On the third day of last month's transit strike, some
New Yorkers found a silver lining in the shutdown of
subways and buses. Bicycle traffic had increased by
People got more exercise as they walked to work. And
some of the emergency traffic rules -- requiring cars
entering much of Manhattan to have at least four
people, and restricting some avenues for
emergency vehicles -- seemed to work.
"Because this strike is teaching us that we are
dependent on mass transit, not cars, to travel in and
around Gotham, we now have the freedom to rethink our
outmoded policies of giving every inch of public space
for the exclusive use of private automobiles,"
Citystreets in the New York
New Yorkers are of course happy the strike is over, and most surely hope that, when the vote is completed this week, transit workers will have approved their proposed new
But Silver is not alone in believing that something good came out of the strike -- a hint of what New York could do to combat
congestion caused by cars and trucks.
Because such congestion pollutes the air, wastes energy,
threatens pedestrians and cyclists, and affects the
quality of life, a growing number of
individuals and organizations say New Yorkers should
not have to put up with it anymore.
For inspiration many look to London, which three years
ago began charging drivers to enter the city's
auto-clogged central district during peak hours. (That's not all London has done: See New York Needs A London Plan by Stephen Hammer.) Although Mayor
Michael Bloomberg has said that such a plan, popularly
known as congestion pricing or value pricing, is not
on his agenda, advocates still plan to pursue it along
with other strategies that might ease traffic
throughout the city.
New York City has a low rate of
ownership and remains the one major American city
where most people do not even own a car. Almost half
of New Yorkers use public transportation to get to
work -- about ten times the national average,
according to a
report (in pdf format) by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Since many others walk
or bike, only 360,000 New Yorkers
drive cars to get to their jobs. Nevertheless, every weekday
some 800,000 cars enter Manhattan south of 60th
The city streets almost burst from the strain. "The
heart of midtown Manhattan can accommodate only 9,000
moving vehicles without succumbing to gridlock," John
wrote in the New Yorker in 2002.
And so the average New Yorker who drove at peak hours
spent about 50 hours a year in traffic delays in 2003,
according to the Texas Transportation Institute's
Survey (in pdf format). It's a lot worse elsewhere. New York
pdf format) as the 18th most
congested urban area in the nation, behind not only such well-known bottlenecks
Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. but such smaller areas
as Orlando, Florida, and Baltimore, Maryland.
Such statistics provide scant comfort. Congestion
creates huge problems here. It
city's air, since trucks, buses and cars create much of New York's smog and
soot problem and
adds to the greenhouse gases believed to cause
The traffic wastes energy
and slows buses.
The jams extend beyond Manhattan. One key argument
against the Atlantic Yards project is that it would
bring the already clogged
along Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in
downtown Brooklyn to a complete halt. Residents of
Staten Island cite as a key problem the severe traffic congestion arising
from the borough's rapid growth. The
American Automobile Association
singles out the exit ramp from the George Washington bridge
in upper Manhattan as one of the worst "commuter hot
spots" in the entire country, creating traffic jams
on the Major Deegan and Cross Bronx Expressways.
AIDING AND ABETTING CONGESTION
At least some of this congestion results from
deliberate policies over the years.
Indeed, congestion traditionally has been seen as an
indication of urban vitality. To many experts, "a
bumper-to-bumper crop of cars is a byproduct of the
very prosperity, mobility and individual flexibility
modern citizens value: Where traffic is at a
standstill, it generally means business is humming,"
wrote in the New York Times Magazine.
the city's master builder of the 20th century, encouraged cars by building
gearing his projects to drivers instead of bus or
subway riders. Planners removed rail track from
bridges in favor of more lanes for cars. The Brooklyn
Bridge could carry 426,000 people a day in 1907, but
only 178,000 in 1988, according to former city traffic
Sam Schwartz. To make matters worse, the city does not
charge a toll to cross any of its four East River
bridges -- and, since 1986, has charged only a one-way toll (into Staten Island) on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which some critics consider one of the most
pro congestion policies ever devised.
