Most people would surely agree that the snail’s pace of traffic in the Manhattan central business district is a pain. But there is much disagreement over whether the benefits of speeding up that traffic are worth the costs, or even what the costs would be.
Although only one of many ideas to ease traffic, the flash point for this debate is congestion pricing. Many people in both London and New York view as a great success London’s ÂŁ8 ($14) a day congestion charge for weekday travel in central London, which was instituted three years ago. When the idea was raised in New York City after the mayoral election in November, however, a Bloomberg administration spokesman said the administration wasn’t interested. Nevertheless, congestion pricing made headlines again in February with the release of two reports and continued mixed signals from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Whether congestion pricing itself is ever implemented in New York, this debate may yet improve mobility in the Manhattan central business district (referred to as the CBD, and defined as from the Battery to 60th Street).
How Would Motorists Respond?
The core of the congestion pricing debate revolves around the question of how motorists would respond to a congestion charge. The Queens Chamber of Commerce released a report in late February titled, “A Cure Worse than the Disease? How London's 'Congestion Pricing' System Could Hurt New York City's Economy." The report estimates that with a congestion charge similar to London’s, 40,000 fewer people would enter the Manhattan central business district each weekday, resulting in a loss of $2.7 billion in economic output. The report says that working-class and middle-class car commuters from Queens and the other outer boroughs would be especially hard hit, as would small to mid-size businesses that need to go into Manhattan frequently.
The Queens Chamber of Commerce report came on the heels of a Transportation Alternatives report (conducted by me), titled, “Necessity or Choice? Why People Drive in Manhattan.” This report argued that very few people would stop coming to Manhattan with congestion pricing or other steps to restrict car use in the central business district. Many assume that most people who drive into Manhattan do so because of poor or nonexistent transit access. Yet Census data show that 90 percent of auto commuters have access to buses, subways and trains. Not even the length of the commute need deter auto commuters; 80 percent have a transit alternative that offers travel times within 15 minutes of their car trip.
The report also pointed out that London experienced only a two percent decline in the number of people coming into central London as a result of its rather steep charge. (The Queens Chamber of Commerce assumed, without explaining why, that 14 percent would be deterred from traveling into Manhattan.) In London, the number of trips taken in vehicles subject to the charge dropped by 31 percent, but the number of people coming into central London declined only slightly because most diverted auto users switched to transit, including expanded bus service.
For the Manhattan business district, congestion pricing would reduce congestion, speed bus and taxi trips, reduce noise, afford more space for pedestrians and make the borough a more attractive -- not less attractive â€“- place to work, live, shop and be entertained. That’s been London’s experience and there is every reason to expect it would be New York’s experience.
Benefit To Outer Boroughs
Not just Manhattan would benefit. The outer boroughs would benefit from beefed up transit service that could be funded by the congestion charge, as London has done. The outer boroughs would also benefit from less traffic passing through outer borough neighborhoods on the way into Manhattan. In Long Island City, 57 percent of traffic entering the area during the morning peak hour is bound for the Queensboro Bridge. Wouldn’t getting some of those cars off the roads be good for Queens? Likewise in Brooklyn, traffic bound for the East River bridges accounts for 43 percent of all vehicles entering downtown Brooklyn during the morning rush hour and 45 percent during midday.
Reducing traffic would also seem to benefit those small to mid-size businesses that need to go into Manhattan frequently. These folks presumably charge for their time and would benefit from having to spend less time in traffic. Given what they bill on an hourly basis, a plumber or electrician or computer repairman needs to save only a few minutes to recoup a congestion charge.
Recent comments by Mayor Bloomberg have been both hot and cold toward congestion pricing. The businessman in him seems to understand the logic of reducing traffic by charging for use of the streets. But the mayor has also become an astute politician. That part of him knows how he has been hammered on the issue each time it gets raised. Thus, after commenting in February that congestion charging “is certainly something that we should be looking at,” his spokesman said he was not “loosening or easing up” on the position he took last November.
Other Ways To Improve Movement
While discussions of traffic in Manhattan turn toward congestion pricing, in fact there are many ways to improve pedestrian, bus and bicycle movement in the business district. City traffic planners need to be freed from their fear of impinging on the prerogatives of that sacred cow, the American automobile. The city would then be open to dedicating more street space for buses and bicycles and wider sidewalks. Traffic might not improve â€“ it probably takes pricing measures to reduce congestion. But the 86 percent of trips to Manhattan central business district destinations taken by modes other than the auto would be easier to make. That would make life more livable in Manhattan.
Different Kinds Of Congestion Pricing
There are also many different ways to institute pricing strategies. San Diego pioneered the so-called HOT lanes along one of the major highways leading into the central part of the city. Motorists have a choice: pay nothing and sit in traffic, or pay a toll and zip into town. Tolls are increased as traffic volumes go up in order to maintain free-flow conditions on the tolled lanes.
HOT lanes overcome people’s resistance to forcing everyone to pay while also using pricing to give those who are willing to pay a speedier option. The same concept could be applied in New York City by tolling selected lanes on bridges and selected avenues into the central business district. E-ZPass could be used to pay the tolls, avoiding the need to install the elaborate camera system used to read license plates in London.
Let’s hope that the debate over congestion pricing does not lead to another dead end for the goal of improving mobility into and within the Manhattan business district. Even if New York is not ready for a full plate congestion pricing, there are plenty of other effective ways to give a little relief to pedestrians, bus and bicycle riders, and even to motorists who would rather pay than sit.
Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting and a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.Â