Kheel Planners Detail Free Transit Proposal

Yesterday, Theodore "Ted" Kheel’s traffic plan was officially unveiled with a 52-page report (pdf) outlining his proposal to make transit free via a round-the-clock $16 congestion charge for cars ($32 for trucks) entering Manhattan below 60th Street. The report says Kheel’s "Bolder Plan" would cut CBD traffic by 25 percent, and traffic citywide by nearly 10 percent, all while increasing mass transit funding and decreasing the number of overcrowded trains and buses.

Skeptical? So was lead author Charles Komanoff, he says, until he delved into the data. Not only do the numbers add up, Komanoff writes, the Kheel plan offers an irresistible political hook:

Don Shoup wrote recently that the dilemma confronting congestion pricing is not that opposition is too high, but that support is too low. Free transit resolves this dilemma by offering as tangible a benefit as one can imagine. As I said last week to a legislator from Central Brooklyn who has lined up against the mayor’s congestion pricing plan, "Are you really going to tell your constituents that you walked away from a plan that would let them ride the trains and buses for free?" I wish you’d seen his double-take, followed by: "Um, okay, what’s this Kheel Plan again, and how exactly is it going to work?"

A highlight of the Kheel plan is the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, an interactive spreadsheet that lets users compare the different congestion pricing proposals (download it here). "Unlike the opaque ‘black box’ models used throughout the Transportation-Industrial Complex," writes Komanoff, "the BTA reveals its hundreds of underlying assumptions and their interrelationships. It is a true citizen’s tool."

Whether this is all too much, too late, considering the Congestion Mitigation Commission’s January 31 deadline, and whether or not it’s conceivable that the city and all affected bureaucracies would tolerate such a tectonic shift regardless of potential upsides, by leading with the carrot of free transit and following with the stick of congestion pricing, the Kheel planners have shown how Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal could have been promoted from day one. On the other hand, it also makes one wonder what might have been if they had brought that approach to the mayor’s plan, and pushed along with everyone else.

  • Spud Spudly

    They really want to charge someone $16 for driving into lower Manhattan at 4:30 AM on a Sunday morning? Doesn’t that seem a bit odd to some people?

  • Ed

    My gut reaction to free subways is that they would become less safe. The steel turnstiles insure that the people in the subway have paid a small fee to be there, and therefore they probably have some transportation purpose – not just people entering and exiting willy-nilly. Is that a stupid fear or does anyone else agree?

  • In the SF Bay Area, they made transit free during “spare the air days” when there was bad air pollution. People complained about joy-riding teenagers who took transit just because the trip was free, and who were rowdy and bothered everyone else.

  • anon

    Read the plan- he addresses both #1 and #2.

    #2- he sees less need for above ground traffic policing that could be redirected to the subways.

    #1- he makes an alternate proposal that provides an off-peak discount but this results in only a 75% discount for subways (but still 100% discount for buses) and slightly less of a reduction in VMT. That’s the plan I would prefer. And it also addresses #2’s concern perhaps by forcing subway riders to pay 50 cents.

    I love the impact of free buses at speeding the boarding process. Let’s do it!

  • Spud: Point taken. See the report, Table 2 (inter alia).

    Ed: Point taken. See Q&A section of report, p. 14, “With the subways free, how will you combat vandalism …?”

    Brad + S’blog staff: Thanks for terrific story. No one gets to the essence of policy like Streetsblog. But your ending puzzles me. Everyone involved in the Kheel report has backed the mayor’s plan — in public op-eds, in private discussions, etc. We sang hosannas to Bloomberg at our rollout yesterday. But as you yourself concede, the plan’s benefits are thin. Are you suggesting we could have remedied that? How, other than crafting the Kheel Plan?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Is that a stupid fear or does anyone else agree?)

    No, I agree. Moreover, without revenues, there will be no evidence of the importance of the service, and there will nothing to lose by letting the service decline.

    Transit would be better off if it covered 100% of its costs rather than zero.