The city government provides free or subsidized parking to some
employees. As a result, government workers in lower
and midtown Manhattan are twice as likely as their private sector counterparts to drive to
work , according
study (in pdf format). "If government workers
commuted by car at the same rate as other workers,
there would be 14,000 fewer cars coming into the
Manhattan Central Business District each day," the
And some critics charge the city's view of its role
to the problem. "We're still measuring success the
old fashioned way," said Paul Steely White, executive
director of Transportation
Alternatives. He notes that, under transportation, the
Report does not explicitly mention
reducing traffic, and instead cites such goals as
"improving traffic flow" and repairing potholes.
In 2000, central London faced many problems similar to
those confronting New York today. Although only about
10 percent of people traveled into the area by private
cars (by one
estimate, less than 15 percent of New Yorkers use
private cars to come into Manhattan), this greatly
that have changed little since medieval days. With London set to have an elected mayor for the first time,
Ken Livingstone ran on a platform that included a
charge on driving at peak hours in certain parts of
the city, with the revenue slated for mass transit,
particularly an increase in the number of buses.
Interestingly the idea for congestion pricing had its
roots in New York -- in the work of
Columbia University professor and Nobel prize winner.
In the 1950s, he proposed the subways charge riders
more at peak travel times. He later extended the
concept to traffic. The idea was adopted in
cities. But in Vickery's hometown, congestion pricing has remained largely
just an idea.
While the British may not be quite so enamored of
their cars as Americans, it is a country whose onetime
leader Margaret Thatcher
said, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself
on a bus can count himself as a failure." Livingstone's Conservative rival came out against
congestion charges, and opponents set up a
Web site to collect
signatures and campaign against the proposal -- in
sometimes virulent language.
But Livingstone won, and he and his traffic
commissioner Robert Kiley, who once chaired New York's
Metropolitan Transportation Authority, went ahead with
the plan. Beginning in February 2003, the city charged
cars entering an area of about eight square miles on
weekdays 5 pounds, or about $8.75, with some
exemptions. In July 2005
increased to 8 pounds. People can pay at machines,
stores and by Internet or cell phone. Video cameras
photograph cars to insure compliance.
The city government considers the program a success.
pdf format) reductions in congestion of about 30 percent. Auto trips during
peak hours declined by
increased by 29,000 in the first year.
The city plans to
extend the zone westward in February 2007.
There are dissenters. While the charges have eased
inner city traffic, they have made things worse on
approaches to the city and on outer roads,
Wennstrom wrote in Tech Central Station, an online
Some say it has hurt business. "A five pound-a-day
charge has already resulted in 70,000 fewer car
journeys a day into central London -- and this
diminution of paying customers has already had an
extremely negative impact on retailers and
restaurateurs in particular," the London Chamber of
Commerce's chief executive, Colin Stanbridge, told the
Other cities may follow London's lead however.
Stockholm has been testing a
plan and will
decide whether to implement it permanently
later this year.
A PLAN FOR NEW YORK
On this side of the Atlantic, the idea
flurry of interest last November when the
Partnership for New York City, a
business group, began discussing how congestion
pricing might work here.
Some of the impetus arose from concerns that
congestion is bad for business. ''In the core of Times
Square, there is no doubt about the need to create
more space for pedestrians,'' Tim Tompkins, president
of the Times Square Alliance business district, told
the New York Times. ''In one October afternoon a
couple of years ago, between 3 and 7 p.m. we counted
4,000 people walking literally in the street, in
traffic lanes, because the sidewalks were too
But newly reelected Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly
cast doubt on
any such proposal. "Although we're always open to
ideas from the business community, this isn't on the
mayor's second-term agenda," said Edward Skyler, then a
Bloomberg spokesman (now a deputy mayor).
The partnership says it will issue a report later
this year that will consider congestion pricing along
with other measures to fight New York's traffic
jams. But however the partnership comes down on the
other groups will push for it. The
Coalition for Traffic Relief has formed to advocate a
number of measures to combat congestion, including
congestion pricing. And in its
editorial on Bloomberg's inauguration for a second
term, the New York Times said, "We hope that the mayor
uses his unusual position to go a few places where no
normal politician dares, like imposing congestion
pricing for cars coming into those areas of the city
with the heaviest traffic."
