PlaNYC's Elephant in the Room: Congestion Pricing

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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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