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Congestion Pricing Won't Solve New York's Transportation Woes


Cuomo MTA bus

Gov. Cuomo and a bus (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent vague interest in congestion pricing as a solution to problems at the MTA may give new life to one of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s key policy goals, but absent transportation improvements officials could be making now, pricing will not save our subways. We cannot let them off the hook in search of the perceived silver bullet of congestion pricing.

The transportation community has been salivating over Cuomo’s statement that “congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” hoping that the governor will be able to convince the state to put a cordon toll around Manhattan south of 60th Street. Such a cordon toll, which would charge drivers entering the area on a daily or per trip basis, is reflective of similar policies elsewhere, particularly London, which implemented a congestion charge in the central city district in February 2003. Yet commenters and policy nerds this side of the Atlantic have missed the real substance of London’s improvements, and in doing so, they are giving our elected officials a pass on work they should be doing right now, regardless of the status of the pricing proposal.

What today’s transportation advocates are missing is that the key ingredient to London’s success was not its charge but its buses.

Beginning in 1993, ridership on London’s double-deckers increased annually, and was up 37% by the time the charge was implemented in 2003. In 2004, London’s buses carried more passengers than the New York City subway. While those ridership numbers are impressive on their own, what they signify is an overall shift away from cars to buses, bikes, and walking. London’s congestion charge was envisioned as a specifically anti-car policy, designed to make it easier for buses and taxis to traverse the city center.

When New York City congestion pricing advocates see London’s roads covered in bus lanes, they may imagine that the charge enabled such a shift, freeing up road space to then be taken over by buses and bikes. In fact, nearly all of London’s 180 miles of bus lanes were implemented before the congestion charge, in that era of increasing ridership between 1993 and 2003. The lanes and other improvements insulated London’s buses from congestion enough, even before the charge, to improve rider experience and reduce excess waiting time at stops. Combined with a lower fare on buses compared to the tube, the operational improvements led to increased ridership and declining car use before the charge policy was even developed.

New York’s bus system pales in comparison.

The city currently has just over 50 miles of bus lanes. While buses have priority at most intersections in London, such priority only exists in New York on four Select Bus Service routes. As congestion has risen, bus ridership has fallen as bus speeds have slowed to a level barely faster than walking.

Nowhere is the lack of bus priority more egregious than on the East River bridges, the very place tolls would be implemented. When Mayor Bloomberg signed the initial contract with the USDOT for his congestion pricing proposal, East River bus lanes were the only specific bus improvement named. When the deal fell through, the East River bus lanes plan mostly died.

There are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, used by both buses and cars with two or more occupants, in the tunnels and in the mornings on the Queensborough and Manhattan Bridges. The tunnel HOV lanes serve the express buses, the second-most heavily subsidized way to travel in the city after the commuter rail. Currently, the Queensborough bridge carries three local routes and 18 express routes. There are no buses that cross the Manhattan Bridge and benefit from the HOV lane.

For New York’s system to match London’s status before the charge was implemented, we need not only priority for buses on the roads but also more local buses into Manhattan. Based on London’s experience, getting drivers out of their cars requires a double shift.

First, some subway riders shift to buses for shorter trips; then drivers, who generally take longer trips, switch to the newly opened subway space. New York’s bus system largely lacks bus routes to accommodate people switching from the subway to bus. Currently, only a single local bus goes from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the B39, which runs only between the Williamsburg Bridge Terminal and Delancey Street, and comes every half hour. Unsurprisingly, it has the lowest ridership in the bus system. Without more direct bus connections to Manhattan, New York severely limits the bus system’s ability to provide a subway relief valve.

To be clear, there are activists calling for New York to focus on its bus network, but the centrality of the bus network to the functioning of the whole system is not fully depicted. The Bus Turnaround Campaign, comprised of the Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, TriState Transportation Campaign, and the Straphangers Campaign, have called for bus improvements for the sake of riders, but not as a way of improving transportation in the city as a whole, though their recommendations are based in part on London’s improvements, including increased bus priority, less circuitous routing, and improved fare payment.

What is frustrating is that many advocates believe that they have to support the pricing proposal in order to achieve bus system improvements, and that others feel as though they don’t need to advocate as hard for buses because the charging regime will magically improve the buses. The reality is that absent good alternatives to switch to, any charge that is politically feasible (maybe no more than the cost of a subway fare, well short of what is proposed in the most thorough proposal to-date, the Move New York plan) will be ineffective at reducing congestion and thus at improving the buses. London’s temporary drop in congestion following the charge was made possible by the bevy of available bus seats. While New York has available bus seats, they are not yet good alternatives. If they were, we would have seen bus ridership increase during this especially difficult subway summer congestion pricing is supposed to fix, and we didn’t.

If New York wants to seriously improve the transportation system, it needs an all-out campaign on the buses, one with the same level of media attention given to a single Cuomo quote on congestion pricing. Because so much of the bus system is about how we prioritize our roads, this is a goal that a city mayor can actually make a significant dent in without the governor, the kind of transportation improvement our mayor enjoys. So rather than wait for Governor Cuomo to save us via a pricing system that won’t work in our current system, let’s appoint a congestion czar and get serious about a transportation system that provides affordable access for all.

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Rosalie Ray is a PhD student in Urban Planning at Columbia University. Her research focuses on London's bus improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

Don’t Endanger Minority Jobs in Name of Construction Safety


bp eric adams

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, left, the author (photo: @BPEricAdams)


It’s good to see our city engaged in a long-overdue discussion about safety on construction sites. “Safety first” is not mere sloganeering to me; nothing should top ensuring the health and welfare of every man and woman on every worksite.

