Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 1

Too many unanswered questions.


Among New York State Assembly Democrats, that has been one of the most frequent criticisms of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a three-year congestion pricing pilot project in New York City. Last month, Lower Manhattan Assembly member Deborah Glick said that she and her colleagues were “confronted with a dearth of information regarding the Mayor’s proposal.” Bronx Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz made similar complaints in an editorial to the Riverdale Press a couple of weeks ago.

In an attempt to get answers to some of the more frequently asked questions about congestion pricing, I did what I assume any state legislator could do just as easily, if not more so. I called Rohit Aggarwala and asked him for a meeting to talk about congestion pricing. He agreed.

Aggarwala is New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and the lead author of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030. We met for about 45 minutes on a Monday afternoon in August in a conference room at the Mayor’s Office of Operations. I’ve divided the interview into four parts. Here is the first part:

Aaron Naparstek: How are you enjoying the job? It’s been what? A year?

Rohit Aggarwala: Fourteen crazy months, actually. It was June 12th when I started.

AN: A lot has happened since then.

RA: It’s been amazing. It seems like only yesterday but it’s been a lot of work.

AN: I bet.

RA: Had we just written the plan, that itself would have been a lot of work, but to do so with the input that we got from the advisory board and the town hall meetings — all of the input makes the plan better — but it meant a lot more work too.

AN: Having gone through that public input process, what is your impression of how New Yorkers view transportation issues and the idea of congestion pricing?

RA: New Yorkers are keenly aware of the problem that we have in terms of transportation congestion. Whether it’s on the roads, on your daily subway commute or just walking through Time Square, we all know that mobility is a challenge. Everybody wants to solve the problem. The challenge is that nobody really wants to pay for it. Everybody thinks that the other guy shouldn’t be driving, but I’m driving for all the right reasons. Everybody says, sure, I want more people on transit, but not on my train because I want to get a seat. And, yeah, we need more money for transportation investment, but don’t take it out of my wallet.

But thinking back to the town hall meetings, far more people were in favor of congestion pricing than anybody would have thought just a year ago. If you told a politician a year ago that when asked point blank, “Should we have congestion pricing in Manhattan,” without even being told that the money would go to transit, that nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers would say, “Yes,” nobody would have believed that high a number was possible.

AN: A Wall Street Journal opinion piece was forwarded to me recently that said, “Their goal isn’t easing congestion at all, it’s raising money. The city’s plan foresees only negligible improvements in traffic density and speeds, less than 8 percent, but millions for the city to spend on other priorities.” Is the congestion pricing just about raising money?

RA: If all the mayor had wanted was additional revenue, there would be far easier ways to get it than to engage in the congestion pricing debate. It would have been so much easier for us to find the money in a different way.

That quote that you just read completely misses the fact that this money isn’t going to be for the city to spend. Our proposal was that the revenue goes to the SMART Fund, which the city would have only a 50% voice in. Others have proposed the money goes to the MTA. The bottom line is congestion pricing revenue is not going into the city’s budget, it’s going towards transit.

It’s misleading to say that we’re only doing this for the revenue. The reason that congestion pricing is such a powerful concept, and the reason that the mayor, who was initially skeptical about it, warmed to it and now has obviously embraced it and believes in it quite strongly, is that it solves multiple challenges at once. It reduces traffic while raising money for transit. And it gets people to think more about the personal choices they make.

Just like you get charged every time you decide to take the subway, and that makes you think about whether you want to use this scarce resource that costs money to provide, you also want a price on making the decision to drive into one of the most congested and transit-rich areas in North America. That’s the goal.

I’ve heard time and time again, that the 8 percent increase in vehicle speeds is a negligible difference. But that’s 112,000 cars a day off of the streets. That’s hardly a negligible difference. What people often don’t understand is that a reduction in 6.3 percent of vehicle miles traveled, or an increase in speed of 8 percent — those are averages. Those changes make a big difference because the bulk of that speed improvement isn’t going to come at 5:00 in the morning, or on one of those few streets that you can find during rush hour that isn’t crowded. Those improvements are going to be concentrated on the streets that currently have the worst congestion.

