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Ditching congestion pricing is a big mistake

For decades, New York City has been trying to enact an ambitious experiment to reduce traffic and pollution on some of the most congested roads in the world by charging cars a fee to drive in parts of Manhattan and using the revenue to better fund public transportation. 

It’s known as congestion pricing, and after many hard-fought political and legal battles, lawmakers and transit officials had finally agreed on a plan that was set to launch later this month. Mere weeks before the new fees would go into effect, however, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul postponed the implementation of the plan indefinitely, citing economic concerns.

Supporters of the long-planned, much-discussed effort are fuming. The plan’s ultimate goals were to get cars off the road, reduce carbon emissions, and improve public transit, including the New York subway and regional rail. Congestion pricing would have, in other words, made the city safer, cleaner, and easier to get around for the people who live there.

 Now, it looks like the city has no plan B.

“It’s a shortsighted decision,” said Sarah Kaufman, the director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “It really sums up the approach to American cities as places to live and enjoy versus places to work and visit, and [it] prioritizes the latter.”

Hochul’s decision reflects a broader problem in American urban planning: who we design our cities for. When it comes to street design in particular, drivers are often lawmakers’ chief consideration, not transit riders or pedestrians. That’s why so many highways plow through so many downtowns and residential neighborhoods; why parking spaces are often prioritized over bus or bike lanes or expanded sidewalks; and why congestion pricing seems so politically unfeasible in New York and elsewhere. 

When cities are designed with mostly drivers in mind, they tend to be built for commuters and not residents, making them less attractive to live in or even visit outside of work. The decision to scrap the congestion pricing, even temporarily, once again puts commuters over residents and drivers over transit riders. 

“It vastly influences the livability of New York City, which is currently just a sea of vehicles in Manhattan below 60th street,” Kaufman said. “It’s a quality of life issue, but also it’s essential for keeping public transit going.”

New York is not the only American city to have considered, and punted on, congestion pricing. Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, for example, have all explored some version of it for years. 

But New York was arguably the best prepared to go through with it: It has a vast network of public transit options that give drivers alternatives should they want a cheaper way to get downtown. 

That’s why congestion pricing would have been a surefire way to address traffic problems in the city and its suburbs. But time and time again, when lawmakers are given a chance to finally address traffic — something that everyone hates — they somehow manage to fumble. At some point, though, cities will have to realize: A very good answer already exists. It’s congestion pricing.

What congestion pricing would have achieved

Had New York’s plan gone into effect on June 30, drivers would have faced a surcharge to enter the city. During peak hours — 5 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 9 pm on weekends — cars would have been charged up to $15 and commercial trucks would have paid $24 or $36, depending on their size. (Cabs and rideshare services would have paid a lower rate.) During off-peak hours, the tolls would have been much cheaper, going down to $3.75 for cars, for example.

That pricing might seem absurdly expensive for drivers. That’s what Hochul emphasized when she abruptly canceled the plan, citing in particular its potential impact on middle-class households.

But congestion pricing is premium-priced by design: The point is to make alternative modes of transportation cheaper and more attractive. Drivers will inevitably be initially upset by the changes they need to make in their commute, but it doesn’t mean congestion pricing is doomed to fail. 

Congestion pricing has not only worked in cities outside the United States, but has only grown more popular over time as residents began to notice its benefits. 

In New York, it would have served two main purposes: First, by imposing a price steep enough for most people to notice, it would have created a disincentive for people to drive, nudging drivers to ditch their cars and hop on a bus or train instead. Second, the revenue it would have generated would have been directed at much-needed improvements in the region’s public transportation, adding a projected $1 billion annually to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s coffers.

The results would have made commuting easier for most people. “The majority of people are commuting by public transit, so having traffic flow more efficiently would help workers arrive on time, would help deliveries arrive on time, and would speed up the efficiency of the city,” Kaufman said. 

The improved public transportation service funded by congestion pricing revenue could have saved people time and money. According to New York City’s Independent Budget Office, morning rush-hour subway delays are estimated to cost riders as much as $390 million. 