"There is no other tool out there as effective for
cutting traffic as congestion pricing," Andrew
H.Darrell, New York regional director of the group
Defense, has said.
analysis by the Regional Plan Association says
charging people to enter part of Manhattan at peak
hours could reduce morning rush hour traffic by up to
17 percent, depending on the specifics of the pricing
scheme. In its analysis, the group found that only one
percent of the four million people who enter Manhattan
on a weekday would not do so because of a congestion
There is some small precedent for the idea here. The
charges customers using EZ pass at its bridges and
tunnels in the city $1 more at peak times than at less
traveled hours of the day.
Until recently, congestion fees would have been
unworkable because tollbooths with attendants would
have had to collect the charges. But experts say the
technology now used in EZ passes allows motorists to
be charged electronically without even stopping.
The charges appeal to environmentalists and advocates
for mass transit, walking and cycling. They also have
support from some free-market champions. "Roads are
congested because they are free, and because no market
mechanism exists to allocate scarce road capacity,"
Taylor and Peter VanDoren of the
Cato Institute, a think
tank that supports limited
government and free markets.
But not everyone agrees. Mitchell Moss, a professor at
NYU's Wagner school and onetime adviser to Bloomberg,
has called congestion pricing "a threat to the
economic vitality of our city." Writing in the Daily
said, the fees would "increase the cost of getting to
work for New Yorkers who live in communities not
served by mass transit, hurt Manhattan hospitals that
treat patients from all five boroughs and make our
museums and cultural attractions less accessible to
Others raise the equity issue. Congestion pricing,
Dougherty in the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot,
penalizes lower income workers and "rewards those with
flexible hours and punishes those with inflexible
schedules [who] tend to be concentrated toward the
bottom of the wage scale."
This is less true in New York than in other
places,since in New York poor people are unlikely to
own cars, let along drive them into Manhattan in the
middle of the workweek. But certainly any fee poses
more of a burden on people with less money to pay it.
And even the plan's adherents concede it would face
political obstacles (in pdf format), with many observers
predicting that Bloomberg would not want to risk a
bruising battle on this issue.
TOLLS FOR BRIDGES
Photos by Michael Hauer
The mayor has reason to be wary. Early in his first
term, he considered placing
tolls on the now free East River bridges to generate
revenue. The idea had first surfaced in 1970, as part
of a possible New York response to the requirements of
the Clean Air Act. But it never went anywhere.
And it died again in 2002. Brooklyn Borough President
reportedly called the tolls "a turkey," and his Queens
counterpart, Helen Marshall, said commuters should not
be "punished" for traveling from one borough to
another. City Council members from Brooklyn and Queens
protested too. Bloomberg backed down,
saying, "Some of the effects of reducing traffic and
that sort of thing would be ... a good idea, but I
think, if you really look at it, it's not a short-term
solution to our problems."
But advocates say
would solve problems. They note free bridges are not
free, costing about $60 million a year to maintain and
operate. According to a
pdf format) by transportation analyst (and Gotham Gazette columnist) Bruce
tolls would reduce traffic congestion in downtown
Brooklyn and Long Island City by up to 14 percent.
OTHER IDEAS TO FIGHT TRAFFIC
Under Bloomberg, the city has designated nine
cross-town Manhattan streets
turns from them during the
business day. A
pdf format) by the Department of Transportation found that travel times on the
25 percent, while
speeds increased by 33 percent.
Cleaner Fuel:Last summer, Bloomberg announced a
$71 million program to improve traffic congestion in
the city. In truth, much of the program would leave
cars where they are but make them burn cleaner fuel.
Encouraging Alternative Transportation, etc.:The mayor's new program also called for spending $21 million on various
efforts to encourage walking and bicycling and $14
million for improvements to the Traffic Management
Center in Long Island City, which sends out electronic
advisories of traffic tie-ups.
