Inom Tullarna: The Ancient Roots of Congestion Pricing

If you’re a New York City transportation policy geek but you’ve had enough of congestion pricing realpolitik and can’t bear to sit through another Kathy Wylde vs. Walter McCaffrey slugfest, Monday evening’s New School panel may be just the ticket. Equal Tolls, Unequal Access? Congestion Pricing and Its Historical Antecedents brings together an unusual group of academic experts and urban design practitioners to examine urban boundary-making through the ages. New School professor Gustav Peebles has written the following article for Streetsblog:

halmstad_700_28.jpg

The North Gate, Halmstad, Sweden. The world’s first congestion pricing technology?

At first blush, the idea that a specific perimeter of an American city could be regulated and taxed strikes all of us as a highly impressive technological innovation. Surely, such regulation can only be the result of massive leaps in computing and communications technology.

In actuality, however, city perimeters have been successfully regulated and taxed since, well, arguably since the dawn of cities themselves. Long ago, the famous sociologist Max Weber noted that cities were often convergences of fortresses and markets (as the name "Wall Street" emphatically suggests); the towers that marked the city gates were not only used to keep invaders out, but also to regulate the flow of goods, workers, and travelers into the city’s core.

Indeed, seen from the grand scope of history, it could be argued that the fluid urban boundaries to which today’s global citizens have become accustomed represents the true novelty. With the advent of congestion pricing, perhaps we are merely reverting to an ancient form of urban regulation. Though the philosophies underpinning the old and new tolls may be widely divergent, the practice of tolling traffic is as old as the hills.

Merchants and migrants had to pass through these toll towers in countless cities across the world. Any tourist in Europe has probably seen at least one, if not dozens, but this is not merely some European tradition; such delineations of urban centers can be found all over the world. The inner core of Stockholm is still known, to this day, as the space "inom tullarna," that is, the space delineated by the old tollgates. Not surprisingly, some Swedish bloggers, and the Swedish Wikipedia, have already suggested a potential link between the historical city tolls and Stockholm’s new congestion pricing (unfortunately, they do so in Swedish).


At these old tollgates, goods were taxed on their way into the market, and suspect vagabonds and "peddlers" were questioned and inspected. If they passed muster, they might be lucky enough to get in, but many cities across Europe issued "Beggars’ Passes" that attempted to demarcate "native" beggars from foreign ones. In Scandinavia, presaging its latter-day spirit, the hometown beggars often even unionized, in an effort to create a sort of begging monopoly to keep out non-local beggars. The toll towers enforced these and other sorts of regulations of goods and people.

But the point is not to claim that congestion pricing is a simple reincarnation of all this.

Rather, the point is to consider what the old system of city-tolling-and its near universal banishment in the "modern era"-might be able to tell us prior to our embarkation on the novel path of congestion pricing. Through centuries of experience, the world has learned a great deal about this regulatory tactic and its implications. For example, the tolls upon goods often forced certain merchants to create surreptitious markets "outside the tolls," where illicit trade could take place. What trades might be similarly "banished" outside of Manhattan by congestion tolls, and where will these trades land?
Looking at congestion pricing from this historical perspective, shouldn’t we ensure that Manhattan doesn’t successfully export all of the car-centric industries and stores that its residents find displeasing to the outer boroughs?"

And why did so many tolls disappear? It had a great deal to do with growing state power over and against the relatively independent cities (and even city-states, another old tradition that New Yorkers may want to re-visit as Washington and Albany continue their two-party stalemates…). But the rhetorical justification for this fiscal grab by states (because the tolling often just moved to the national borders and away from the city borders) was that its duty was to create one giant marketplace where producers and consumers could meet as equals, whether in Hamburg or Bavaria, London or Yorkshire; similarly, citizens of the nation shouldn’t have to be scrutinized and get a visitor’s pass just to enter into a city for the day. In other words, a spirit of egalitarianism helped to sweep away the old tolls, now marked as remnants of a bygone era.

As a proponent of congestion pricing, I personally believe that it will restore a good deal of egalitarianism that was lost during the age of the automobile. But, nonetheless, it may require us to reconsider precisely what we mean by "equality." Who should regulate "equality of access," and how will we determine what forms of transport fall within it? Why does, in America, the equality of access to roads trump the equality of access to clean air? When did Americans start thinking that their streets should largely be "free," and that this "freedom" became almost exclusively related to the freedom of cars?

