CONGESTION PRICING CRITICS NEED TO CHILL OUT
Swift backlash followed the state legislature’s April 1 authorization of a congestion pricing zone for the Manhattan central business districts. Truckers and cabbies, upstate farmers, residents of the zone, owners of electric vehicles, the New Jersey political establishment and many more are clamoring for exemptions from a toll that will fund the region’s mass transit system. They all need to chill out.
Based on the experience of other world cities, this outrage will wane once a pricing zone is in place and we experience the benefits of a cleaner, safer, more efficient and productive urban environment. Contrary to the claims of opponents, congestion pricing is not “just another tax.” It is a way to monetize the shift of urban society away from dependence on private cars toward modern transit alternatives.
Stockholm, which sits on an island similar to Manhattan, implemented a seven-month trial of congestion pricing back in 2006. Prior to the trial, polls showed that 80% of Stockholm residents opposed the charge. When the trial was completed, the charging system was shut down and a referendum was held to allow the public to decide whether it would become permanent. The proposition won, with 52% of Stockholm residents voting to keep the charge. Congestion pricing was reinstated and subsequently expanded with popular support.
What changed the minds of a skeptical public? For one thing, the positive effects of reduced road congestion were much larger than people had imagined. Traffic dropped 20% below pre-charging levels. Travel times improved dramatically—not just within the congestion zone, but also on roads leading in and out of the central business district from throughout the surrounding metropolitan region. Stockholm expanded public transit (bus services), which allowed them to easily accommodate the 5% increase in passengers that followed implementation of the pricing system. Reduced traffic resulted in significantly faster and more reliable bus service and the locality had new revenues to maintain public transit.
In London, fear of congestion pricing was blunted by major up front investments in new bus services and other transit improvements that made it easy for Londoners to find attractive transit alternatives. Pricing was introduced in 2003, quickly achieving a 30% reduction in traffic delays. London’s congestion pricing plan provided major exemptions for for-hire, wheelchair accessible and zero emission vehicles. This turned out to be a mistake, as app-based ride share systems emerged and congestion gradually increased to pre-pricing levels. Two weeks ago, London eliminated the exemption of for-hire vehicles with the expectation that this will largely restore traffic reduction targets.
The world’s cities are growing and density is increasing. One way or another, the traffic problem must be addressed to avoid ever more serious economic, health and environmental consequences. The rise of internet shopping is putting more delivery trucks on the streets. Life style changes have required the reallocation of road space to bike lanes, extra bus lanes and pedestrian uses. The need to accommodate more people and jobs has required major reconstruction of old cities, creating unprecedented levels of street obstruction and construction-related traffic.
Change is hard and vehicle travel through the most concentrated commercial centers has long been free. Except it is not free. Economic analysis by engineering firm HDR shows that excess traffic congestion costs the region, its residents and employers, more than $20 billion a year. This is the sum of many expenses that we have come to take for granted: overtime costs and lost business productivity, needless expenditure of fuel and consequent air pollution, delays in getting to work and lost pay for workers.
There are many things we can do to address the congestion problem. We can eliminate vehicles that contribute disproportionately to congestion without providing comparable value to the city, such as tour buses. We can eliminate discretionary parking placards that encourage government workers to drive their private cars to work in the center city because they can park in illegal spaces on the streets for free. We can strongly discourage block the box, double parking, illegal standing, bus lane and other infractions that contribute to gridlock through the increased use of camera enforcement.
One tool we cannot do without is congestion pricing. Pricing alone provides a new resource to fund the modern, comprehensive transit system that the city and region so desperately need to reduce dependence on private cars. Today, the Governor and legislators are taking political heat for enacting congestion pricing. A few years from now, they will be hailed as prescient heroes as New Yorkers come to appreciate the benefits of a more rational and efficient approach to traffic and transit.
Kathryn Wylde is President & CEO of Partnership for New York City