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Road Pricing in New York

"We Will Clog You - New York City’s traffic problems hurt the entire region"


LAST week Mayor Michael Bloomberg highlighted traffic congestion as one of the key challenges facing the city. He identified improving travel times for residents, visitors and workers as one of his 10 goals for a “sustainable” New York.

And he’s right to do so. Indeed, New York City is choking on its own traffic. Unpredictable travel times, noise, truck and auto exhaust and the stress — and sometimes, the deadly peril — of traversing traffic-clogged streets combine to make the city and the region less livable. Moreover, street congestion makes delivering goods and services in New York City difficult and expensive. The metropolitan area’s transportation planning organization estimates that traffic delays annually waste more than $8 billion in man hours and double the cost of freight shipments.

Recent polls and studies by transportation, planning and environmental groups point to the public’s frustration with traffic congestion. Besides the Manhattan central business district, traffic is a major problem in downtown Brooklyn; Queens; nearby city and suburban neighborhoods in Connecticut, Long Island, New Jersey and Westchester County; and the highways that link them together.

Within New York City, transportation officials have tried ways to loosen the gridlock: they’ve switched major avenues to one-way operation, prohibited curbside parking during rush hour; established “thru streets” to restrict turns off major crosstown routes; and instituted reversible tunnel and bus lanes to accommodate rush-hour traffic. Nonetheless, the flood of cars and trucks continues unabated, and the city’s traffic “peak period” now lasts seven or eight hours a day and could grow to 12 by 2030 if we don’t take action.

So what else can we do?

For 50 years, economists have argued that road-use charges can reduce traffic congestion: since road space is a limited commodity, there should be a price on it. It doesn’t take an economics degree to recognize that when something is free, people tend to use more of it.

In congestion-charging programs, drivers pay a fee to enter certain districts or to use certain roads at times when traffic is heaviest. In high-occupancy/toll lane programs, special “express” highway lanes are reserved for buses and other vehicles with at least two passengers, as well as for solo drivers who are willing to pay a toll to speed their trip. Modern technologies like electronic toll collection have made the various pricing schemes far more feasible in recent years.

Other congested cities, including London, Singapore and Stockholm, have benefited from such road-pricing mechanisms. But the idea has never gotten much traction here. Drivers strongly object to proposals for additional bridge tolls or for a London-style congestion charge for entering Manhattan’s central business district. Recent polls have shown that even transit users are skeptical of these ideas.

But with the city’s population expected to grow by 1 million people over the next 20 years, our traffic problem promises to only worsen, and we need to find a solution that we can all live with.

With that in mind, we set out to find some answers. Through focus groups representing various metropolitan-area constituencies — motorists, transit users, retailers, restaurateurs, businesses that make deliveries in Manhattan, residents of all boroughs and the suburbs — we learned that people would accept road pricing if they were convinced that it is really meant to ease traffic instead of raising revenue and is part of a broader transportation program that includes measures to provide traffic relief without fees.

Drivers in the city and around the region would support congestion charges, high-occupancy/toll lanes or other road-pricing solutions calibrated to the times and places of worst congestion. They are willing to let road pricing work the market’s magic as long as the plan minimizes the impact on motorists who are not really part of the problem. One option to discourage unnecessary driving that is likely to have wide support would be the elimination of free street parking for government employees.

Most important, the people we spoke to believe that road pricing must be part of a comprehensive plan to improve transportation — one that also employs measures like tighter enforcement of rules against double parking, zoning requirements for off-street truck loading to prevent delivery vehicles from clogging traffic and exclusive lanes and traffic-signal priority for buses.

They also favor increased transit options like new express bus routes, improved commuter rail service, and additional park-and-ride sites to entice motorists from their cars. Revenue from fees and tolls would need to be used to improve both public transportation and roads. Beginning such improvements before any road charges were introduced would assure people that the program’s purpose really is to reduce traffic congestion and not simply to raise revenue.

Traffic jams are a New York City problem that has a domino effect on the region. They affect not just future sustainability but also our quality of life and economy today. The mayor is right to identify traffic relief as one of his top 10 goals, and leaders in Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Westchester should do the same.

Bruce Schaller is a transportation policy consultant. Hope Cohen is the deputy director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Rethinking Development.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times, December 17, 2006

Full report on which this article is based:
Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think About Road Pricing (2.0 mb pdf file)

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