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Citizens Union


Improve Transit Before Congestion Pricing

There are 24 transportation proposals in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plaNYC, but one is getting all the attention: a pilot program to test congestion pricing.

The political battle is heating up over whether to impose a charge on motorists both to discourage driving in car-clogged Manhattan and to yield the money needed for big-ticket investments like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access. The plan's transportation list also features smaller, less expensive improvements that could and should be implemented now, without waiting for congestion pricing.

We Have The Technology, But…

According to his own plans, the mayor has about two years to put congestion pricing in place. In all likelihood, it will take even longer - for technological reasons as well as political ones. The mayor's plan is modeled on London's geographic system: Vehicles entering the central zone during designated business hours must pay a flat fee. The proposal sounds simple: Charge every car $8 and every truck $21 for coming into Manhattan south of 86th Street between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on weekdays. But first, all river crossings, including those that are now free, and all southbound avenues at 86th Street, will have to be equipped with EZ-Pass readers. Cameras will have to be installed to find and fine violators, as in London.

And a number of details, while sensible, will complicate implementation:

-- Drivers will be credited for tolls paid at bridges and tunnels to and from Manhattan, requiring a new, system to reconcile fees collected by various charging entities, including the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

--Since moving a vehicle already within the zone will incur only half the fee, sensors and cameras will have to be installed throughout the business district, not just at the boundaries.

--Because cars moved for alternate-side-of-the-street parking will not be subject to the charge, the system must be able to distinguish among types of vehicle movements and trips.

--Many vehicles, including emergency vehicles, buses, taxis and cars with handicapped license plates - will be exempt from the charge, meaning the system will need to be able to recognize them.

All of this is technologically feasible. But information technology projects nearly always exceed the time and money budgeted by proponents.

Money for Transit

The city needs $2.7 billion for the first two phases of the Second Avenue Subway, $2 billion to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, and $175 million to reopen the defunct rail line along Staten Island's North Shore. Another $10 billion is needed to bring subway infrastructure and roads and bridges to a state of good repair.

The administration is anticipating state and federal contributions, but congestion pricing would be the most important local source of funds. Without congestion pricing, argues the mayor, the big projects cannot be built, nor is there money to complete repairs to existing transportation infrastructure anytime soon.

But Will It Reduce Traffic?

To get off the ground politically, congestion pricing cannot be seen as just a new source of revenue. New Yorkers have to believe that it will help reduce traffic.

The administration expects congestion pricing to decrease vehicles entering Manhattan by 6 percent and increase speeds within the charging zone by 7 percent. In other words, the traffic improvement in Manhattan would be modest.

However, the program will surely reduce congestion in neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City that have long suffered from through-traffic. The different costs for the various East River crossings have demonstrated for decades that tolls do affect driver behavior. The free Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges, as well as their feeder roads, are clogged, while traffic flows more smoothly to and through the tolled tunnels. The mayor's proposal would correct this pricing irrationality by crediting drivers for the cost of their tolls. The price for a round-trip using E-ZPass through a tolled East River crossing is $8-exactly the same as the automobile congestion charge proposed for the pilot.

Many New Yorkers will welcome the news that the administration plans to step up traffic enforcement. In addition, The administration's plan to install Muni-Meters (modern, credit-card-friendly parking meters) should ease traffic problems related to curbside parking in business districts outside Manhattan. There are projects to expand ferry service and promote cycling.

But one of the most important potential reforms has gone unmentioned-doing something about the excessive amount of free parking in the city, especially for government employees. Because they often get unlimited free parking at a wide range of designated areas, government employees drive to work in the Manhattan central business district at just about twice the rate (27 percent versus 14 percent) of private-sector employees. To demonstrate its commitment to reducing congestion, the Bloomberg administration should eliminate free parking privileges for city employees-and urge other employers to do the same.

Make The Improvements Now

But the single most important thing the mayor can do to convince New Yorkers to give his congestion-pricing pilot a shot is to implement transportation improvements first. London increased bus service before implementing congestion pricing - and that was one of the keys to London's success.

