The Unbearable Hassle of Carpooling From Eastern Queens

We all pay for the status quo of free car access to the most crowded parts of the city.
We all pay for the status quo of free car access to the most crowded parts of the city.

On Sunday, Assembly Member David Weprin and other assorted Queens elected officials stood near the perpetual traffic jam at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge and swore oaths to the sanctity of free driving privileges in New York City.

Weprin and his cohort stage variations on the same ritual press conference any time a rational tolling arrangement for city streets gets in the news. This time, for a change, Governor Cuomo provided the impetus for the presser, but the talking points basically remain the same from year to year. The central tenet is that there is an unwritten but inviolable right to drive for free within the city.

Borough President Melinda Katz expressed it best on this occasion. “You should be able to travel, even if it’s a little more burdensome, for free somehow from borough to borough,” she said.

This is always good for a bitter laugh from anyone who travels by transit — most New Yorkers, in other words. How can Weprin and Katz say this stuff with a straight face when millions of people have little choice but to pay fares to travel from borough to borough every day?

A few more factors compound the ridiculousness.

New Yorkers who have to pay for each trip make less than New Yorkers who can drive for free. We mention this a lot on Streetsblog but it bears repeating. Citywide, households with cars tend to earn double the typical income of households without cars. This is just as true in Queens, where the median income of car-owning households is $85,400, and the median income of car-free households in $42,500.

Most car commuters into the Manhattan core have a viable transit option. The vast majority of people who drive to work in Manhattan below 60th Street — 90 percent — “commute from home to work zone pairs in which a majority of commuters use other modes,” according to Bruce Schaller’s 2006 report, Necessity or Choice. Put another way, we know that most Manhattan core car commuters could take transit instead because that’s how most other people making similar commute trips get to work.

Carpooling makes the cost of tolls equal to or less than a subway fare. Let’s say you really have no other choice — you are one of the few New Yorkers for whom driving is the only reasonable way to reach the most transit-accessible part of the city. How much of a burden would it be to pay for these car trips? Under the Move NY proposal, all you would have to do is find one carpool buddy, and the price per person would equal $2.77 — almost the same as a single-ride subway fare. One more carpooler knocks the price down to $1.85.

New Yorkers aren’t strangers to carpooling. For months after the September 11th attacks, only high-occupancy vehicles were allowed over the East River crossings during rush hour. Traffic fell substantially.

There is no right to drive for free within New York City limits. What we do have is a transportation system where the poorest have to pay more per trip than the richest, and where people forgo reasonable transit options and the slight inconvenience of carpooling so they can clog streets with their polluting single-occupancy vehicles.

  • Joe R.

    Also worth mentioning is the sheer volume of motor vehicles makes any hope of Vision Zero becoming a reality nil.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Dynamic carpooling. It would allow drivers to cover the entire cost of their car, and riders to travel for a little more than a subway fare.

    We really do need the generation who told their parents “go to hell we’re going to do what we feel like” to stop dictating to everyone under age 55 too.

  • Michel S

    “New Yorkers aren’t strangers to carpooling. For months after the September 11th attacks, only high-occupancy vehicles were allowed over the East River crossings during rush hour. Traffic fell substantially.”

    This is an intriguing statement. Could this event have had the unintended effect of associating restriction of access and less-congested streets with unspeakable tragedy, mourning, and dread? Like, did it birth an unspoken motto to the social psychology of the city, something along the lines of, “If the roads aren’t full, something must be wrong?”

    We need to focus on framing congestion pricing and tolling as a means to increase people’s freedom and the possibilities of urban space, as opposed to just restricting access for the privileged. I’m not sure pointing to 9/11 as an exemplar of what could be is necessarily the best approach.

  • JarekFA

    We need to focus on framing congestion pricing and tolling as a means to increase people’s freedom and the possibilities of urban space, as opposed to just restricting access for the privileged.

    Yup. That’s how I feel. Summer Street don’t “close down” the streets for 3 Saturday’s in August. They open up the streets to everyone.

    When I first became a regular bike rider is when I truly experienced, what honestly seemed to me, like freedom of mobility. I was alone during a summer internship in London in 2007, bored out of my fucking mind. I bought a bike of the UK craigslist, and I rode all over that city every day and night. I sure as fuck couldn’t just explore a city at my own leisure and price point with a car.

