The Greater Good of Bike Tolls

Image: Sam Schwartz Engineering

Sam Schwartz’s proposal to collect a half-a-buck per bicycle entry on bridges to the Manhattan Central Business District is putting New York cyclists in a bind. Cyclists, like drivers, don’t relish paying for something they’ve been getting for free, particularly when they feel they’re being singled out. Yet Schwartz’s bike-toll idea is merely one part, and a minor one at that, of an audacious scheme to restructure bridge and road tolls across the city and revolutionize travel by car, bike, train and bus. If a bike toll can help sell the grand plan — and Schwartz insists it can — it might be a price worth paying.

Full disclosure first: I’m helping Sam with quantitative analysis of his plan; my BTA model runs its numbers. But my connections to Sam go back much further. In 2009, he hosted a briefing in which I showcased the BTA to other transportation wonks, and his rave for the model in Wired magazine was a big boost for me. I’ve been a Gridlock Sam admirer for decades, captivated by his ability — unique among policy types — to speak the language of the person he’s talking to: cab driver, planner, politician.

So when Sam tried out his bike-toll idea on me months ago, I listened. You can sell easier with honey than vinegar, the saying goes, and Sam’s plan slathers on the honey with a 50 percent drop in tolls on MTA bridges like the Verrazano and the Throgs Neck that connect one outer borough to another. But not even honey packs the zest of sticking it to someone you can’t stand. “You’re going to make the bikers pay to pedal into Manhattan?,” marveled one elected official, an opponent of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, after seeing Sam’s plan in slideshow. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I introduced this plan?”

The plan Sam wants to sell would charge a uniform ten bucks for each auto round-trip into the CBD, whether via the Hudson, the East River, or 60th Street. After slashing outer-borough bridge tolls, paying for the tolling system and discounting bus fares in the city’s non-subway-served precincts, there would still be $1.2 billion a year left over to invest in infrastructure. Sam would apply most of that to expand transit routes and improve service without bonding that adds pressure to fares. Some would go to highways — Sam is convinced that widening the Belt Parkway to allow trucks will take dangerous commercial traffic off Brooklyn streets. And some will go to the bicycle bridges.

Ah, Sam’s bicycle bridges. One from Jersey City and Hoboken would land north of Chelsea Piers. Another from Long Island City and Hunter’s Point would touch down in East Midtown. The third would skip from Red Hook to the Finanical District via Govenor’s Island. In Sam’s drawings, they’re gossamer wings that set dreams alight. Othmar Ammann, the Swiss-American engineer who designed New York’s iconic spans — the George Washington, Bayonne, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone and Verrazano Bridges — would be garlanding the new bridges with roses.

I admit that Sam sold me on his 50-cent bike toll by tying it to these bridges. For one thing, digital debit cards to collect the tolls from moving cyclists might not even be viable before the bridges’ 2020 commissioning target date. And paying to cycle on a bridge built expressly for cycling (and walking) is both fair and strategic. Paying to bike on a long-since-built East River bridge is less of a slam dunk.

But Sam, a veteran of the 1970s-1980s era of infrastructure disinvestment, when three East River bridges lost their bike lanes and the fourth, the Brooklyn, nearly came apart as well, takes a longer view. “Bike infrastructure needs a dedicated revenue stream,” he says. “And if the goal is to legitimize bikes — I mean really legitimize them — what better way than to have cyclists pay into a bicycle fund?”

I’m Sam’s contemporary, and I too go for the longer view. I’ve been working my tail off for five years to enact a universal toll to drive into Manhattan, but it’s a campaign that’s been waged on and off for 40 years. Sam has as much skin in the game as anyone, and now he’s got a traffic-pricing plan that looks like it can do it all: co-opt the naysayers, improve every mode of travel in every part of the city, and create benefits — saved time, improved health and a better environment and quality of life — worth $4 billion a year.

Do we cyclists really feel we shouldn’t have to give up anything to grab this brass ring, especially when the benefits include a predicted 50 percent increase in cycling by virtue of the drop in car traffic making biking easier and safer? Is our tab of $10 million a year, vs. $300 million for taxi users and $1 billion for drivers, really too high a price to advance a plan that would do so much for our city while finally establishing traffic-pricing in the USA?

