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Endless Traffic: Can It End?

by Gail Robinson, Jan 16, 2006
 

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 500 percent. 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," wrote Harris Silver of Citystreets in the New York Sun.

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 contract. 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.

THE PROBLEM

New York City has a low rate of car 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 Street.

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 Seabrook 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 Mobility Survey (in pdf format). It's a lot worse elsewhere. New York ranked (in pdf format) as the 18th most congested urban area in the nation, behind not only such well-known bottlenecks as 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 fouls the 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 global warming. 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 traffic 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," Ann Hulbert recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine.

For decades, Robert Moses, the city's master builder of the 20th century, encouraged cars by building parkways and 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 commissioner 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 to one 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 report concluded.

And some critics charge the city's view of its role adds 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 Mayor's Management Report does not explicitly mention reducing traffic, and instead cites such goals as "improving traffic flow" and repairing potholes.

CONGESTION PRICING

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 taxed streets 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 William Vickery, a 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 Singapore and in three Norwegian 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 the fee 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. It lists (in pdf format) reductions in congestion of about 30 percent. Auto trips during peak hours declined by about 20 percent, as bus ridership 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, Johan Wennstrom wrote in Tech Central Station, an online technology publication.

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 Guardian.

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 attracted a 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 crowded.''

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 issue, other groups will push for it. The Citywide 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 Environmental Defense, has said.

A 2003 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 fee.

There is some small precedent for the idea here. The Port Authority 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," wrote Jerry 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 News, he 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 suburbanites."

Others raise the equity issue. Congestion pricing, wrote Kerry 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 huge 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 Marty Markowitz 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 it would solve problems. They note free bridges are not free, costing about $60 million a year to maintain and operate. According to a report (in pdf format) by transportation analyst (and Gotham Gazette columnist) Bruce Schaller, the tolls would reduce traffic congestion in downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City by up to 14 percent.

OTHER IDEAS TO FIGHT TRAFFIC

Turn-restricted Streets: Under Bloomberg, the city has designated nine cross-town Manhattan streets "Thru Streets," restricting turns from them during the business day. A report (in pdf format) by the Department of Transportation found that travel times on the street fell by 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 to pedestrians and cyclists. As part of the Downtown Brooklyn 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 parking 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 "The 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."

Related Article

New York Needs A London Plan, by Stephen Hammer.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Web Sites

- American Automobile Association: Provides information on traffic from a pro-driving perspective

- 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

- Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief: A coalition advocating congestion pricing, traffic 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 cars.

- 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

- Can Anyone Solve the Problem of Traffic? (The New Yorker): The traffic problem through the eyes of a television traffic reporter.

- Congestion Pricing for NYC (Manhattan Institute): A speech on why the idea makes sense by former city traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz

- Congestion Pricing in New York?: Yes (Daily News): An op-ed by Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives

- Congestion Pricing in New York?: No (Daily News) An op-ed by NYU professor Mitchell Moss.

- Driving Around Manhattan, You Pay, Under One Traffic Idea (New York Times)

- East River Bridge Tolls Revenue: Traffic, Mobility and Equity Impacts: A report prepared for the Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives

- An Exploration of Motor Vehicle Congestion Pricing in New York (Regional Plan Association)

- Fighting Traffic Congestion with Information Technology (Issues in Science and Technology): We have the technical means to solve congestion, but what about the political will?

- Gridlock Sam's History of US Traffic: Former city traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz on the roots of the congestion mess

- London Congestion Pricing: Implications for Other Cities (Victoria Transport Policy Institute)

- Pricing the Fast Lane (Cato Institute): A free market argument for congestion pricing

- A Traffic Knot Pulling Tighter (New York Times): The existing congestion problem around the site of the proposed Atlantic Yards development

 


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