April 02, 2019

From New York to Mumbai, Congestion Pricing is Finally on the Agenda

congested highwayAs we all know by now, the New York State budget, released on April 1st, launched a major new traffic reduction policy, and a potential source of desperately-needed funds for modernizing the ancient NYC subway system. Congestion pricing, a system that charges a fee for cars entering the city center (in this case Manhattan below 60th street), during peak hours, has been at the fringes of policy discussion in New York City for over a decade, is now officially on the table.

While most cite the political pressure to fix the subway as a key motivator for taking this step, there is also the push of increasing traffic congestion. New York City traffic speeds have lowered year over year since 2010, and TNCs such as Uber and Lyft have crowded urban streets to their breaking point in cities all over the world. US cities including Seattle, Portland, and Philadelphia are contending with overwhelming car traffic, and need new revenue streams to pay for much-needed extensions and upgrades to their public transport systems. On a much larger scale, the conversation is gaining momentum in Mumbai, India, one of the world’s largest cities, with some of the worst air quality.

The New York State Assembly’s response is a hopeful one, and implementing congestion pricing is the right step to take. The policy, and what it will accomplish, is still far from certain. There is already pressure from local politicians and interest groups for exemptions and for a cut of the revenue, and the next year will show us just how far the political winds have shifted from Mayor Bloomberg’s ill-fated push more than 10 years ago.

Let’s talk about road pricing

Congestion pricing is one of the options on the menu of road pricing, along with tolling and parking fees, that cities often use to manage traffic and fund transport work. It is politically risky and there is often backlash, particularly in American cities where car drivers are often oblivious to the amount of subsidies they receive from taxpayers. Drivers see it as an unfair tax on something they expect to be free, and businesses often fear that they will have fewer customers if there are costs to driving and parking in their neighborhoods.

Does “taxing” the road lead to fewer cars? Do businesses suffer if driving is priced? The cities of London, Stockholm, and Singapore, which have had congestion pricing implemented for as long as New York has been fighting it, give us the answers: mostly yes. Despite initial political opposition, people quickly changed their tune after implementation. There is less traffic, enabling road and parking spaces to be used for more essential uses funded by these fees, such as public transit, housing and public space, making for a much faster trip within the city, regardless of mode. Time after time, we’ve seen that businesses in the city center have more customers with increased foot traffic than they ever could with free parking.

The cost of traffic

An argument that often gets lost in the conversation, particularly in New York, about congestion pricing is fairness of the transportation and transit. Consider the subway, which moves well over five million people per day. Like every transit and infrastructure system, its heavily subsidized with taxes, but there is still a cost to each individual every time they use it.  If people have to pay to ride the subway, why are roads treated as free?  Why are roads exempted from fees imposed on other forms of transportation?

Anyone who has been stuck in a traffic jam, on a bus in mixed traffic, or their own car, knows the frustration of sitting helplessly waiting for the wheels to turn. But there are also major, long term human and economic costs of gridlock, even if you’re fortunate enough not to have to deal with it.  Freight, with increasing Amazon-and-co demand for delivery vehicles, increasingly clog roadways, cycle lanes, and block bus stops and dedicated lanes and entryways as trucks double park. Emissions from the transportation sector are especially toxic and huge contributors to poor air quality and climate change.

nyc man hanging out on sidewalk
Designated non-car areas can create relaxing environments, a rarity in Manhattan

These are real costs, in the forms of infrastructure damage, public health, lost productivity time, and stress. We are still a long way from equity on our streets, but putting even a small part of this cost on those who are most directly responsible – private car owners – would be a massive step in the right direction.

Including congestion pricing in the budget is the right first step to fixing the growing crisis of road safety, health, access to the city that is the car-dominated culture of both US and cities around the world. ITDP US Director Michael Kodransky, explained, “The implementation details will be important to watch. Only a handful of cities have ever done it. Cities like Boston, recently named by INRIX as the most congested in the US, may rethink pursuing it while their peers on both coasts charge ahead. What New York does may lead to a watershed moment for public acceptance of such strategies, not just in the US but around the world.” If the State Assembly can implement the pricing fairly, use it wisely, and prevent excessive loopholes, this step could become a major shift, that could fundamentally change cities for the better.

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