Keep up with essential planning news and commentary, delivered to your inbox every Monday and Thursday.
Op-Ed: Only Political Cowardice Stands in the Way of Congestion Pricing in New York
"Traffic has become an urban scourge, and not only in New York," writes David Leonhardt, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. "The average vehicle speed in Midtown today is just 4.7 miles an hour. That’s 28 percent slower than five years ago."
Around the world, it is a drag on economic activity and the quality of life. People waste hours in it, all the while sending pollution into the air. No wonder both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are promising a solution.
Unfortunately, there is a good chance they are going to bungle it.
De Blasio opposes congestion pricing. "He instead favors a millionaires’ tax to pay for subway improvements," notes Leonhardt, which may be "a fine idea, but won’t unclog roads. For that, de Blasio has offered a series of small, complex measures, like banning deliveries during rush hour."
That’s a strangely anti-environment compromise, because it encourages people to own their own cars. The New York of the future should have fewer space-clogging cars, not more.
"Traffic is a classic “tragedy of the commons" problem," adds Leonhardt, a former economics writer. Owned by the public, every motorist benefits by using road space, paying only for their vehicles and the fuel to power them.
The good news is that modern societies have developed a solution to the tragedy: Charge money to use the commons. Doing so not only discourages overuse, it also raises funds that can solve the larger need.
In fact, it is the need to raise at least $100 billion to renovate the aging subway system that is one of the most compelling reason for the program.
The charge for using clogged roads is known as “congestion pricing,” and it works well where it has been tried, like London, Singapore and Stockholm.
The reason more cities haven’t adopted congestion pricing, says former Mayor Ken Livingstone [who introduced congestion pricing in 2003,] is "political cowardice." People cling to the idea that driving should be free, even though it imposes big costs on others.
While additional driving charges are indeed regressive, Leonhardt notes that "[o]nly 3 percent of poor and near-poor outer-borough workers drive into Manhattan for their jobs, the Community Service Society of New York found [see pie charts]. A whopping 61 percent take the subway or bus."
Leonhardt ends his op-ed by recognizing the political bent of both leaders, and the opportunity to promote New York City as a model for other traffic-plagued cities.
Both de Blasio and Cuomo would like to be national progressive leaders. New York’s packed roads and hobbled subways have given them a great opportunity. They can lead the way toward a pro-environment, pro-worker solution that would be a model for other cities.
Hat tip to Eugene Wilson via Sierra Club Green Transportation.