  • SM

    Most ‘rowdy teenagers’ in the city already have Metrocards provided by the NYC public schools.

  • lee

    do those cards work 24/7/365?

  • The real selling problem from the beginning with the Mayor’s plan was that all the revenue went to capital projects – future benefits to future mass transit riders. And all the pain would be from current motorists.

    While I agree with the Mayor that the capital budget is important to fund, building political support is dependent on the operating budget which includes current service and fares. Linking CP to the base fare would be the best winning political argument.

  • da

    The NYC student passes provide 3 free rides per schoolday.

    The idea is to provide transportation to school, to one after-school event each day, and then home after that.

    The passes don’t work on weekends and don’t work after 9pm on weeknights.

  • 60%

    “But as you yourself concede, the plan’s benefits are thin.” Bullshit. The planned congestion pricing pays for tons of new transit and has huge traffic reduction benefits.

  • Hilary

    To me, the weakness of the sales job has been in helping us envision the glory of a city with less traffic. Reducing “congestion” can mean simply increasing the speed that traffic moves through the city. As a resident of the CBD, I am plagued more by speeding traffic, the noise it generates, and the diminished public spaces. The descriptions of the benefits of CP are of a driver’s paradise – sailing through the heart of Manhattan. I would sell it as a new paradise for residents and visitors who will enjoy a quieter, cleaner city, with beautiful new public spaces, a city where one can hop modern transit to get from the end of one borough to another.
    Perhaps this can best be demonstrated one neighborhood at a time. What if one subway station was liberated a la Kheel, revitalized as a commercial hub, Gehl’s recommendations installed on the surrounding streets? The neighborhood would take off, just like artist loft districts ignited SOHO and spread from there. Most New Yorkers have never lived anywhere else – or anywhere with state-of-the-art transit and great street life. Creating a tangible model here may be the only way to overcome our collective failure to imagine New York as it could be.

  • anonymous

    I still don’t think the Kheel plan is a good idea. And I want to call him out on a flawed assumption too: I don’t think that decreasing the subway fare would do very much to encourage drivers to switch. Driving to Manhattan for work is already horrendously expensive, and price is clearly not the issue. Plus, changing the subway price does exactly nothing for those coming from outside NYC or even from outer queens via the LIRR.

    Of course, this overlooks the biggest, most glaring problem with all this: the transit system becoming dependent on car drivers going to Manhattan, which can lead to some unwanted consequences down the line, especially if other factors, like rising oil prices or gas taxes cause driving to become less attractive.

  • Louis

    Anonymous, it’s not the free subways, it’s the 16 dollar fee to cars. It’s not the carrot, it’s the stick. If the subway becomes reliant on cars, we can always just un-rely that with other money later. No plan we devise today can work unflawed for the next 200 years. But this would work for a long while.

    Larry, you are dead wrong. The farebox revenue as importance of transit argument is the most ridiculous ideas of transportation planning. To make things perfectly clear, no transit works on farebox revenue. Zilch. No system even comes close. It’s impossible. Heck, airlines can’t do this. No city runs transit for profit or even to break even, and no citizen believes that. Transit is and always has been a way to develop dense cities, making cities operate efficiently. Essentially, the city profits because transit makes the city sellable to business, ripe for development.

    As you know, private transit of yore was funded by real estate developers. They used the transit to reach undevelopped swaths of land and sell those lots. But that transit, even with a captive customer base, never turned a “profit.”

  • Louis

    What the Kheel plan does not mention strongly enough, is that the plan would change many vehicles from single-occupancy to 2, 3, and 4 person carpools. 16 dollars is actually perfectly affordable for a 3 or 4 person carpool. Then, the price drops to $4 to $5.50 per person. The price is really only ridiculous for cars with one person. People are pretty smart, they’ll organize. I’m not saying the price is too low. I’m saying the hardships are certainly exaggerated.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Sorry I can’t agree. And I say that as someone who has spent years studying comparative state, local and federal budgets –from a philosophical as well as moral perspective.