But what really counts to the driver is the reduction in delay — the reduction in the amount of time you’re stuck in traffic. London found that the increase in average speed translates to a reduction of driver delay by at least a factor of two. So, an 8 percent increase in average vehicle speed translates to a 15 to 20 percent reduction in driver delay. That is sizable.

AN: Many say they are concerned that congestion pricing will hurt New York City’s poor, middle class, and small business people. How do you respond to that?

RA: I think its fundamentally not true. If you look at New York City as a whole, if you look at every class of people, however you want to define class, the majority of New Yorkers rely on transit far more than they rely on automobiles. Are the relatively small percentage of New York’s middle class that drives into Manhattan everyday going to be hurt by congestion pricing? Potentially. But in exchange for $8, those who continue to drive are going to get a more reliable drive, a more comfortable drive, a faster drive.

When it comes to transportation, the best thing we can do for New York City’s middle class has nothing to do with what goes on on the roads, it’s what we can do in the subways. That’s why it’s so important to use the proceeds for transit improvements.

As for small businesses, I think it’s exactly the same kind of thing. Even if you assume that small businesses do rely on driving, the efficiency gains from reducing traffic by 6.3 percent translates into greater productivity. So, for a cost of $8, a van delivering flowers can make one or two extra deliveries a day with the same vehicle and the same labor costs. The reduction in traffic congestion has more than made up for the incremental increase in transportation cost. As for bigger trucks, most of them are already paying tolls.

AN: Still, if it costs more for trucks to transport goods, won’t that translate to price increases for all New York City consumers across the board?

RA: London has seen nothing to indicate that that’s the case. Stockholm, in some very detailed analysis of what goes on downtown, has actually seen an increase in customers to local businesses because the pedestrian spaces are that much more attractive with fewer cars clogging the roads. So, Stockholm has actually seen small business directly benefiting from congestion pricing.

Really, how much inflation can you create on an entire truckload of goods by adding $21? There were some outrageous numbers being thrown around about how congestion pricing will cause all groceries to go up by 10 percent or something. When these claims come up, do the math. If a $21 charge on a truckload of milk translates into a 10 percent increase in the cost of a gallon of milk, that means they are using an entire truck to deliver something like 10 gallons of milk per day.

There’s so much misinformation that people are putting out there to scare people.

  • Hilary

    I’m sorry you didn’t ask about the detailed cost and the look of the infrastructure components required (e.g., for the periphery and the interior ), and whether it had been compared to alternatives (e.g., tolling all entries to Manhattan). There is a lot of concern among those who support the goals of CP, but question whether this is the best way to achieve it.

  • Dave H.

    Hilary – I think the interview is being published in four parts, so there is still a chance these questions have been asked.

    The question I really hope Aaron asked is: does Rohit (or JS-K) ever read streetsblog?

  • JK

    Rit, what about the busses? The Lesson from London is congestion pricing is all about moving more people on busses. This is the big missing piece in the congestion pricing message.

    The MTA is not going to be building any new subways other than 2nd Ave and 7 train extension. Those are going to move a fraction of the million plus people coming here in the next 20 years. This is why making BRT work is very, very important. The Federal “partnership” money is mainly dedicated towards bus improvements.

    We need to hear the central congestion pricing message from Rit, the mayor and the DOT as moving bus riders through traffic and paying for bus improvements.

    Above is reaction to this from Rit:
    “When it comes to transportation, the best thing we can do for New York City’s middle class has nothing to do with what goes on on the roads, it’s what we can do in the subways.”

  • Ian Turner


    I think you’re probably right, and those in the administration may realize this — but the facts on the ground today are that New Yorkers hate riding buses, and so “bus improvements” sounds a lot worse to them than “subway improvements” or even “transit improvements”. So even if the budgeting is toward buses (good policy), the talk is about “subways” or “transit”, which is just good sales.

  • srock


    The federal money is for improvements to the entire bus network, including money for over 300 new busses that could immediately be put onto the streets. True, many of these busses could be simply added to existing routes, but it would not be surprising to see new routes- such as BRT lines- negotiated in the next few months.

