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Congestion Pricing

Queens Pricing Opponent Is Right: $8 Is Crazy

1:20 PM EDT on April 3, 2008

Drivers who take an East River bridge would have to pay the $8 congestion fee when they reach Manhattan, even if they're just passing through on their way to somewhere else. "That's crazy," said City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-Queens), who voted against it Monday. "That's one of the reasons I'm so adamant against the plan. I don't think people understand a lot of the issues around this." -- New York Daily News

Comrie is right -- $8 to drive into mid-Manhattan is nuts. The fee should be at least $40.

To see why, picture traffic as seen from Chopper 880. A car entering a crowded bridge like the Queensboro causes delays to hundreds of cars behind it; each individual car is delayed only briefly, but summed across the herd, it adds up.

I take my car across the Queensboro and thus cause, say, six seconds of slowdown for each of 600 cars behind me. That's 3,600 total delay seconds -- an hour of lost time. Some of those 600 I've held up are commuters, some are using their cars as part of their work, some are truckers making deliveries. So that hour is easily worth forty bucks or more.

In fact it's quite hard to say how many cars each drivers slows down, and by how much. But we do know the relationship between traffic volume and overall traffic speeds. That relationship is incorporated in the Balanced Transportation Analyzer (BTA) software I created recently to analyze Ted Kheel's free-transit plan. I used the BTA to estimate the effect of 10,000 more cars driven every weekday into the congestion zone.

The result was an increase in time costs to other drivers of $140 million a year, or $400,000 a day. Divide by 10,000 - the number of new car trips in the model -- and you get forty bucks apiece. That's the cost each new car trips imposes on others, so that's what each driver should pay -- at least! (Air pollution, crash risks, noise and nuisance are extra.) While the proposed $8 charge doesn't go nearly that far, it's a start.

Of late, the argument over congestion pricing has mostly been about asthma, global warming, transit lockboxes and such. While these are important, we need to remember there's a fundamental question of fairness involved. In general, people need to pay for the costs they impose on others. Among the costs I impose by driving across the Queensboro is $40 worth of lost time to my fellow drivers.

All those seconds ticking away in gridlock add up to minutes, which become hours, and days. If Councilman Comrie wishes to spend a good chunk of his time on earth stuck in traffic, that's his choice. But it's not his right to impose delays on other drivers without paying for at least some of their delay cost (and vice versa).

The German historian of the motorcar, Wolfgang Sachs, probably said it best two decades ago:

Above a certain traffic density, every driver contributes involuntarilyto a slowing of traffic. The time that each individual steals from allthe other drivers by slowing them down is greater than the time he orshe might have hoped to gain by taking the car. 

Congestion pricing turns this "stealing of time" into a fair exchange and reduces it too. It's time.

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