    What I see is a constant clamour to get more out, and put less in, to the common pie. To make someone else pay. And the argument is always the same — we are the deserving people, others are the undeserving people. That is not an argument I want made on my behalf.

    If the subway were free, then the subway riders would be on “welfare.” Scream all you want, but that is what people who do not use the subway would believe. And then questions would begin “why do you need this, why do you need that?” After all, we’re paying for our transportation and you aren’t paying for yours. Beggers can’t be choosers. And would continue — right to the 1970s.

    Instead of having the MTA decide how important mass transit is, or transit riders decide how important mass transit is, you’d have people in Upstate New York deciding how important mass transit is. And their view would be “what about my needs”?

    I would much rather say that the subway covers itself on an auto-equivalent basis (I’ve defined this elsewhere so I won’t bore you) and that the remaining transfers from motor vehicles and the general till are a fair “rent” payment to transit riders for giving up their share of scarce space on the street.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (As you know, private transit of yore was funded by real estate developers. They used the transit to reach undevelopped swaths of land and sell those lots. But that transit, even with a captive customer base, never turned a “profit.”)

    Well, here it goes. The transit system built under the dual contracts was primarily financed by the city, which paid for the infrastructure, just as it pays for the roads. There was an expectation that after making a “guaranteed profit” the transit companies would be able to pay the city’s infrastructure bonds, but that never really happened.

    The transit companies paid for the equipment (subway cars) and operations. The deal might have worked, expect the fare was frozen at five cents, which was devalued by WWI-era inflation. The transit companies stopped funding their share of the capital cost (ie. upgrading and replacing the subway cars) and eventually went bankrupt, leaving a degraded. Then the fare was raised.

    That’s been the cycle.

  • Christine Berthet

    Do we think free internet is a good idea??
    ok then … free transport of brains is a good idea .. you have to suffer slow speed and advertisement but it’s free!

    real estate developpers taxes shoudl be paying for transpoartion investments. without insane real estate prices , people could live close to where they work

  • Christine Berthet

    oh and by the way, the tolls will get to $16 no matter if the mass transportation is free or not .. so we might as well set the precedent

  • anonymous

    You’ve all seen the trouble that it takes to get the subway fare raised by a few percent. Now imagine what it would be like in the future if they wanted to raise the subway fare by a factor of infinity, from zero back to any non-zero fare. Heck, just look at how much trouble it’s been getting congestion pricing passed.

    I think transit shouldn’t be expected to pay for its own construction costs, but it certainly can cover operating costs, assuming that it is run efficiently, and that it doesn’t have unfair competition from free roads built for cars.

  • I think I’m sticking with the City’s Congestion Plan for now. Firstly, $16 may work too well. It’ll get a lot more motorists out of their cars but in turn the transit system will be overburdened and, yeah there will be extra revenue generated but does anybody honestly think the MTA will respond fast enough to alleviate overcrowding on the trains? Improvements will be made but it’ll take some time, it’s not instantaneous. Besides, I don’t think carpooling is the most attractive idea in New York City. However, the DOT could run a trial on stricter HOV restrictions (ie: 3 or 4+ on the Queensboro and Manhattan Brs.)

    Secondly, free subway? Thanks, but no thanks. The fare is a, yes revenue for the MTA, but it’s an implict form of security, it represents that the subway is primarily for travel and not for people out of the street to treat it like a shopping mall or something. And I agree with the latest blogger, the MTA shouldnt be responsible for it’s own construction costs but the cost estimates rise and the MTA has to dish from its own pocket. The City’s CP plan will generate revenue and aid the MTA is doing it’s projects or other mass trans. improvements, like maybe adding light rails. I think that’s it for now.

  • Add the governor of Illinois to the list of free transit advocates. And the Kheel plan is getting attention in Chicago.

