If Congestion Pricing Had to be Approved by a Legislature…

In the fall of 2005, prior to Mayor Bloomberg’s second term election victory, I began working on a story for New York Magazine about the broad-based coalition that was coming together to push for congestion pricing and a whole array of new urban environmental policies for New York City. While that story never quite came together as a big magazine feature, it eventually inspired the creation of Streetsblog. Ultimately, I used some of my reporting to write this longer piece about the numerous failed efforts over the last four decades to create some sort of congestion pricing system for New York City.

I was just going through some of my old notes and drafts of that story and found the following passage. It seems particularly relevant at the moment:

It’s no coincidence that London’s congestion pricing system was implemented "during a singular political moment" in which the national government gave Mayor Ken Livingstone "near-dictatorial powers" to take over and reform the city’s transportation systems, said John Kaehny, former executive director of Transportation Alternatives.

Transport for London spokesman Alun Shermer agreed with that assessment, adding, "If congestion pricing had to go through a legislative process it probably wouldn’t have happened."

It is worth noting that the world’s first major urban congestion pricing system was set up in Singapore, a city-state under the rule of a benign dictatorship.

  • d

    i think that there will be so many compromises made on the way to congestion pricing being approved that it will end up not being effective. the people in govt who oppose it are gonna help to compromise it to death.

  • James


    In the post about cyclists and tickets, I was just admiring the point you made, that if cyclists want broader pedestrian support they shouldn’t piss them off by nearly running them over at red lights.

    In the spirit of that: implying that we’d be better off with less democracy and a “benign dictatorship”? Maybe not the best P.R. Also, calling Singapore’s dictatorship “benign”? Yeah, it’s always benign until its your ass getting caned. Or unless you’re gay: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_Singapore

    OK, everybody — go ahead and question my purity!

  • James,

    I sometimes really do wonder if democracy will be able to rise up to meet some of the very serious environmental challenges that we are now facing. Am I advocating benign green dictatorship? Not yet.

    Also, I didn’t write that comment. It was some other “Aaron.”

    Author comments will show up in a kind of greenish box. Like this one.

  • James

    “Am I advocating benign green dictatorship? Not yet.”

    What a relief! Make sure you get that printed up on your recruiting literature!

    “Streetsblog: Not directly in favor of overturning civil liberties, for the time being!”

  • enrique peñalosa creates no illusions about what he did in bogota: it was definitely a form of “benign green dictatorship” without which the BRT system, car-free days and miles of bike lanes would not have happened.

    how ironic that peñalosa could rightfully call the proposed highway system he nixed an unfair gift to the wealthy minority in bogota, while here politicians and lobbyists are trying to paint congestion pricing as some sort of elitist invention of our billionaire mayor to keep “hard-working new yorkers” out of their cars.

  • NIccolo’ Machiavelli

    Without questioning your democracy credentials there are a couple of other fine political structure points to be made. Perhaps in the case of Singapore the more important description is “city-state” rather than “dictatorship”. In the case of NYC this is played out in various “home rule” issues but Federalism factors in as well. Especially when you look at congestion pricing being encouraged by the Federal Government. This is the same Federal government obsessed with shorting New York on gas tax revenues because we don’t waste as much gas per capita as the rest of America.

    Thats where the comparisons to London, Paris, Rome and Copenhagen really fall flat. All of those governments are parlimentary in form and by structure give enormous, autonomous power to the cities. We have Federalism thanks to the need to keep the slave holders inside the tent when we were writing the Constitution.

    Then, of course, we have the genious of term limitations where Bloomberg looks either entirely naive or entirely phony depending on your point of view. Its easy to propose lots of politically unpopular yet valid policy proposals when you don’t have to be re-elected again. What this plan needs is some people who want to be mayor next time to take a position. The only one to do so has been Anthony Weiner, and I am sure you know his position.

    Term limitations, thanks to the genius of Ron Lauder, son of Estee, creates a system full of amateurs for one term and lame ducks for another. There is insufficient continuity of leadership to follow through on needed long term planning.

    Next election there will be a new mayor and a 2/3 of the city council. The failure of Bloomberg’s plan will allow the opponents to place more of their obstrucitonists in power for the subsequent eight years.

    While comparative politics is not my specialty I’m just guessing that there are no term limits in Singapore, Paris, London, or Copenhagen. People who favor good long term planning need to get busy killing term limits. Or get busy electing people who favor this plan. Last I heard the polls had it 56/34 against among voters. Maybe the millions Bloomberg throws at the media will move those numbers, I hope so. But I’m not holding my breath.

