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PlaNYC's Elephant in the Room: Congestion Pricing

by Worldchanging NYC local blogger, Ben Jervey:
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Of all the progressive, forward-thinking proposals spelled out in the PlaNYC report, the one that promises to spark the most fiery debate -- and has already dominated media coverage of the plan -- is congestion pricing.

Mayor Bloomberg, with his patented dry humor (I can’t be the only one that thinks he’d make a great anchor for SNL's “Weekend Update”), basically admitted as much when introducing the idea in his speech on April 22, saying “Now, we can’t talk about reducing air pollution without talking about congestion. So as long as we’re at the Museum of Natural History, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: congestion pricing.”

Many faithful Worldchanging readers and urban planning afficianados are well familiar with congestion pricing, but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick primer:

As defined by NYC nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, congestion pricing is “the practice of charging motorists more to use a roadway, bridge or tunnel during periods of the heaviest use.” This strategy --first conceived of by Nobel Prize-winning economist and New Yorker William Vickrey -- aims to reduce automobile use during peak periods of traffic congestion in a city’s most auto-ridden areas. The special fees encourage commuters to seek alternative forms of transportation, particularly walking, bicycling, or utilizing mass transit.

The effectiveness of congestion pricing has moved beyond theory. In London, a city that just seven years ago was so choked with traffic that locals compared driving speeds to the Victorian era of horses and carriages, congestion pricing has been an unequivocal success; since the 2003 introduction of a ₤10 (US$5) fee to drive into downtown London, traffic delays have plunged 30 percent, and average driving speeds have increased 19 percent. The program’s revenue has surpassed US$360 million in three short years; this money has been pumped into improvements and expansions of mass transit systems, which in turn have seen predicable increases in ridership.

Congestion pricing is exactly the type of clever, market-based solution to a problem that Bloomberg adores. But knowing that it would be a tough sell to some New Yorkers (not that Bloomie has ever shied away from pushing controversial lifestyle laws), he was quick in his Earth Day speech to roll off a laundry list of reasons why this is so important for the city:

The question is not whether we want to pay but how do we want to pay? With an increased asthma rate? With more greenhouse gases? Wasted time? Lost business? And higher prices? Or, do we charge a modest fee to encourage more people to take mass transit?

The answer is the latter, pending approval and assistance from state authorities.

So, what would congestion pricing look like locally? Something like this:

  • Drivers would be charged a daily fee to enter Manhattan below 86th Street, or the Central Business District (CBD), on weekdays between 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM;
  • Autos would pay $8.00, trucks $21.00;
  • Autos driving only “within the Zone” (not entering or leaving it) would pay half-price;
  • Roads along Manhattan’s periphery -- the FDR Drive, West Side Highway, West Street, Battery Park Underpass, and the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges and their approaches -- are not in “the Zone,” allowing for free travel around it;
  • Emergency vehicles, taxis, for-hire vehicles, and cars with handicap license plates would be exempt;
  • Vehicles using E-Z Pass that have traveled through MTA or Port Authority tolled crossings (bridges and tunnels) would only pay the difference between those tolls and the congestion charge;

  • E-Z Pass, used by over 70 percent of New York area drivers, would automatically record charges, while vehicles without E-Z Pass would be automatically recorded by cameras and billed accordingly;

  • 100 percent of revenues generated would fund transportation investments around the city.

    While most Americans tend toward a knee-jerk rejection of any “driving tax,” New York City might just be ideal for congestion pricing. In fact, of all New Yorkers who work in Manhattan, less than five percent drive to work. To assauge the hardships of this extreme minority of commuters, PlaNYC calls for immediate and much needed service expansion to currently underserved neighborhoods via Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), improved express bus service, dedicated bus lanes on bridges, and even expanded ferry service.

    Bloomberg summed it up nicely in his PlaNYC speech:

    ...if you’re among the five percent of residents who commute to Manhattan by car you’ll benefit either from better bus service or faster commutes and fewer headaches. And the other 95 percent of New Yorkers will benefit not only from less congestion on roads in all five boroughs. and cleaner air. and faster buses, but also –- with the revenue generated from congestion pricing –- from new investments in mass transit. And that’s something we definitely need."

    Congestion pricing is an innovation that would transform life in our city for the better: it'll help clean up the air New Yorkers breath, cut our climate-change- inducing greenhouse gas pollution, and ultimately reduce the transit-induced headaches of both commuters and occasional drivers into Manhattan.

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₤10 is not US$5 (as stated towards the beginning of your article), more like $20.

Posted by: Valentin on 5 May 07

Actually, from environmentalists, I'ld expect a bit of opposition to the idea of congestion pricing - let me explain why:

Congestion pricing only tries to reflect the cost that taking your car inflicts on other car drivers(!), not the cost driving inflicts on society. The cost of cars to society, such as bad air, people injured/killed in accidents, noise pollution, no chance for kids to play on the streets ... may decrease as a positive side effect, but its not the goal. You can see that in the fact that you don't have to pay at night - even though this is when noise is most disturbing and when most serious car accidents happen.