Traffic Calming: So called
"traffic calming measures'' are not so much designed
to reduce traffic as to make the cars less of a threat
pedestrians and cyclists. As part of the
Traffic Calming Project, the city is
changing the timing on traffic signals to give
pedestrians a green light a few seconds before vehicles
get the go-ahead. This, said Craig Hammerman, district
manager of Community Board
6 in Brooklyn, "gives pedestrians the opportunity to
take control of the crosswalk." While such measures do
not explicitly aim to reduce congestion, Hammerman
said, they can have that effect because they slow
traffic down, making driving a less attractive option.
Parking policies: Drivers
circling blocks looking for
spaces create congestion. The solution
according to some advocates: less parking, not more. A
2002 survey found that only 24 percent of the almost
30,000 curbside parking spaces in Manhattan south of
59th Street had meters. Donald Shoup, a professor at
University of California Los Angeles and author of
High Cost of Free Parking" argues that free
parking adds to "extreme auto dependence, rapid urban
sprawl and extravagant energy use." Shoup believes the
city should set rates for on-street parking high
enough so that about 15 percent of the spaces are
usually unoccupied. London has already done this.
Removing Roads: For many
years, people figured the solution to congestion was
to build more roads. While such a solution is largely
impractical in densely developed New York, many say it
is not very effective anywhere. Building more roads,
as the interstate system and Robert Moses' New York
parkways have shown, makes driving more attractive,
leading more people to do
more of it.
Conversely, some experts believe, removing roads does
not make congestion worse. In the late 1990s,
Transport for London studied a number of major roads
-- including the West Side Highway in the 1970s --
that were taken out of service. While traffic
engineers predicted chaos, little resulted. Instead,
some traffic disappeared,
wrote Aaron Naparstek in the New York Press: "When it
wasn't convenient to drive anymore, commuters took a
different mode of transit, traveled at a different
time of day, or made fewer, more efficient trips."
While few people call for destroying existing
highways, advocates say that something must -- and can
-- be done to ease traffic. "We got rid of graffiti,
we have discounts on subways and buses, and we may
even be on the verge of having clean public
bathrooms," the Regional Plan Association wrote in
2003. "We have it in our grasp to do something about
mind-numbing traffic congestion."
New York Needs A London Plan, by Stephen Hammer.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Automobile Association: Provides information on traffic from a pro-driving
- Bridge Tolls Advocacy
Project: A Web site that seeks to promote placing tolls on the
city's East River bridges
- City Streets: A pedestrian
rights and advocacy group
Coalition for Traffic Relief: A coalition advocating congestion pricing,
calming and other measures to reduce city traffic by
15 percent by t 2009.
- New York City
Department of Transportation
- Transportation Alternatives: A
New York group whose mission is to work for better
bicycling, walking and public transit, and fewer
- Texas Transportation Institute:
Conducts research on transportation and issues an
annual Urban Mobility Study on traffic congestion in
U.S. cities and its cost in time and resources.
Transport for London: The
London's government on-line source for information on on congestion pricing,
including the rules, test of
the law and reports on how it has worked.
Articles and Reports
Auto Asphyxiation: Car is King at the DOT (NY Press)
A critique of city traffic policies
Anyone Solve the Problem of Traffic? (The New
The traffic problem through the eyes of a television
Pricing for NYC (Manhattan Institute):
A speech on why the idea makes sense by former city
traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz
Pricing in New York?: Yes (Daily News):
An op-ed by Paul Steely White of Transportation
Pricing in New York?: No (Daily News)
An op-ed by NYU professor Mitchell Moss.
Around Manhattan, You Pay, Under One Traffic Idea (New
Bridge Tolls Revenue: Traffic, Mobility and
Equity Impacts: A report prepared for the Straphangers Campaign and
- An Exploration
of Motor Vehicle Congestion Pricing in New York (Regional Plan Association)
Traffic Congestion with Information Technology (Issues
in Science and Technology):
We have the technical means to solve congestion, but
what about the political will?
Sam's History of US Traffic: Former city traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz
roots of the congestion mess
- London Congestion
Pricing: Implications for Other Cities (Victoria
Transport Policy Institute)
the Fast Lane (Cato Institute):
A free market argument for congestion pricing
Traffic Knot Pulling Tighter (New York Times):
The existing congestion problem around the site of the
proposed Atlantic Yards development
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