  • James


    1. I’m 100% in favor of congestion pricing (just not at the expense of democracy) and

    2. I think you are totally right about the greater importance of “home rule” here (the lack of which also killed the commuter tax) but

    3. I don’t follow how killing term limits would help this case. By your argument, Bloomberg would never have proposed the plan at all if he weren’t term-limited. Sure, the ideal would be for a candidate to actually run on a platform of congestion pricing but fact is (a) none are likely to and (b) such a candidate would likely lose. Better the flawed reality than the unlikely ideal, no?

    I’m against term limits on principle, since they limit the voters’ right to choose to keep on politicians they like–but regardless, it seems like this is one anti-democratic measure that at least made the congestion-pricing proposal possible. Hey, maybe I’m more like Aaron Naparstek than I thought!

  • Abba

    Let’s keep some perspective here. Ken Livingstone is a directly elected official. If the London public hated pricing, they had a chance to dump him after his first term. In Stockholm, the pricing system was put to a popular referendum after a short trial period, and was endorsed.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Pricing itself is not democratic or un-democratic it is just policy. But it is a policy that takes time. Term limits leaves NYC weaker in terms of long term policy than the other systems we have to compete with politically and economically in NY state and the US. Politicians in NYC are in a sense castrated by term limits while Upstate Hootervilles and God’s Country Mayberrys are on the steroids of incumbency. Bloomberg is not running again, OK, doesn’t mean he can’t propose good things. But the City Council is all looking for their next political gig either this term or next they aren’t about to sail against the wind. Bloomberg sits there with 72% approval ratings and can’t be mayor again to follow through on this or any other policy.

    Ken Livingstone told everyone that his Administration would stand or fall with congestion pricing. It was not popular when he initiated it but as the population saw the results he easily won re-election.

    I’m not suggesting ending term limits would allow CP to go ahead, we still have to overcome home rule issues and Federalism. I do suggest that overcoming the home rule issues is much harder now and will be harder tomorrow when upstate and suburban politicians can build long term personal constituencies and in the city we have to constantly groom the next generation of leadership or wait for a wealthy knight to exercise noblesse oblige.

    By the way, who is the Mayoral candidate who favors congestion pricing? Carrion? We could do worse.

  • JF

    Nicco, I’m sure you know that the lack of home rule made NYC weak to begin with. If anything, I think term limits will ultimately break the State Legislature logjam as ex-City Council members start challenging incumbent state legislators, and eventually erode the power of the Assembly Speaker. Of course, that will take time too.

    Carrion, my wayward son? The guy who backed the Yankee Stadium mega-parking plan? I suppose we could do worse – like Weiner. We could also do better – like Stringer. But I know what you think about Stringer as a mayoral candidate.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I like the silver lining view that term limits will shake up the legislature, we’ll see if that happens before the Democrats take over the Senate, currently a restrained supporter of CP. Is Stringer running, if so, I’m sure Tony hopes he makes CP a big part of his campaign, that should ice up the primary for Tony since he has been out front fighting it. Its all horse race stuff and not worthy of this blog though. Thanks for you indulgences.


Congestion Charging in New York City: The Political Bloodbath

Though many New Yorkers are learning about congestion charging for the first time this week, the transportation policy community has been working to sell this idea to a resistant public for more than three decades. What happens when Nobel Prize winning theory meets bare-fisted New York City politics? A heavily condensed version of this story ran in this week’s […]

Glick’s Excuse: Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Welcome to Glickville As Deborah Glick herself would tell you, no state legislator had more reason to support congestion pricing than she did. In a district where 95.4 percent of working residents would not have paid the charge, where households with a car are outnumbered by households sans vehicle three to one, and which nonetheless […]

Congestion Pricing Plan Advancing Rapidly

Sewell Chan at the New York Times’ Empire Zone has more on this morning’s meeting between Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Spitzer and US Dept. of Transportation secretary Mary Peters: Mr. Spitzer said at a news conference this morning, "There will always be some congestion and the good news is there is economic growth and there’s vitality […]

Details of Proposed Bus Service Expansion

The other day I noted that one of the most destructive pieces of misinformation floating around the New York State Assembly is this line from Assembly Member Richard Brodsky’s congestion pricing report: The City has no plan to improve mass transit prior to the implementation of congestion pricing. This is a serious if not fatal […]