  • Hilary

    It’s not just riders who hate buses. They do not exactly improve the ambience of the neighborhoods they rumble or race through. Some thought should be given to making them quieter and smaller, in addition to less polluting. The downtown Connector bus in lower Manhattan is viewed with affection — it also happens to be free!
    I’d totally rebrand them – make them fun, lovable, hip, whatever it takes to make New York fall in love with them.

  • steve

    On the Upper East side, people often do prefer the bus to the subways, for a variety of reasons–poor and overcrowded subway service, many seniors making neighborhood trips who don’t like climbing down into the subway, lots of limited buses, dedicated rush hour bus lanes on Madison, Lexington and 5th, and extremely generous service schedules with high-capacity articulated buses on the 79th and 86th Street crosstown routes. Introduce the schedule, dedicate lane, and fleet features of UES bus service in other neighborhoods, and you may see attitudes about buses change.

  • anonymous

    The only reason London loves buses so much is because their subway system is in even worse condition than New York’s. Shutting down a station is such a regular occurrence that stations have unfoldable signs on the walls to signal that fact to the train driver. The problem with buses is that they just don’t scale up to the loads that a subway can carry. A potentially better solution is a streetcar, which is cleaner and quieter than buses, as well as faster. Streetcars also have a higher capacity than buses because they can be coupled together into trains, thus making them a useful way to take the local trips off the subway and provide good service on peripheral routes that don’t quite have enough demand to merit a new subway line.
    Oh yes, and NYC also needs to start building subways again, because the existing system can barely cope with the demand, and doesn’t go far enough to serve some parts of the city that weren’t very populated when the system was finished in the 40s, but are now.

  • fpant78

    agree with making buses more desirable as well as bringing back more streetcars/light rail

    currently the image of buses are loud, bulky, slow beasts that i want no part of

  • psycholist

    Buses are great when they’re running – I prefer seeing the neighborhoods I’m traveling through instead of running underground. The only problem is that they’re unreliable.

  • JK

    There are no new subways coming to Queens and other fast growing parts of the city. The MTA is deep in debt. Even bonded, congestion pricing income would only pay for what’s already in the MTA capital plan.

    There is a political need for a consituency in the Queens, Bklyn and the Bronx who feel congestion pricing would help them in their everyday lives. That group is bus riders. The asthma/environment message is diffuse.

    The arguement that “congestion pricing will improve service on your bus” (fill in route #)offers a very specific benefit that can be organized around. A initiative with diffuse benefits and specific costs is hard to build support for.

    Yes, bus service needs help. That means there are a couple million voters who might support congestion pricing if they understood they would get more and faster bus service.

    Lastly, light rail or trolley is not going to happen in NYC anytime soon. Like it or not there is a huge consensus behind BRT.

  • anonymous

    JK: what makes you so sure that light rail isn’t going to happen? As far as I can tell, the “consensus” behind BRT comes from the fact that the Bush administration loves buses and hates trains. People in general prefer trains to buses, for a variety of reasons that are difficult to pin down individually but quantifiable collectively. Finally, BRT is something of an oxymoron, given that the notions of “bus” and “rapid transit” are pretty much mutually incompatible, no matter how red you paint the bus. Not that I’m against improvements to bus service, but buses just aren’t applicable to every single transit problem in the way that the Bush administration’s DOT would like everyone to believe.

  • gelston

    I wouldn’t say that this administration loves buses – they just love roads, and buses happen to use them. I think long distance bus service is in as miserable a condition (if not more) than trains – with the exception of the unregulated (e.g. Chinatown) variety.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Two things about buses:

    Many people posting here don’t seem to get what Steve is saying. I’ll second it: there’s a population of New Yorkers, prototypically older, upper-middle-class white women from Manhattan, who do not hate buses at all. They see the subway as dark, dirty and dangerous, and the buses as the civilized alternative. Many people, outside of Manhattan, feel the same way about express buses.

    I don’t feel that buses that run in general traffic, even with signal priority and dedicated lanes, qualify as “rapid transit.” I think that separated guideway of at least, say, half the route length, should be the minimum standard for “BRT” as opposed to “Quality Bus.”