Our panel at The New School
, comprised of historians and urban visionaries, will be exploring precisely these sorts of questions. Not least, we will be asking how we can maintain a spirit of egalitarianism in the face of, in my opinion, a very necessary rebuilding of a very old Wall Street.

 

  • Larry Littlefield

    Let’s be clear on this: not just anyone can drive into Manhattan for free on a weekday. Can you? I certainly can’t, even though I own a car. Even if I take one of the “free” bridges, I’d have to pay an ENORMOUS amount to park. More money that I would even consider spending.

    So we don’t have egalitarian socialism, threatened by capitalism. We have an oligachy, threatened by capitalism.

    The oligarchy is those who currently drive and park for free, and those who (since the city’s current anti-congestion policy is to limit parking) use the a monopoly of the remaining spaces to jack up costs for everyone else. Forcing many, who can’t afford it, into the egalitarian subways the oligarchy would never deign to enter.

    Can Lew Fidler drive to Manhattan and park for free? Can Richard Brodsky? Can Anthony Weiner? How about Walter McCaffrey? In the latter case you wouldn’t expect it, but given the “courtesies” extended by one member of the oligarchy to another, I wouldn’t doubt it.

    Can the police officers and judges whose enforcement is disapparged here, drive to Manhattan and park for free? Given the possible risks to judges and DAs I understand why they should be allowed to drive. But it does put them in the oligachy.

    Opponents are arguing that the executives in their black cars are also an oligarchy, while they are among the peasants, and the executive oligarchy is trying to capture more of the street. They may have a case that those who can afford to pay are also the oligarchy, but so is anyone driving to Manhattan.

    So what is the difference? One part of the oligarchy is willing to do something for the peasants, and the other is not.

  • Hilary

    Interesting analysis, Larry.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    They had one of these in Paris, the Wall of the Farmers-General. By all historical accounts, it was deeply unpopular, so I don’t know how useful it would be to link congestion pricing to something like that. However, it preserved a useful ribbon of land that was used for boulevards after they tore down the wall in 1860, and the #2 and 6 lines of the Metro were built there between 1902 and 1909.

  • Hilary

    And New York’s oldest bridges have their own histories of farmers’ revolts against tolls (Kingsbridge and Macombs Dam).

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    While I really like Larry’s piece as usual I think it distracts from the basic thrust of Aaron’s beautiful little essay here. He is really on to something theoretically that is lost in all the back and forth on the policy details. This is all really part of a longer deeper history concerning urban politics. In the period covered by Aaron, cities were the centers of the political world. Even when they weren’t Athens or Rome they were still city-states, the predominant form in much of Europe until the last couple centuries when the nation-states developed in the wake of the great empires which were themselves really big amalgamations of city-states.

    America is a frontier settler state. Cities have been castrated politically since our founding by a political structure that favored the settling of the frontier over building vital urban centers. Our prevailing narrative was Jeffersonian. The yeoman farmer provided political cover for the slave owner when our government was created and we marched west killing amerindians and draining swamps.

    I favor congestion pricing and will continue to do what I can to get it passed (fat chance) but it is still an anachronism in American political culture. So is NYC. Just as there is “American exceptionalism” in international politics, there is a “New York exceptionalism” in American politics. This is the only city in the US where CP could even be suggested.

    Two cheers for the enclosure movement.

  • Dave H.

    “De till miljöavgifter nödtorftigt kamouflerade nya tullskatterna är ett riktigt allvarligt steg tillbaka i utvecklingen.”

    Yes, they link it to the old city-toll, but not in a very favorable light!!

    Translation: “The new, poorly-camoflaged-as-an-environmental-fee entrance-tax is a a serious step backwards in development.”

    I think your article is a very interesting one, though.

  • Gustav Peebles

    Gotta love NYC. WIthin 12 hours someone is translating obscure Nordic tongues. Would that my link had been in Icelandic….

    It’s in my academic spirit to give credit where credit is due. The Wikipedia link, which was lost during the editing process (for technical reasons, I believe), was completely neutral in pointing out potential similarities. I’ve been trained for years to give footnotes so as not to present an idea as “mine” when it’s not, and that’s how I tend to think of hyperlinks (perhaps mistakenly; are links “endorsements”? I don’t know enough about netiquette yet, and this was my first ever blog entry, and I thank Aaron for letting me make it).