The City Council has tackled and passed a number of meaningful reforms in recent months, and there is certainly more to explore. However, New Yorkers have good reason to be concerned about a bill known as Intro. 1447, which would likely sideline many local workers of color and prevent growing minority- and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) from succeeding in the construction industry.

An earlier draft of this legislation would have required apprenticeships for construction workers; the current version being considered by the Council would necessitate a training requirement well in excess of the existing federal minimum standard set by OSHA. Either of these proposals would essentially result in a union mandate. I support unions and I am a longtime union man, dating back to my 22 years of service in the NYPD. But as I have noted in the past, my union pride also carries with it a responsibility to speak out when I believe there is inequity of opportunity within the ranks of my brothers and sisters in labor. In the construction industry, this largely remains the case, with several exceptions such as Carpenters Local 926.

The reality is that while some important gains have been made, I see from my own experience that union construction sites continue to fall short in reflecting the diversity of New York City. Equally important, too many of the union workers on Brooklyn’s construction sites do not actually live in our borough, or any of the five boroughs.

While construction unions have promoted apprenticeships and additional skills training as both a path to safer worksites and a way to diversify their workforce, no independent data has been released that shows the linkages for these claims. There is still no evidence that these efforts are providing minority workers with a reliable road to long-term career advancement. While apprenticeship programs may become more diverse, the higher-paying jobs on actual union worksites still elude the minority workforce. Until that changes, we should remain wary of approving de facto union mandates on construction sites that could otherwise provide much-needed job opportunities for highly-qualified New Yorkers of color, especially those living in public housing seeking a path to the middle class.

When it comes to M/WBE contractors, Intro. 1447 would have a very damaging impact because of the extremely high cost of its arbitrary training mandate. As City Council members should know, M/WBEs in the construction industry are generally smaller and less established than their competitors. If costs were to skyrocket, many M/WBEs would likely be unable to afford the difference, making it virtually impossible to compete for the jobs they need to stay in business. We must avoid any outcome that bars these hardworking small business owners from getting a fair shot in our city.

There is a strong argument that a universal enforcement of OSHA training certification requirements would be just as effective, and in some cases more so. We have seen that projects following strict standards on OSHA training — whether they be union or non-union — maintain safer sites and have fewer injuries. This would be a substantive step forward for safety.

I have sought to reframe the union construction conversation around the idea of job creation for all. It is only worth fighting for higher construction wages and good jobs when we ensure that all workers, including those who continue to fall through the inequality gap, are sharing equally in those victories. Now we also need to do the same thing for construction safety. There is no question that we need to make worksites safer, but it must be safer for all workers — and that means we must have an industry in which workers of all backgrounds have equal opportunity to participate and prosper.

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Eric L. Adams is the Brooklyn borough president. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

Life-Saving Legislation That Must Not Wait


Marti Speranza City Council

Marti Speranza, the author, center (photo: @MartiSperanzaNY)


The passage of the East Midtown Rezoning will lead to the construction of an estimated 16 buildings, six Subway projects, and many public spaces over the next 20 years. The plan utilizes density bonuses to incentivize developers to pay for transportation and public realm upgrades, while also empowering cash-strapped landmarks to capitalize on their air rights. All the stakeholders made compromises to reach the final deal, which will begin an era of restoring East Midtown to a globally competitive business district.

One thing that can’t be compromised is the safety of the workers, neighbors, and future occupants of East Midtown––or any neighborhood in our city.

In order to address the increase in construction deaths during the construction boom across our city, the City Council has introduced life-saving legislation to make work safer for the 180,000 construction workers who build and live here. Intro. 1447, which would mandate additional safety training, has the support of 46 Council sponsors. These legislators recognize that more safety training is needed to prevent avoidable accidents. As major projects like the Hudson Yards and the East Midtown Rezoning progress, this legislation becomes even more important.

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is one of the biggest opponents of the bill. It claims it will shut smaller, non-union M/WBE contractors out of lucrative construction deals while rewarding union shops, whose record of worksite safety has been better due to the hours of union-provided safety training and other precautions. Masquerading as a nonprofit called “Putting New Yorkers to Work,” REBNY has run ads against the bill, featuring construction workers of color making appeals to the City Council to not “take their jobs away.”

The reality is that workers of color, specifically Latino workers, could have the most to gain from this legislation. They have been disproportionately killed in construction accidents, the overwhelming majority of which have occurred on non-union worksites, according to a New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health report released earlier this year.

The possibility of decreasing opportunities for M/WBEs is a serious concern that needs to be addressed. But to frame this bill as a choice between opportunities for M/WBE contractors and safety of workers is disingenuous. It’s cynical to imply this legislation is designed to penalize open-shop contractors. There’s no room for error on worksites; safety trainings -- union-sponsored or otherwise -- prepare workers to handle the inherent dangers of construction work and mitigate risks. The aim of Intro. 1447 has always been to increase safety on worksites -- that should be a top priority for all.

The final version of the legislation should not yield to demands for fewer hours of safety training. If opponents’ chief concern is the potential to undermine opportunities for M/WBEs in construction, legislators should move quickly to study the impact it could have on M/WBEs and ensure those firms have a voice in the conversation.

The battle over Intro. 1447 is an example of politics getting in the way of policy. That’s something we can’t allow to happen when lives are in the balance.

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Marti Speranza is a Democratic candidate for City Council in District 4. On Twitter @MartiSperanzaNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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