|Taking a page from London's Congestion Charge program, the Washington nonprofit Eno Transportation Foundation asked the tri-state's Regional Plan Association to look at how a congestion charge — that is, requiring drivers to pay a premium for access to Manhattan's central business area — might work. The plan was presented at a conference this past November. These are some of the main points:
Why do we need it?
At certain times of day, you can expect to cross Midtown at 3 mph, with avenues being only slightly faster. And it's only going to get worse. Since the 1920s these numbers have grown annually by an average of 8,000 vehicles per day. Over 800,000 motor vehicles now roll through the 8.5-square-mile central business area south of 60th Street every weekday. Only 22% pay to enter.
Won't it slow things down getting into the city?
While various forms of congestion pricing have been proposed for decades, one key part of the opposition has been the problems involved in the toll collection process. The development of E-Z Pass and other technologies have made the ability to collect cashless, seamless, and high-speed.
How would it work?
There are four possibilities detailed in the plan:
1. Flat fees on the East River bridges.
2. Variable time-of-day pricing on the ER bridges.
3. London model: A pricing system at 60th Street for 13 daytime hours onweekdays with flat East River tolls during the same time period.
4. Full Variable Pricing: variable time-of-day pricing at all entries, including theEast River bridges, MTA crossings, and at 60th Street.
How has it worked in London?
The jury is still out, but thus far the consensus is that congestion pricing has decreased traffic and increased travel time through the central business district. (Other such programs are in use in Melbourne, Toronto, Singapore, among others.) The charge in London is about $8 US, and it is enforced through cameras at the 174 entry points, with the photographs of license plates matched against the pre-paid records. There are heavy fines for non-payment. As a result, traffic volumes are down by 16% and motor vehicle travel times have been substantially reduced.
So what's in it for us?
The primary purpose of congestion pricing is to relieve congestion, not raise revenue.(Even so, all scenarios would generate substantial revenues — about $700 million for each of the first three scenarios, and more than double that for Scenario 4.) With an added charge only on the East River bridges, it would reduce daily entries by over 40,000 vehicles. At the East River bridges traffic would drop by about 25%, likely leading to the virtual elimination of congestion at those crossings, relief on local streets at the approaches to these crossings in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, and less traffic on the BQE. Daily transit ridership would climb under all scenarios. So, good for easing congestion, good for the environment, good for the city's coffers.
What about poorer drivers, taxis, and commercial vehicles?
There are genuine issues of equity, though data suggests that Brooklyn and Queens residents who drive to work earn more than non-drivers. Recent studies have shown that tolls on East River bridges in New York would actually impact more affluent individuals and that 66% of those who use free bridges in New York had incomes higher than $50,000. Additionally, only a small proportion of Brooklyn and Queens residents use the East River crossings regularly — one in 35 Brooklynites and one in 44 Queens residents. Employer-supported programs can mitigate negative impacts on lower income workers employed at times when transit options are poor. The plan details ways to handle commercial vehicles and medallion taxis (in London, taxis are exempt from the charge; here, they might not be.)
Though neither simple nor inexpensive to implement, MUG thinks congestion pricing is well worth serious additional study and public discussion. The issue of fairness to less affluent drivers is, to our mind, one that should be moved to the top of the list of considerations. Having said that, we'd like to see the mayor turn his attention from nanny laws to something that could well be a significant quality-of-life improvement.
To learn more, you can read the full report or a summary of it here.
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Transportation Alternatives has been a longtime advocate for fewer cars in the city, environmentally-sound transportation policies, safer streets, and a cheerleader for biking and other modes of navigating the city. Learn more about their good work at the non-profit's website.