  • JK

    MTA buses carry 2.5 million plus daily riders. A small number are old white ladies on the UPES. These New Yorkers take the bus because it’s their best travel option. BRT is the consensus choice among NYC transportation professionals because it is much, much cheaper to install than light rail or trolleys. The MTA has no interest in trolleys or LRT. It has zero to do with the Feds or GW Bush. There should probably be a permanent open thread on SBlog for trolley and light rail enthusiasts to fulminate.

    For those interested in reading the exact text of the Urban Partners agreement between the USDOT and NYC/NYS/MTA see the link below. The bus improvements enumerated. You’ll also note that NYC does not get the money unless it implements congestion pricing — contrary to Dinowitz and anyone else who think the legislature somehow tricked the feds or claim Bloomberg was lying.

    You’ll note the bulk of the money ($254mil of $354.5 total is for two bus depots and a few hundred signal controllers that allow buses to preempt signals, $112.6m for BRT and up to 367 buses and hardly any for implementing pricing.

  • steve

    The difference between BRT and quality bus service is clear, as is the difference between the quality bus service that the UES generally receives (with exceptions) and the shitty bus service that many other neighborhoods receive. We don’t know what BRT will look like in NYC, but we do know it will be limited to a handful of routes for the near future. Quality bus service is the primary mass transit boon that CP will deliver, for most NYers. Let’s implement it as broadly and as quickly as possible.

  • gelston

    A detail in the agreement I hadn’t noticed is the exemption from the congestion charge for all diplomats– though they pay tolls. I sure hope there’s a limit on the number of cars that diplomats and their staff and families are allowed to have..

  • jmc

    I ride the BxM express bus down from the Bronx all the time. It’s actually quite nice. If they make bus service more reliable, the buses comfortable (Try riding a BM or BxM bus sometime, they’re actually quite comfortable) I think people will ride them, especially the commuters who need to go at rush hour.

    If BRT corridors become successful enough, they could be upgraded to streetcars, in theory. The good thing about BRT is that it can be implemented rapidly and bring about a large modeshift to transit (like the buses in Curitiba or the Transmilenio system in Bogota).

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I brought up the old white ladies of the Upper East Side to show that buses in NYC don’t have a serious image problem. The main marketing difficulty that buses have in other cities is that they’re thought of as transportation welfare for poor people, racial minorities and mentally disabled people. That’s why rail does so much better than buses, and why BRT proponents put so much stress on rebranding the system to get away from the “bus” image.

    This is not the case in New York City. The main marketing difficulty that buses have here is that they’re thought of as slow. This is because they are slow, and rebranding isn’t going to change anyone’s opinions of that.

    I’m not against “BRT” improvements as Quality Bus implementations, but I do have a problem with “BRT” being used to shut people up when they try to talk about building rail. Agitating for rail is not incompatible with a consensus for “BRT,” unless the consensus is that “BRT” is the only option.

    I’m a big supporter of PlaNYC, especially the bus improvements, but I’m disappointed that the only new rail stations in the five boroughs are the new Metro-North stations in the Bronx, the Sunnyside, Elmhurst and Corona LIRR stations, and the Second Avenue Subway.

    There are several neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens that have no rail service, and I’d like to see them served by rail. I’m sorry, John, but I don’t appreciate being told “Well, BRT is kinda sorta like rail.” It’s not enough like rail unless it has a dedicated, separated guideway, and at that point it’s no cheaper than rail.

    If you want to exile all light-rail proponents to the margins where nobody takes us seriously, you’re welcome to try. But I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable in saying, “Thanks for the bus improvements. What else you got?”

  • As it happens, I’m in Bogota, Colombia right now looking at the Trans Milenio Bus Rapid Transit system with Clarence of Streetfilms and Karla Quintero of T.A. translating Spanish. We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks but suffice it to say the bus system down here is absolutely incredible. It is a first-class, First World transportation system.

  • momos

    Aaron – Looking forward to your updates. Please can you pay special attention to the actual vehicles Trans Milenio uses? Ie manufacturer, model number, and interior configuration (low floor, large windows, cloth/vinyl seats, etc).

