Some American history will likely be made in New York this week: Lawmakers are set to give the A-OK to America’s first ever congestion pricing setup.
The concept is simple enough: the streets of Manhattan are ludicrously crowded, with 3.9 million people packing the 23-square-mile island on any given workday. So, drivers are going to be charged for entering the busiest section, south of 60th Street.
And sorry, no discounts for the world-weary poseur.
Congestion prices introduces some basic economics to our shared street grid: there’s overwhelming demand for a relatively low supply of road space in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, so let’s slap a price tag on it and even things out.
We pay for so many other goods and services based on the laws of supply and demand, from our food to our clothing. We pay for the space our home occupies, it stands to reason we should pay for the road space our car occupies.
Transportation expert Jarrett Walker puts it another, better way:
Fundamentally, congestion is the result of underpricing. If you give away 500 free concert tickets to the first 500 people in line, you’ll get 500 people standing in line, some of them overnight. These people are paying time to save money. Current prevailing road pricing policy requires all motorists to act like these frugal concertgoers. Motorists are required to pay for road use in time, rather than in money, even though some would rather do the opposite and our cities would be safer and more efficient if they could.
That’s why he’s the transportation expert, and I’m some yokel tapping away at his keyboard.
So the concept makes sense.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. After all, congestion pricing takes something that has been free to use and makes it, well, NOT free.
In infamously expensive New York City, some people have to pinch every penny just to make it through the week. Now they’ll have to pay even more to use the roads.
But in this case, the benefits outweigh those issues, for three reasons in particular.
1. It makes New York City more equitable
While there are poor people who drive to work in New York City, they are vastly outnumbered by poor people who take transit to work.
And when I say “vastly outnumbered,” I’m talking 14-to-1. A study by the Community Service Society found that only 4% of NYC residents drive into Manhattan for work, while 56% take public transit.
That point is particularly important, because the money made from charging drivers will go straight into New York’s Subway system, which leads the nation in both ridership and high-profile complaints.
I don’t even live in New York, and I know full well that the Subway is in the non-British-rock-band version of dire straits. (There’s a great video from the New York Times about how it got in such poor shape.)
Congestion pricing is, in a way, a transfer from those well-off enough to park their car in Manhattan to those who rely on mass transit to get where they’re going.
But more importantly…
2. It will reduce carbon emissions
If you haven’t heard, Earth is getting warmer. I’m so sorry I had to be the one to tell you. And there’s a 99.9999% chance that it’s our fault (I’m not being cheeky. That’s the number the physicists have put on it.)
From this point forward, every decision we collectively make about transportation policy should be done with an eye on cutting carbon emissions.
That is one lovely effect of congestion charges: it puts a price tag on driving a gasoline-guzzling (or in rare cases, electricity-guzzling) auto into a crowded area. Plus, some people will probably consider a change to biking or *gasp* taking trips together in a train. And wouldn’t you know it, Manhattan has plenty of transit options.
I use words like ‘consider’ and ‘options.’ Congestion pricing does not ban cars or force anyone to take the train. Instead, it plays into economics like any other situation in which we have to pay a price to get something useful in return.
And we’ll all be paying the price if we keep spitting out CO2 from our individual vehicles.
3.It evens up the societal cost of driving
There’s a lovely infographic from the Canadian site The Discourse, all about the societal costs of people driving alone into cities (in this case, Vancouver).
The study found that society pays $9.20 for every $1 a driver spends in Vancouver, including “infrastructure, road maintenance, increased healthcare costs due to air pollution and other impacts.”
Under our current system, drivers get the benefits, and those who do not drive are picking up the tab.
These are all concepts that are understood and embraced in other leading cities that have implemented congestion pricing, including London, Singapore, and Stockholm.
But Stockholm didn’t embrace congestion charging as some sort of Scandinavian collectivist love-fest. In fact, the Swedes were mostly opposed to the congestion-charge plan before it went into place.
It was only after people saw the effects that they learned to stop worrying and love the
When Stockholm began charging drivers to access the city center, car trips across the cordon dropped 20 percent. Travel times improved immediately, and emissions fell. Contrary to doomsday predictions from Stockholm media and political opponents of congestion pricing, the policy was an overnight success.
New York still has to work out the exact details of the price and the timeline to put it into place. But if NYC does it right, other traffic-clogged cities will likely follow.
I say, it’s about damn time.