    And how you’ve described it, is exactly how I feel about congestion pricing. It’s insane to be squeezed at say, Atlantic and Smith st (most n/b cars are heading towards the BK or MN Bridges), with like 14 other bikes, while, you’re wedged next to a mini-van or another SOV. And it’s like, um, I don’t need a pat on the back or anything but as a public policy, this is totally fucked, why is this ok (and ahead of you are totally jammed up buses, which the City is at a loss to adequately explain why ridership keeps declining).

    Just look at the picture below.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/39f0d0ac34a8f79a31a8e663fc816768914bd09e98a6164777223725e3f78520.jpg

    Kind of an eye sore right? It’s one of the soon to be removed bike parking stations at Utrecht Centraal in Holland (they’ve built a gigantic 12,000 space + below ground station). Now just imagine if all those bikes were cars. That’s what we’ve wedded ourselves to. We got to get off of that drug.

  • Joe R.

    It defies logic even more when you consider that car travel in cities is often slower than bike travel. So we’re paying a fortune for a mode which takes up tons more space, and doesn’t even really give us anything in return for what it costs.

    When I first became a regular bike rider is when I truly experienced, what honestly seemed to me, like freedom of mobility.

    Same here once I started riding regularly in the late 1970s. No way could I have afforded a car, nor would it have given me much mobility advantage in the city over a bike. For a long time I felt like I knew one of the best kept secrets—namely that a bike is as good or better than a car for urban mobility. It took society a while to figure that out. Even now I don’t understand why we’re so obsessed with devoting most street space to SOVs.

  • Like, did it birth an unspoken motto to the social psychology of the city, something along the lines of, “If the roads aren’t full, something must be wrong?”

    It did not.

  • jr195

    If some people really MUST drive because they live in a transit desert, why can’t they drive to the nearest subway/bus/LIRR station and take that into Manhattan? Surely all of those options and that parking are cheaper, and often faster and more convenient, than driving in and paying for parking.

    I haven’t read this concept anywhere in recent congestion pricing discussions. It’s been presented like the only two options are transit or drive door to door.

  • Jesse

    “You should be able to travel, even if it’s a little more burdensome, for free somehow from borough to borough”
    This is so disingenuous. No one is charging you to travel between boroughs. The charge is to bring your car with you. You can still walk or bike across those bridges. Unless of course you want to use the Verazzano Bridge which is not free in any sense of the word. Where is the outrage over that?

  • AstoriaBlowin

    For a large swathe of Queens if want to drive to the Bronx, you have to pay already, the three MTA bridges have tolls. Maybe there are some people who do it, but if you live east of Jackson Heights you’d be crazy to drive into Manhattan over the Queensboro to make your way to a free East River bridge.

  • Charles Siegel

    If you drive, you are not traveling for free. It costs a lot to own and operate a car.

    The only forms of travel that are close to free are walking and bicycling.

  • Vooch

    at least until the BQE & FDR are velomobile only 🙂

  • Vooch

    Dude

    like your story is truth

  • Sure, car ownership has costs and driving has costs. But there is no price signal for these discrete car trips into the most congested part of New York City.

  • dvc

    It certainly did not. What it birthed was a frequently spoken motto of “wow, this is much better, we should keep it this way” and “why did it take a terrorist attack to deploy sensible transportation rules”.

  • jr195

    Sure, but the problem is that as it is now, it’s cheap and easy to drive relative to transit, so many people choose to do that. The rest of the population suffers in the form of pollution, carnage, spending on roads money that could go elsewhere, dedicating scarce public space to private vehicles, and congestion, which in turn ruins bus transit.

    The point of congestion pricing is to shift that calculus so that driving is no longer so attractive. Sadly, most press coverage ignores this and portrays it as a tax needed to subsidize transit.

  • Joe R.

    My late father used to do that sometimes. As for why more people aren’t doing it, I might say lack of parking near subway stations. That said, it seems to me bike parking and/or bike share is a perfect solution to this problem, not driving to the subway station.

