The case for extreme congestion pricing.
Image: Matthias Rhomberg/Flickr
The first time I drove into New York City from my hometown in Connecticut, I was 17 years old and behind the wheel of a 1994 Chevy Suburban that got something like eight miles to the gallon. Nevertheless, I chose to drive into the city that day because, even back in 2007 when fuel prices were well over $4 a gallon, it was still cheaper to drive than take the Metro North commuter rail line as long as one other person was going with you.
Not much has changed. Even with an increase in tolls, it's still, generally speaking, cheaper—or at least roughly comparable—for two people to drive into Manhattan than take public transportation. And not just from Connecticut. The same applies for Long Island, upstate New York, and New Jersey.
Meanwhile, New York City is in a well-documented transit crisis, mostly centering around its crumbling subway system. Despite the MTA's "subway action plan," the problem is not getting fixed anytime soon; decades of neglect will require decades more of repairs and upgrades. We need other ways for people to get around to reduce crowding and make major renovations underground more politically palatable. Right now, New York City's roads are simply too clogged. That's why it should cost an exorbitant sum to drive in Manhattan.
This is far from a new concept, even for New York. It's called congestion pricing, and it works. The closest New York City ever came to enacting congestion pricing was under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007, who called for an $8 charge for cars and $21 for trucks entering Manhattan below 60th Street. The plan died in the state legislature. Now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the concept is back on the table.
In the time since Bloomberg's plan died, New York has experienced massive growth, equivalent to the entire population of Tampa Bay picking up and moving there, according to the city's Department of Transportation 2016 annual report on mobility. The subway, of course, has seen drastic increases in ridership, but the roads are more crowded, too. From 2010 to 2015, although 45,000 fewer cars per day entered the proposed congestion zone, that has more been offset by the constant circulation of Ubers and Lyfts; there's been a 75 percent increase in taxi-for-hire registrations. And vehicle registration is actually on the rise, with 145,000 additional cars registered in the city. Although the effects vary by neighborhood, cruising for parking spaces is a known contributor to urban gridlock, and there's reason to believe it's particularly bad in many New York neighborhoods where street cleaning rules require every car to be moved at least twice per week.
Congestion is so severe, and income inequality so stark that many of those who can already afford to drive in Manhattan might barely notice that fee
As a result, traffic is worse than ever. Average travel speeds in Manhattan south of 60th Street fell by 12 percent from 2010 to 2015, while speeds in the Midtown Core (35th to 59 Sts, East River to Ninth Avenue) fell by 20 percent. At the same time, fewer people are taking buses, partly because buses are stuck in that same traffic. Average weekday ridership in Manhattan fell by six percent in 2014 and another five percent in 2015. (Before you dismiss buses as a thing nobody in New York uses, there were 638.4 million bus trips in 2016, an average of two million per weekday. It's about a third of the subway's usage, but even in the bus network's sorry state, it's a critical means of transportation for millions of people.)
As commuters like myself seek to avoid disastrous public transportation altogether and bike around the city, the streets become even more packed and hectic since there are precious few routes solely dedicated to cyclists. The Department of Transportation's bike lane initiative has added only 74 miles of protected bike lanes in the last decade (there are more than 6,000 miles of streets in the city), despite a 150 percent increase in bicycle trips over the same time period. Cyclists, buses, and cars are all competing for the same road space. It's dangerous, chaotic, and slow.
Driving a private car into Manhattan should cost $100 per trip, offering reduced pricing for incomes below $100,000 a year or licensed taxis and ride-sharing cars
But it could be better. We know this because in 2003, London introduced congestion pricing when entering central London of approximately $15. It worked exactly as intended. The initial reduction in traffic was huge, with 15-20 percent boosts in bus speeds and 30 percent reductions in congestion. As the city reinvested the revenue from congestion fees back into transportation improvements, including massive bicycle "superhighway" projects, bus lanes, and general roadway repairs, traffic for cars got worse again. But only for individual cars. Biking is safer, quicker, and more popular than ever, and buses still move faster than before congestion pricing. As a result, bus usage reached a 50-year high in 2011, with 30 percent more service and 20 percent less waiting than the years before congestion pricing was implemented. In 2000, there were 11 cars for every cyclist in London. By 2014, there were only two cars for every cyclist.
As I discovered on vacation last year, getting around London feels like magic compared to New York City. While the Tube operates much better than the subway—thanks largely to a modern communications system unlike New York's century-old technology—the buses are perhaps the starkest difference. They come frequently, move rapidly, operate seamlessly, and provide a degree of comfort you won't find cramped underground. I found myself doing the unthinkable, opting to take the bus instead of the Tube, something I would never, ever choose to do in New York. Beside the bus, masses of cyclists commuted during peak hours. At one point, I could see several hundred yards down the road and realized I saw exactly zero private cars.
Even if New York instituted congestion pricing, $15 per trip might not be enough because driving was already so affordable to begin with, congestion is so severe, and income inequality so stark that many of those who can already afford to drive in Manhattan might barely notice that fee.
But, even more importantly, it simply doesn't reflect the cost of driving on everyone else, or what economists call the negative externalities. In 2009, transportation economist Charles Komanoff found "the average car driven into Manhattan south of 60th Street causes a total of 3.26 hours of delays to everybody else." Driving in New York is, generally speaking, a selfish decision that punishes other people more than yourself. With an average of two people in each car, Komaoff found, driving a car into Manhattan on a weekday causes about $160 of negative externalities to everybody else trying to use the road. And that's why a token congestion charge of five or even 15 dollars isn't enough. Driving a private car into Manhattan should cost $100 per trip, offering reduced pricing for incomes below $100,000 a year or licensed taxis and ride-sharing cars.
Some people like to have cars in New York so they can leave the city more easily. But with so many cars off the roads, there would be limitless possibilities to get people into, around, and out of the city. More express bus networks complementing commuter railways, not just within the boroughs but to leafy destinations elsewhere. More bike lane infrastructure. Fewer parking lots hogging precious Manhattan real estate. The city could rapidly expand its partnership with car-sharing services off Metro-North stops, even subsidize their use. There could be a comprehensive revisioning of how this overcrowded, overcapacity city uses its vital public spaces. We could finally take back the streets.