    These sound like obsessive details. But anyone who’s ridden buses in Europe will tell you that the difference with city buses in the US is night and day. In Paris or Berlin they’re invariably sleek Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Renault, MAN or Scania models with the latest low-floor designs, quiet engines, smooth drive trains and bright, attractive interiors.

    Why does this matter? Because it dignifies the commute of hard-working people who deserve a comfortable trip home and makes buses much more competitive against cars.

    This point was raised with DOT Commish JSK in the Times City Room Q&A, and she insisted that NYC buses are top-notch.

    Ironically, NYC probably uses old clunkers for political reasons. New Yorkers by and large don’t know about the leaps in bus technology made elsewhere in the world, while there’s probably a clause in some MTA contract stipulating that it must buy vehicles assembled in NY state. Only Orion bus company has a plant here, giving that company a virtual monopoly on MTA bus contracts.

  • also

    Also please note if they wheeze and snort, and have brakes that split your ears.

  • momos

    Are you making fun of me “also”? 🙂

  • “also”

    Not at all! I wanted Aaron to capture the bus experience from the sidewalk and second floor open windows as well as the passenger experience. They’re both important.

  • The main public objection to buses is bus bunching. This will not be solved by one BRT line per borough. Paris transformed bus travel citywide even before by spacing arrivals and advising riders of the wait times for each route. The GPS and radio communication systems could be put into place across NYC for about $150 million in 3-4 years.
    London had a similar system, “Countdown,” with different technology years before congestion pricing. Don’t forget London also slashed bus fares to equivalent of $1 (big difference with current $20). London subways had been losing riders due to huge construction disruptions.

  • jmc

    Momos- I noticed in some early documentation for either the BRT or CP that there was a “buy america” waiver for at least some of the new buses. This might mean that they will try out a non-US bus type on the BRT lines.

    I encourage you to take a ride on the new express buses, they are quite dignified (though different than what you usually find in Europe). Padded seats make a big difference for my bony derriere!

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I second that, JMC, and not just for the express buses. Momos, have you ridden the bus lately? Just about every line has a significant number of brand-new, quiet, hybrid, low-floor buses.

    Here in Queens, a large chunk of the aging ex-DOT bus fleet has been replaced by these low-floor hybrids. I rode one just yesterday; they’re very convenient and comfortable.


Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission Opens for Business

Westchester Assembly member Richard Brodsky on Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal: "My problem is that I don’t understand what you’ve proposed." "This is going to be interesting," Straphangers Campaign Senior Staff Attorney Gene Russianoff said as he waited for the start of yesterday’s inaugural Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission meeting. "Usually with these things, the fix […]

Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 3

Rohit Aggarwala, New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, sat down to answer some of the more frequently asked questions about Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a three-year congestion pricing pilot program. Below is the third part of our four part interview. Here is Part 1 and Part 2. Aaron Naparstek: Mayor Bloomberg’s plan […]

Pricing Hearing: Sadik-Khan and Aggarwala Explain the Details

Yesterday morning’s hearing at City Hall, which garnered much press today, gave Janette Sadik-Khan and Rohit Aggarwala the chance to clarify a number of misconceptions about congestion pricing in front of a sizable contingent of City Council members. As expected, one of the first points to come up was whether drivers from New Jersey will […]

First Impressions of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC Testimony…

Did you watch Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing testimony before the New York State legislature? If so, what did you think? Here is the initial impression of John Kaehny, former executive director of Transportation Alternatives:  Mayor Bloomberg’s advocacy for congestion pricing and public transit to a State assembly panel was the most amazing thing I have […]

112,000 Less Cars

Here are more points from Friday’s PlaNYC Hearing:  Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff estimated congestion pricing would remove 112,000 cars from city streets on a daily basis, with 94,000 would-be drivers switching to transit, in what he said would be "Probably the single greatest mode shift anywhere." DOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Schaller said that whatever edge […]

From a Sea of Green, Bloomberg Works a Tough Room

Flanked by dozens, if not hundreds, of citizen spectators in bright green "I Breathe and I Vote" t-shirts, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city staffers this morning made the case for a three-year congestion pricing pilot program to a largely hostile cadre of state Assembly members. Seated alongside ten colleagues in the auditorium of the New […]