NYC Nabobs Debate Congestion Pricing

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Shortly after Mayor Bloomberg was re-elected in 2005, the Partnership for New York floated the notion of bringing "congestion pricing" to Gotham, a system in which Manhattan drivers south of 60th Street during peak traffic hours would pay a modest toll for access to those streets. In London, this system has worked beautifully, both reducing gridlock and cutting the number of cars in the city's center on weekdays.

Back in 2005, there was so much political blow-back at the Partnership's preliminary publicity run (including speculation that the business development group was trying to hijack the mayor's second term transit agenda) that the group never even released its report on the economic benefits congestion pricing would bring...until now. And according to Growth or Gridlock? The Economic Case for Traffic Relief and Transit Improvement for a Greater New York (PDF, 1.4MB), traffic congestion costs regional businesses more than $13 billion annually, while serving a relative minority of its residents and workers:

  • about 1.2 million people a day travel into Manhattan by car, out of a total of 3.6 million a day via all forms of transit
  • 1.8 million of these are commuters going to work
  • traffic delays add to logistical, inventory and staffing costs equivalant to about $1.9 billion in additional costs of doing business, and $4.6 billion in business revenue unearned
  • the delays that commuters, workers and others endure due to traffic congestion cost around $5-6.5 billion a year in lost time and productivity (ever cooled your heels in a doctor's waiting room for hours after traffic made you late to your appointment? Catching up on last year's issues of People is fun, but it doesn't buy baby a new pair of shoes), and about $2 billion in wasted fuel and other costs of vehicle operation
  • the net loss of regional economic output is at least $3.2 billion
  • 37,000 to 52,000 fewer jobs a year are created in the metro region because of these combined business costs, lost revenue and lost productivity

This report is persuasive on making reduced auto traffic in Manhattan a policy and financial priority ... even without taking into account the costs in productivity, jobs, wages, or expenses of health problems brought on by car-exhaust-enhanced smog and particulate pollution, like asthma and cardio-vascular illnesses; or the costs of environmental degradation brought on or accelerated by petroleum-laced storm runoff from the parking lots, streets and highways into the area's wetlands and waterways.

(As Alan AtKisson wrote on WorldChanging global about Stockholm's congestion pricing experiment, "[P]articulates, NOx, and other noxious pollutants were also (rather obviously) reduced, and science-based cost-benefit calculations show the policy would save a number of people from early death with this policy -- in fact, it would save about 300 cumulative life-years. Probably about 25 people were spared the agony of a traffic injury, as well, just during the short period of the trial.")

Is London-style congestion pricing the way to cut NYC's gridlock? Well, now that we have some data to consider, we can debate how effective it would be in New York City. And that's a great conversation to have. Greenies like me may sing London's praises as it moves to become a truly sustainable 21st century city, but I'm also cheering that the discussion on adapting these solutions to work in New York and other American cities is gaining its own momentum.

6a.jpgOver at StreetsBlog, Aaron Naparstek has posted a longer version of his article in this week's New York Magazine, describing the history of traffic control (or lack of it) in the city, along with the attending political bloodbaths. He quotes longtime NYC transportation politico Sam "Gridlock" Schwartz (the man resonsible for posting those inimitable midtown signs reading "Don't Even Think of Parking Here"), on getting rid of one-way tolls on bridges and motorways in favor of new systems:

"...we should be thinking in terms of 2010 technology" that will allow us to charge variable fees based on traffic conditions, time of day or the kind of car you're driving, he says. "We may not have a problem with someone coming over the Brooklyn Bridge on their way to the Bronx and staying on the FDR Drive. But if they want to drive up First Avenue to bypass some of the traffic, we're going to charge them money. If you want to drive by and show your kids the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree from the window of your SUV, I'll charge you $25 for the pleasure of doing that. We should use pricing to establish traffic patterns that are desirable."

Current discussion and conversation on congestion pricing in New York City also includes this March 2006 article in The Gotham Gazette, and the December 5, 2006 installment of WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show featuring Katheryn Wylde, president and C.E.O. of the Partnership for New York City.

Eco-minded New Yorkers -- including yours truly -- got a buzz from all the positive press following David Owen's 2004 article in The New Yorker, describing the inherent resource efficiencies of life in the megacity:

By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devatating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattenite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use...