  • John Morris

    It’s very important to start to even the score with mass transit’s “free” competitor. But, the destructive effects of breaking any link at all between riders and funding is nuts. Will there be any check on bloated costs running out of control. Breaking all links will likely mean that there will be no control on building out lines that cannot fund themselves in terms of ridership. These are the big problems that make the road system a black hole entitlement program.

    As to the myth that one cannot make money running a system–look at Hong Kong. I think they at least come close to breakeven on fair revenue and make a huge bundle as a real estate developer, which is the most logical way to fund the building of new lines.

  • Nine pages in the Kheel report (pp. 6-9, pp. 11-15) are devoted to objections and concerns, including some of those raised above. It would be helpful if people took a look before posting. You can still disagree, but it seems a shame to overlook the time and care we put into this project.

    My talk at the AFNY meeting this Tues. eve (see Calendar, Jan. 29) will be a great time for talking through these issues. We’re going to have the BTA model on a projection screen, so we can tackle quantitative issues. (Example, re Comment #13: a $1.00/gallon gas tax or “market” price hike reduces vehicle entries into the CBD by just 3%, indicating that the revenues in the Kheel Plan are relatively immune to oil “issues.” I’ll derive this result on Tues — takes about 20 seconds.)

  • Louis

    I agree with Charles, in that you should read (all of) the report before posting. Also, I would ask everyone to consider the buses in the free transit scenario, as Charles does so well in the Kheel Report.

    Remember, buses are not potential lounges like posters claim subway stations to be. Everyone must get off the bus at the end of the route, and not many people want to hang around on buses until they end up on the far edge of neighborhoods, nor do they want to get on and get off continuously. Moreover, as Charles indicates several times in the report, fare collection and congestion are the biggest impediments to bus travel times.

  • Zoe

    This is an impressive piece of research by a true visionary. The ideas outlined in your report–of providing free transit along with decisive congestion pricing measures–are really exciting to contemplate, and they sound to me like they could work. I do believe that congestion fees need to be higher than in the mayor’s plan in order to bring effective results, and I think the payoff off free transit makes it a win-win situation. I’ve been having fun sharing and discussing The Kheel Plan with my friends and family. One friend would like to see the plan implemented before the next transit fare hike. Another says that he won’t be able to afford to drive his car from Queens into Manhattan under the plan. So in my little community the response is enthusiatic.

  • anonymous

    Now, you’d think that buses can’t be lounges, but the #22 in Santa Clara proves you wrong. People can and do lounge around in it, albeit at off-peak hours when there aren’t too many other riders to bother them. Now, I’m not saying that this will happen in NYC, or that it should be any sort of argument against free buses, just that it can and does happen. Anyway, another suggestion: why not dedicate congestion pricing revenue to capital funding rather that operations? Buy some shiny new buses, build real dedicated bus lanes, increase streetscape improvements by an order of magnitude, heck, maybe even build some new subway or streetcar lines. And capital expenses have an enduring impact, even if the congestion charge or the motorcar goes away, the new subway lines or streetscape improvements will still be there.

  • jack

    It seems people have issues with making transit completely free, even if the tolling aspect is a good idea. I say, (and I believe this has been proposed in the report), keep the bridge tolling system as Kheel plans it, but instead charge 25-50¢ for bus and subway. That way people will still pay for their transit to keep the psychological link active, but the charge will be small enough to make people still feel like the $16 auto charge is worth the benefits.

  • John Morris

    At sub minimum, one could have a system that would no longer be dependent on state or federal subsidies with the revenues from cars replacing them and the fair box covering the rest.

    In effect, out of town and out of state drivers would carry a big chunk of the load– but the dependence on political whim would be derailed.

    The general concept is valid and I am glad they have put it on the table.

  • John Morris

    The whole thing would also be an act of justice since the bulk of the money, that built the state and federal highway system was taken from people who at that time lived in dense urban areas. (many of whom seemed to think it was a grand plan )

    Let’s call it real, urban renewal.


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