. 15, 2022),

[14] Portland Bureau of Transp., supra note 6.