Many of these energy and resource efficiencies seem to have been arrived at as a side benefit: a metropolis with a population in the billions couldn't function as (arguably) well as NYC does if every one of those residents used the same amount of space and energy as their suburban or smaller city counterparts. As Owen notes, that difference is especially sharp when comparing the average car use of Gothamites to other Americans.

But those who do drive -- either by inclination or necessity -- are still enough that they make parts of the boroughs all but impassable at certain times of the day, not to mention noisy, smelly, and potentially dangerous for those on foot or bicycle, or just sitting in our apartments.

I love to drive. I have a ZipCar card, and one of the things I look forward to the most when I travel in the West is cruising the long open roads in a rental car (hopefully a hybrid). But I also love my daily low-on-car-use routine -- a way of life millions of fellow urban dwellers are actually living, and living well. Many of us have probably made a conscious choice to live in cities with decent-to-good mass transit. And we sure appreciate the friends who are generous with their wheels for Trader Joe's, IKEA, and used-couch-in-Red Hook runs. But that still adds up to less than one car per captia.

Perhaps the megacity foot-, mass transit-, and borrowed-car-dependent lifestyle is not the American norm -- or more to the point, the American self-image of the norm. That makes it even more incumbent on an image-leader city like New York to demonstrate what's possible.


This is a fantastic article! I find it really fascinating to hear all the economic benefits of reducing auto traffic and trips in a city-center.

I went to college at UC Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, CA. Now, SC is no metropolis (in fact, it's pop is 54,000 and it's a coastal beach/tourist/college town), but the city has a great downtown strip which used to be closed off partialy to traffic in the 1970s. The 1989 Earthquake destroyed the downtown and the redevelopment effort then rebuilt the downtown with increased shops as a means to pay for the construction costs. I should also note that businesses prior to the Earthquake had come to feel that the downtown pedestrian mall was hurting businesses, as the park-like snaking-path design of the strip seemed to let bums and homeless find a place to stay, enable violent crimes at night, and needed more maintenance than it was given. The post-Earthquake downtown has been a popular spot and has grown quite well, but the road is now open to cars. No longer closed off, traffic down the stretch can sometimes be quite slow, despite the road being one way at each end of the strip.

Interestingly, downtown businesses have been fighting the idea of closing off the road to cars. They claim they will lose money if people can't drive down the strip (think tourists coming into town and wanting to drive though) or park there (despite the fact that the vast majority of parking is on side-street lots). London, Stockholm, and also Curitiba, Brazil appear to be examples where closing the street actually improves the vitality of the place. Will New York be that image-maker that can set the trend? I hope so, too.

On a separate note, I find it fascinating your comment about your love of driving when you come out west. I don't like driving and prefer the tactile feeling of walking and using public transport... vast roads can be relaxing but driving in the city is nerve-racking. I've grown up in the West, although Californians in general do like driving and drive a lot. Different cultures in America!

Posted by: matt waxman on December 5, 2006 3:33 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Matt -- glad you like the article.

I too like the vast roads for driving in the West, and not so much the inner-city motoring. I lived in Eugene and Portland over the course of nine years in Oregon, and while I did have access to cars from generous friends and car-sharing, just like I do here in NYC, mostly I walked, bussed and biked my way around those cities. Whereas here I am frankly unnerved trying to ride my bike most of the time.

The example of the Santa Cruz pedestrian mall is an interesting one. When I lived in Eugene, there were similar criticisms of the downtown pedestrian mall that was built in that brutalist style typical of 1970s "urban renewal." It was built at a scale such that the streets were just wide enough to be kind of eerie and uncomfortable to walk on in all but the sunniest weather (at a premium in western Oregon most of the year).

And just as you describe in Santa Cruz, the lee sides of various structures seemed to invite both muggings and bums, and the whole thing did not get enough maintenance. Drivers had to widely circumvent the mall to get downtown, which was not only a pain in the butt, but also really did discourage people from stopping and parking (on those deserted seeming outskirts of the mall) and shopping.

When a few of those streets were reopened to cars in the early and mid-1990s by popular referendum, the vitality of the area really picked up. As I left Eugene in 1996, I don't know if the situation has progressed into one where the cars have become problematic. But opening the streets to limited traffic really improved the mall while I was there.

These both seem to demonstrate that simply excluding or including cars is not the whole answer to vibrant cities -- there needs to be a lot of attention to designing at a comfortable pedestrian scale, having attractive and inviting structures, keeping the area up, and more.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on December 6, 2006 2:47 PM