So, next time you write about congestion pricing, please also include that we should price the use roads in inner cities not only on congestion but to reflect all negative externals of driving!

Posted by: Valentin on 5 May 07

The effectiveness of congestion pricing has moved beyond theory.

Excellent - I don't have a knee-jerk reaction against (or for) anything - or if I do I try to calm the reflex. If it works but doesn't fit my preconceived notions then too bad for me.

since the 2003 introduction of a ₤10 (US$5) fee to drive into downtown London, traffic delays have plunged 30 percent, and average driving speeds have increased 19 percent. The program’s revenue has surpassed US$360 million in three short years; this money has been pumped into improvements and expansions of mass transit systems, which in turn have seen predicable increases in ridership.

Right. But the stated goal of this scheme - by Mayor Bloomberg - is to reduce air pollution by reducing congestion. Has air pollution gone down in London and is the lack of congestion the cause?

All you said was that congestion was reduced and money raised.

It's not stated air pollution has decreased in London. I assume it has but ... could other causes be the result? Example (a stretch, perhaps) if at the same time as the fees were introduced it was also mandated that only newer cleaner cars were allowed to drive, or an upwind source of pollution was cleaned up ...

All I really know is that problems rarely have a single source cause, and solutions are equally complex.

Posted by: Brian on 5 May 07

In this case, we need to "sketch" in the real-world and collect legitimate statistics to evaluate.

If it doesn't work, it'll get squashed. The investment to get programs like this rolling is extremely small compared to what they stand to return on a strictly financial basis.

Posted by: Randy J. Hunt on 5 May 07

Just to clear things up the congestion charge was increased from £5 ($10) to £8 ($16) per day in July 2005.

In a couple of years it is expected to change to a CO2-based charge so that Band A and B cars (=226g/km) will pay £25 per day. The remainder will pay £8 per day.

With regards improvements in air quality, the charge was not introduced for this reason however it is of course a welcome by-product. There is an ongoing study to monitor air quality changes in London as a result of the CC:

The CC was not cheap to set up (about £160m) and has operating costs in the region of £100m. In many respects it's been too successful and revenue has not been as large as was projected.

But from a Londoner's perspective it's great with marked improvements, especially in the buses and in the number of people cycling.

Posted by: Scatter on 6 May 07

Bah! Something went wrong there. Band A and B cars will be exempt, Band G will pay £25 and the rest will pay £8. Better!

Posted by: Scatter on 6 May 07

[i]Has air pollution gone down in London and is the lack of congestion the cause?[/i]

I live in London and I can say that pollution here is about the same overall... but then I am immediately outside the C-Charge area, which covers a very small area of the city by percentage. Within the area there was a noticable drop in traffic levels, and improvement in air quality. I certainly notice the difference.

In terms of overall city pollution the difference probably hasn't been enormous - but if you're on a narrow street with a load of cars, it's certainly significant.

I'm sure there are reports/statistics out there. If you're interested try the Transport for London website ( It's very controversial here (the tabloid press hate it with near-homocidal fervour, and the main opposition party - despite flaunting their alleged 'green' credentials for the media at every opportunity - have pledged to abolish it), so they'd need to justify its continued existence.

Posted by: Sam on 6 May 07

If it doesn't work, it'll get squashed.

I'm dubious about that. It's a tax - how often does the government repeal those?

Posted by: Brian on 6 May 07


Point taken.

Posted by: Randy J. Hunt on 8 May 07

The problem with the traffic is that we all want get to where we want to go, and we want every traffic light and intersection we approach to give us a clear run so we don't have to stop at a single intersection.
Not possible you say?
Well you would be wrong!
The simple solution to traffic jams and congestion is to design a road system that lets you do this.
Well we have that solution.
This allows all vehicles that approach any intersection on or to an arterial road to enter the intersection and exit it without stopping. All day, every day, in the worst peak hour traffic and save up to 40per cent on fuel costs and pollution emissions.

At are models that allow everyone approaching an intersection to do exactly that!
People mentioned in this article are invited to visit and prove for themselves that we can design a city traffic infrastructure that eradicates congestion, jams, and gridlock.

In the response and reply to our initial communication addressed to Secretary of Transportation, Dr Mary E. Peters the DOT states that Liquid Flow Traffic Management addresses "a number of successful practices for addressing traffic congestion related to the infrastructure".

Under the section Matter Propulsion there is a Public Transport System that is Zero polluting.
This is the future!

Jozef Goj CEO, UBTSC Pty Ltd

Posted by: Jozef Goj on 9 May 07

Please let us not just focus on London, there is another city with a congestion charge- Singapore. It is used not on the downtown area, but on the major ring road highway. All cars have a cash card slot on the lower right hand corner of the windshield and then they are radio freq. the charges, much like an EZ pass box (but without the identity/security issues).
I feel as though congestion charging should be less of an environmental issue than a superior means of earning revenue within cities for infrastructue. Even if you can improve the air quality and improve environmental conditions,the ability to invest in better public transportation because people elect to drive into the city at peak times should be the biggest advantage of all. Otherwise, fares will keep on increasing for those who commute.

Posted by: Connie on 18 May 07



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