Now, with congestion pricing on hold, it’s unclear how the region will fund the necessary maintenance and operating costs to provide riders with better service.

The arguments against congestion pricing don’t add up

Hochul said she had concerns about the plan’s impact on the city’s economic recovery. Some business leaders also opposed the plan, saying that they were concerned about losing customers who drive into the city.

But in New York, businesses only benefit from better foot traffic and a more efficient public transit system that can shuttle riders around the city seamlessly. Many of New York’s business leaders are themselves supportive of congestion pricing and expressed frustration with the governor’s decision to suddenly halt the plan. 

“The biggest threat to business in New York City is congestion,” said Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters. “The majority of people frequenting virtually every business in Manhattan … are getting there via the train.”

Those who aren’t taking the train now could be encouraged by congestion pricing, he added, “particularly if New York City is able to invest in the MTA and make that service faster, more reliable, and expand the reach of that. It’s a no-brainer.”

Another argument against congestion pricing is that it’s a regressive tax, one that rich people can easily afford and would disproportionately burden poor people. While New York’s plan had some carveouts, including discounting the surcharge for some lower-income residents, it’s true that any fee could be unaffordable for some low-income drivers.

But at the end of the day, New York’s congestion pricing plan would have impacted a very small number of poor commuters. According to the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit organization that provides support services for low-income people, only 2 percent of low-income outer-borough residents would have had to confront the congestion fee for their daily commutes. 

Meanwhile, congestion pricing would have largely helped the majority of low-income commuters, who mostly rely on public transit. By reducing the number of cars on the road, for example, buses could avoid rush-hour traffic jams, and commute times would inevitably become shorter and more manageable. And by bolstering funding for the MTA, commuters would have a more efficient and reliable transit network that wouldn’t have to rely on fare hikes to keep it afloat. 

New York’s congestion pricing plan has always faced fierce opposition and was still being contested in several different lawsuits when Hochul postponed it, including one from New Jersey alleging that the plan placed an unfair financial burden on its residents and that it might potentially cause more pollution. But various studies and reports, including from the federal government, found that the congestion pricing plan would have the exact opposite effect.

Why New York — and America — should not give up on congestion pricing 

Ultimately, the best way to get people out of cars is to design cities for people, not cars. 

That means building walkable streets, running a smooth public transit system that reaches each corner of the city, and, at times, making it less convenient to drive. Congestion pricing only helps cities make that vision a reality by funding major transit projects and making driving less appealing. That’s not an entirely foreign concept for Americans: After all, many drivers are already accustomed to paying tolls to drive on certain roads, tunnels, and bridges. 

There are also tangible examples of congestion pricing that show the policy works. Cities such as Stockholm, London, and Singapore have all levied a surcharge on drivers coming into their downtowns, and they have noticed the benefits: When Stockholm first implemented its policy, traffic instantly plunged by 20 percent. The environmental impact is also consequential: In London, carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 20 percent. Singapore has seen similar results, increasing transit ridership and reducing people’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite Hochul indefinitely scrapping New York’s plans for congestion pricing, declaring the program dead is premature. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had already inked a $500 million contract with a company to install the necessary equipment, like overhead E-Z Pass readers. 

Hochul’s shortsighted decision might render that infrastructure useless for the time being, but New York now has it set up and ready to go. The only thing necessary to flip the switch is the political will.

“One of the things that’s incredibly frustrating about this is that it’s delaying the inevitable,” Johnson said. “For cities that are really trying to compete on a national and worldwide stage, you either have an ancient system that has [many] unfunded modernization and repair needs, or you have a small system that is overly reliant on buses stuck in traffic.”

Congestion pricing, in other words, is a necessary component of making cities more attractive, livable, and environmentally friendly. 

That’s why there’s still room for hope. “For electeds who are serious people and who are trying to actually solve a problem,” Johnson said, “they’re going to realize this is the only way to have an impact on traffic congestion.”

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