In his "A Greener, Greater New York" speech, the mayor announced that transportation upgrades for underserved areas would begin right away, and plaNYC features a chart of improvements for 22 neighborhoods with concentrations of Manhattan-bound drivers. These include adding bus routes (College Point, Jackson Heights and Woodside/Sunnyside), adjusting bus routes (Bay Ridge, Canarsie and Cambria Heights), improving connections between bus and subways (15 of the 22 neighborhoods, including Co-op City, Soundview and Flatlands), changing traffic signals to favor buses (Schuylerville, Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay), and improving access to subway and rail stations (Clinton Hill, Kensington and South Ozone Park).

Starting these improvements now-transportation services that should already exist - will correct a long-standing wrong and make Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious vision more achievable.

Hope Cohen is deputy director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development.


Getting the Most from Congestion Pricing

Those who have labored a lifetime on the city's environmental fronts were blown away on Earth Day to hear our words articulated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg with more mastery and conviction than any of us have mustered. Brilliantly couching congestion pricing in the context of the city's survival, the mayor made it a moral imperative. To convince motorists there is a trade-off, the mayor shrewdly seeks to get tangible transit improvements in place before charging motorists for entering Manhattan.

But the Mayor and Governor Eliot Spitzer must act quickly if they are not to be hamstrung in their commitments to expand transit use. They must reverse New York City Transit's plan to junk 607 subway cars as new ones arrive this year and next. NYC Transit's reason for throwing away usable cars, which could also be rebuilt for one-third the cost of new ones, is that there is no yard space for overnight storage. Accepting that limit will leave NYC Transit with no spare cars, its smallest fleet ever, and unable to deliver the increase of subway service central to the mayor's plan.

The mayor cites bus rapid transit as a quick, high-visibility way to boost ridership, but even this will take too long if it relies on dedicated buslanes. What can be installed quickly is the high-tech component ofbus
Rapid transit -- a GPS tracking and radio communication system. This would eliminate much of the bus bunching that infuriates riders, and the monitors at each bus stop, posting wait times for each route, should help make waiting for a bus more tolerable, even seducing some drivers out of their cars.

Congestion pricing could be made simpler as well. A lot more funds would be available for transit users if the congestion fees were simply collected on the bridge spans and along 60th Street, rather than at dozens -- even hundreds -- of charging points south of 86th Street. Equalizing the charges on all crossings would provide a strong signal to motorists that it doesn't pay to drive out their way to avoid tolls. While the mayor's proposed adjustments in congestion charges levied in Manhattan may remove any advantage of untolled bridges, the complexity muddies the message.

Instead of capitalizing on Manhattan having just four untolled entries, the proposed multiple checkpoints, exceeding London's charging cordon, will be a lot more costly and may raise new objections to tracking motorists' movements.

Even the staunchest supporters of congestion charges in the boroughs see neighborhood parking permits as an essential element of any plan to reduce traffic. The permits would not guarantee a parking place, but would
Charge outsiders a hefty price for precious curb space. Fees and fines could be reinvested in streetscape improvements and effective traffic calming. Such measures would reinforce the quality-of-life benefits of tolls.

The old pre-E-ZPass image of bridge tolls of long spillback of traffic from toll plazas is dead. There is a growing concession in the boroughs that a seamless charging technology can unclog approach roads to free bridges from the lemming-like traffic that is drowning neighborhoods and delaying drivers. Armed with the mayor's powerful ability to change the political
equation, why not institute congestion fees in the fastest, most productive way?

Carolyn Konheim is chair of Community Consulting Services.


Future of Pedicabs Remains Uncertain

Are bicycle-powered pedicabs just a diversion for tourists or are they a legitimate form of mass transit? Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto of a bill to regulate the city's pedicabs has kept alive debate about the role of the fledging bicycle taxi industry in the city.


The New York City Council recently passed a bill that represented a compromise between pedicab owners and powerful opponents of the industry, primarily taxi, hotel and restaurant owners.

The bill would establish a cap of 325 pedicabs in the city and require the cabs have $2 million in liability insurance, that drivers be licensed and that vehicles undergo inspection. The legislation would also ban the use of electric motors to help with pedaling and authorize the police department to restrict pedicabs from Midtown during the holiday season and from any Midtown street for up to 14 days at other times.