Remember what I said at the top, that no one wants to pay for what’s now free? That’s what motivated congestion pricing opponents when they outmuscled John Lindsay in 1973, Ed Koch in 1986, and Mike Bloomberg in 2007-08. Swallowing a modest bike toll so we cyclists can talk down outer-borough drivers who don’t want to pay for what’s now free could be a slam dunk after all.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Let’s start by having taxes on the sale of bicycles, and all sales at bike shops, dedicated to bicycle infrastructure.  The way motor vehicle sales and gasoline taxes are supposed to go to road and bridge maintenance (they go to debt service instead).  It is a small enough amount of money that the state legislature just might go for it.

    We could ask for the sales tax on shoes to be dedicated to pedestrian infrastructure, but they’ve gone ahead and tax exempted it again.

  • Jon

    “Remember what I said at the top, that no one wants to pay for what’s now free?”

    Nothing is really free. We pay for the bridges, public transportation and roads even if we don’t own cars, bikes or ride transit. This is a poor idea.

    A real conflict of interest blog post too.

  • I really wouldn’t mind paying the 50 cent toll but only so long as everything else in the plan happens.  I love the idea of discounting the outer borough tolls and adding tolls into Manhattan but I think the bikes bridges are pie in the sky.  The rendering of the bk-governors island-downtown bridge just looks absurd.  I don’t know what politician would support it.

    My biggest problem with the tolls is collection.  Do you have to stop?  Will you have to slow down to go through an easy gate?  Will this make mutli-use paths impossible?  What if you walk your bike?  What about skateboarders or rollerbladers?  How can they enforce fare cutting?  If you being riding for the first time do you have to wait to get some kind of easy pass before you can use the bridges? 

    It sounds like an abosulte logistical nightmare.  I don’t think a 50 cent toll would be very efficient if the toll collection has any considerable overhead.

  • Part of the problem here is that we simply don’t have a regional planning system to oversee all this. Tolls should probably be higher, but the Port Authority bridges are using some of that money to offset services like PATH services and cutting back on their toll collections will also mean cutting off a source of funding necessary to operate mass transit.  Meanwhile, NJ Transit could surely have used a shot of capital to build another Hudson River tunnel, but I didn’t see any of New York’s agencies stepping up,

  • Nomail

    They also should build concentration camps by the bridges…

  • Kate

    This proposal for bike bridges and tolls is really out of touch. Besides the ridiculousness of charging people who produce no pollution or congestion, big ideas don’t have to involve big projects or lots of new, expensive infrastructure. Let’s use what we have wisely and keep these proposals simple.

  • Noah Berland

    This is a totally stupid concept. For one, even without self aggrandizement, Cycling is cheaper than cars in terms of their wear and tear on infrastructure, their impact to human health, and their threat to human life, why should something that provides such an advantage have an increased cost while some car tolls will be decrease? I support the Kheel plan, which I thought Charles you did too. Why I don’t think bikes should pay, and why I don’t think we need to be the builders like Moses who refuse to look at rational answers, but want bridges as visible symbols to be remembered by. For one I don’t think any city in the world charges such costs to pedestrians or cyclists, second will the charge pedestrians? Can I just dismount and walk to escape the charge? Have you ever taken a ride over many bridges at whee hours when people who work the worst jobs and have the least money, they can’t even afford the subway if they wanted to, ride over the bridges in droves? Will tolling cyclists increase cycling no, it will decrease cycling and make the hurtle for entering NYC by commuters that much higher. How will the toll be collected? Will an ez-pass like system be used, which would essentially become a defacto way to license cyclists? What if I’m an undocumented person, how do I pay the toll? Will we have to pay to staff toll collectors if we don’t go an ez-pass route? Will children have to pay?

    We should be making the barrier to cycling as low as possible. Why don’t we convert a tube on the holland, midtown, and lincoln tunnels to pedestrians and cyclists instead of building new infrastructure. Why don’t we build a new tunnel to handle more train traffic like ARC. I’m sorry Charles, I usually agree with you, but I can’t palette the taste of tolling cyclists.

    I’d certainly love to see a great path for cyclists and pedestrians to governor’s island, but for now it isn’t even open all year, perhaps a cheaper bridge than the idiotic and fanciful one pictured should be built from brooklyn, and perhaps the 1 line could be extended to brooklyn with a stop on governors island, I think those would be better uses of money anyway.

    If people like Sam Schwartz have their way I guess I will have to start paying a toll when I exit my building so that new sidewalks and walkways can be funded, shouldn’t pedestrians pay their fair share? I pay my fair share through taxes, a car driver has currently an unfair share.

  • fj

    10 times the money money for bikeshare $250 million would make NYC a real New Amsterdam.