  • vnm

    Something like probably 3% of those costs of owning and operating a car are costs that help the public good. Gas taxes, registration fees, arguably insurance, and things like that. Everything else — namely car payments, insurance, parking fees, gasoline itself, maintenance costs — is just an collection of expenses that one pay as part of a contract with companies that provide a product or service in return. There’s no gain to the public overall. When you pay a transit fare, 100% of that fare goes to helping fund a public benefit, namely, public transportation.

  • van_vlissingen

    There are NO TRANSIT DESERTS in Queens. Ok maybe some. But I can get a bus to the subway (&/or LIRR) pretty much anywhere in the boro. What they mean is a place without a subway. I personally hate the term as its disingenous.

  • Sheryl Yvette

    “You should be able to travel, even if it’s a little more burdensome, for free somehow from borough to borough,” You can. It’s called biking and walking.

  • Excellent point. Buses are transit; therefore no place in Queens counts as a transit desert.

  • JarekFA

    Begs the question why the fuck aren’t these Eastern Queens pols pushing for enhanced bus service?

    I think I know. Because they’d see that as an attack on cars as well. It can so easily be done if only there were the political will. Dedicated busways are so damn useful. It’s a shame we can’t ever really get that here because of placard abuse and policies favoring as much road side space for parking as possible.

  • jr195

    I agree, but let’s play along for a minute and say some people have absolutely no option but to drive a car from their house — that does not mean they then have no choice but to drive over the East River bridges into Manhattan. Why does nobody make this simple point against these ridiculous Queens politicians? It’s like they know that arguing “but the poor people…” will always work.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. There are certainly large swaths of Queens where public transit is extremely inconvenient to use for local transportation. Trips might involve several transfers with long waits each time. However, few places in Queens where it’s not relatively convenient to get a bus to a subway. In fact, much of the bus service in Queens during peak hours is to/from subway stations. Look at downtown Flushing or Jamaica. A bunch of buses all converge at the train stations. Of course, these buses could be a lot faster with bus lanes and signal priority, but they’re certainly already heavily used by many people despite this.

  • Joe R.

    I remember riding next to the LIE when it was closed the days after the attacks. There was also peace and quiet opening the windows with no airplanes flying. The air smelled so much better. I wondered why it couldn’t be like this all the time.

  • It raises the question.

    Begging the question is an entirely different matter.

    http://begthequestion.info

  • De blasio has the tools and discretion to reduce congestion in Manhattan, without any charge: it is called HOV ONLY or car pooling and was wildly successful during the last MTA strike. He could impose this measure first on those days when the congestion is worse . Maybe 2 days a week.. then increase gradually to 7 especially in the holiday season and the auto show or other relevant events.
    Could start at 7 am – Only taxis and delivery trucks would be exempts, limos and Uber would be subject to it.

  • sbauman

    There is no right to drive for free within New York City limits.

    True. There is also a right that all road users be treated equally, regardless of their residence. Something about the prohibition of interstate tariffs in the US Constitution.

    Cordon tolling imposes a tariff against those who reside outside the cordoned area while providing a tariff-free environment for those who do not need to cross the cordon.

    The streets are owned in common by all NYC residents, not just those residents who reside on or nearby a particular street. Streetsblog has commented against the actions of community boards that view their streets at their exclusive turf to the exclusion of interlopers like cyclists and especially cyclists from “less desirable” areas.

    The principle is that all road users enjoy an equal access to the streets regardless of transportation mode, “race, creed or place of national origin.” Cordon tolling violates that last requirement. The bigger the area enclosed by the cordon, the greater the violation.

    The problem is not with congestion pricing. The problem is implementing it with a cordon toll. Cordon tolls are effective at reducing the number of cordon crossings. That’s not the same thing as reducing congestion within the cordon.

    A van from outside the cordon that makes a single delivery at an off-street loading dock does not create congestion but pays the cordon toll. A van from within the cordon that makes multiple deliveries while double parking creates
    congestion but does not pay the cordon toll. Such anomalies make the cordon toll a weapon of mass destruction. Specific, targeted weapons are required to reduce congestion.

    Such specific, targeted weapons are close to realization. Their development has been slowed by the cordon toll fixation. They would perform a similar function as the yellow taxi GPS fare meters. They would be more accurate to distinguish between double parking and legal or off street parking. All vehicles would be charged equally, including those based within the cordon. Such equal treatment would eliminate the unfairness objections expressed by the Queens politicians.

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