Pedicab owners supported insurance and other safety regulations to maintain standards and prevent pedicab owners who are not paying insurance from charging lower rates to the detriment of those owners who are insured. The owners, however, opposed the cap on the number of pedicabs, as well as the bans on operation during the holiday season and the use of electric assists.


Ironically, it was not pedicab owners but their drivers who prompted the mayor to veto the bill.

Drivers testified at what was expected to be a routine bill-signing ceremony that they feared losing their jobs – seemingly with good reason since the current number of pedicabs, estimated at up to 500, probably exceeds the new cap. After hearing from drivers, Bloomberg surprised everyone by declining to sign the bill and on March 31 announced his veto. During his weekly radio show, the mayor commented, "Let the free marketplace decide." He suggested that a cap of 500 would satisfy him.

It is not clear whether the City Council, which adopted the bill with than the two-thirds majority needed to override a mayoral veto, will vote to do so.

The New York Sun reported that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn will force through an override, while the Village Voice quotes the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Leroy Comrie, as saying the bill's fate is undecided. An override vote - if there is one - is expected to take place at the council meeting scheduled for April 23.

If the council overrides the mayor's veto, the bill would formalize the city's acceptance of the pedicab industry as part of the Midtown landscape while limiting the vehicles’ numbers and potentially restricting their operation during the most congested -- and most lucrative -- times of the year.


The council’s regulatory scheme for pedicabs is similar in some ways to the long-established taxicab medallion system. The number of medallion cabs is limited by law to about 13,000 vehicles and the industry is subject to an extensive set of requirements for insurance and driver licensing.

Yet the medallion cabs are never banned from Midtown -- in fact, they are allowed special access to some bus lanes and provided with taxi stands at key locations.

Insurance requirements are actually lower for medallion cabs than for pedicabs under the bill, an ironic contrast given that cabs can travel at much higher speeds and are thus more likely to be involved in accidents causing severe injury.

Proponents of the bill say that the cap, insurance requirements and licensing regulations are important to prevent pedicabs from further clogging traffic, to protect against unfair competition with taxicabs for street hails, and to protect pedestrian safety. This view essentially sees pedicabs as an entertainment option for tourists. It thus makes sense to limit their number and operations to prevent the pedicabs from interfering with other users of Manhattan streets.


Pedicab proponents paint them as a fast, safe and environmentally and passenger-friendly means of transportation.

Gregg Zukowski, a pedicab owner and driver, wrote in Gotham Gazette last year that because of its ability to weave through traffic, a pedicab can zip from Grand Central to Penn Station in eight minutes, while a taxicab could take 20 or 30 minutes. Pedicab drivers say that many of their riders are New Yorkers who value the faster ride or who cannot find a medallion taxi.

With the exception of one accident in which a private bus struck a pedicab in 2001, there have apparently been no major accidents involving pedicabs since their advent in New York City a decade ago. With pedal power, pedicabs do not contribute to either smog or global warming.

Leaders of several city transportation and environmental groups emphasized the environmental implications of the issue in a letter urging council members not to override the mayor’s veto. “If you are truly committed to protecting our environment and heading off environmental catastrophes such as those highlighted in the Academy Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth, you simply cannot vote in favor of legislation that is specifically designed to undermine evolving green industries,” the letter said.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of pedicabs is their passenger-friendly image, created by drivers who engage in conversation and will point out the sights along the way to tourists.

Pedicab owners implicitly point to a future Manhattan streetscape with fewer cars and cabs and more eco-friendly modes of transportation. Pedicabs would be part of this, joined by pedestrians, bicycles and clean-air buses, all of which use less street space per passenger mile traveled than cars or conventional cabs. There might be additions to this new transportation list; Vespa, the manufacturer of motorcycles and scooters, recently released a study that concluded that substituting motor scooters for cars would reduce global warming vehicle emissions in the city.

The council's bill does allow for changes in the future. The cap on the number of pedicabs would expire two years after the bill becomes law, unless the council renews it. Thus, neither this bill (nor a replacement that simply increased the numerical cap) really resolves the place of pedicabs in the city. The bill does take important steps toward making sure pedicabs are safe. But it does not settle the thornier issues about who should be using the city's congested streets and for what purposes.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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