    This blogger, as Dave H points out, is indeed anti CP. He is a knee-jerk free market guy who doesn’t grasp that people aren’t the same thing as cars. That’s the funniest thing about many anti CP’ers: They literally think of cars as extensions of the human body, and then they think the state is regulating THEIR freedom, rather than the freedom of some of the material objects that they own. Saying that the state can’t tax the use of these sorts of things may be a reasonable philosophical position, but it’s not true in practice anywhere on earth. Most of them don’t mind when the state taxes cigarettes and alcohol. What’s with cars? Thankfully, our moderator on Monday, Rachel Heiman, is a specialist in this issue of Americans intertwining their individuality with their automobiles, so that’s one of the things we want to address.

    But anyway, you can point out the potential link with the old tolls and still be FOR them. After all, they were around for ages, so there were obviously people who liked them and thought they were a smart form of regulation. I was only trying to point out that there is a great deal of “empirical data” out there for study about their impact.

  • Dave H.

    Gustav, agreed. I think philosophically speaking, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the state placing fees on travel by car, especially not in New York. Only the most extreme libertarian could hold a different view. Politically speaking, I don’t imagine many New Yorkers are afraid of the city walls coming back up, so I think the analogy to city walls can’t do any harm.

  • Dave H.

    Maybe not walls, though. Walls are used to keep people out (and now I note that your nuanced article never actually suggested promoting the analogy to city walls). I think your point about portraying the debate as about equality of access to clean air vs. equality of access to road space is a good one.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (equality of access to clean air vs. equality of access to road space is a good one.)

    Certainly, as no one has suggesting charging pedestrians and cyclists. But my point is a good one too — there is no equality of access to road space for most potential motorists.

    If EVERYONE could drive and park for free, the CP opponents would soon find the peasants poaching on their royal preserve, and would find there wasn’t enough game to go around. The Mayor should suspend tickets for a few days for parking in reserved on-street areas.

    BTW, according to a survey I saw a while back, the percentage of subway riders (but not bus riders) who have automobiles is the same as the percentage of city residents as a whole.

  • nyc7

    SO UNDER YOUR CP PLAN YOU WILL MAKE BEGGERS FROM THOSE IN THE BRONX, QUEENS AS THEY TRY TO ENTER YOUR “EMERALD HOLY GRAIL OF MANHATTAN”
    IT IS AMASING TO ALL THAT YOU JUST DON’T SEE THE FUNDERMENTAL SELF RIGHTOUGOUS OF YOUR MANHATTAN CENTRIC ELIETISM.

  • Rob

    nyc7 This isn’t about people who are entering Manhattan, its about cars entering the center of the most busiest city in this country. There is a very large difference. Take the fucking train.

  • JF

    Well, NYC7, it’s amazing to me that you just don’t see the fundamental self-righteousness of your own auto-centric elitism.

  • Niccolo,

    I didn’t actually write this essay. It was written by New School professor Gustav Peebles.

    –Aaron

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Hey, but you put it in the computer, thats got to count for something.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Let me repeat what I said and expand on it.

    Not just anyone can drive into Manhattan for free on a weekday. Can you? I certainly can’t, even though I own a car. Even if I take one of the “free” bridges, I’d have to pay an ENORMOUS amount to park. So we don’t have egalitarian socialism, threatened by capitalism. We have an oligachy, threatened by capitalism.

    The oligarchy is those who currently drive and park for free, a group that in addition to the pols opposing congestion pricing evidently includes Richard Lipsky.

    http://www.nypost.com/seven/12092007/news/columnists/congest_critic_in_fire_storm_516528.htm

  • JF

    The oligarchy is those who currently drive and park for free, a group that in addition to the pols opposing congestion pricing evidently includes Richard Lipsky.

    I bet it also includes most former City Councilmembers, Walter McCaffrey among them. Probably any lobbyist that’s done any favors for a government agency, which would include Corey Bearak. Jim Trent? John DeSio? Anyone else?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (The oligarchy is those who currently drive and park for free, a group that in addition to the pols opposing congestion pricing evidently includes Richard Lipsky. I bet it also includes most former City Councilmembers, Walter McCaffrey among them. Probably any lobbyist that’s done any favors for a government agency, which would include Corey Bearak. Jim Trent? John DeSio? Anyone else?)

    Right, and the proposal to cut down on “parking permit abuse” probably means taking permits away from others so there will be less competition for reserved spaces for them.

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