Queens Pricing Opponent Is Right: $8 Is Crazy

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 involuntarily
to a slowing of traffic. The time that each individual steals from all
the other drivers by slowing them down is greater than the time he or
she 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.

  • Hilary

    Jeffrey Dinowitz says he is certain that CP will increase traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway, as the offset will remove the disincentive to use the free alternatives, like the Broadway Bridge. He disagrees with my contention that most traffic on the parkway is bound for the CBD and thus will be responsive enough to the additional fee for CP to reduce overall traffic. We do agree that communities like Riverdale that host highways should be protected from their impacts. It is baffling why the city will not take advantage of the opportunity to use scenic byway status to garner new federal funding to do this. Riverdale has generally been spurned by this city administration.

  • Larry Littlefield


    So a representative from affluent Riverdale, who probably also represents working class Kingsbridge, is objecting to the fact that CP will eliminate an incetive for through traffic to get off a limited access highway, drive on local streets in less affluent neighborhoods, and then return to that highway.

    Is he out of his mind?

    The number one benefit CP would provide for the outer boroughs is the removal of an incentive for people to go out of their way to free bridges rather than take the closet ones –to the benefit of Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and perhaps Kingsbridge.

    Can someone please make Riverdale part of Westchester and get it over with, so Bronx pols can be forced to live in the Bronx (or on politican row in Pelham).

  • Jan

    Doesn’t the same principle then apply to mass transit that each person on the subway causes a delay to those behind him, hundreds if not thousands, and then shouldn’t mass transit cost a lot more?

    Comrie raises a valid point.

  • Mr. Region 11

    “It is baffling why the city will not take advantage of the opportunity to use scenic byway status to garner new federal funding to do this”

    The Henry Hudson Parkway is a state-owned highway. Not the city’s job.

  • Dufus

    Poor downtrodden Riverdale!

  • gecko

    Expanding on Charles Komanoff’s great idea and Queensboro example there might be significant impact on congestion having realtime signs based on his calculations and suitably placed automatic counters for all entering vehicles something to the effect:

    “Your vehicle will slowdown the 600 vehicles behind you by 6 seconds equivalent to 3,600 total delay seconds and 1.0 hours of lost time.”

    This way people will see their direct effect on current traffic and hopefully act accordingly.

  • I don’t think so Jan. Mass transit tends to avoid the kinds of queues that plague personal auto traffic, because it moves thousands of people at a time without one causing delay to another. Only on fully packed lines do you start to see that it’s-me-or-you logic, and that’s also where everything starts to fall apart. People hold doors and trains run much more slowly than they should. We could fine door holders and door standers $40, but I’ll trot out my hypothesis that accurate, automated arrival information for the next train at a platform would alleviate the problem mostly humanely.

  • Spud Spudly

    More likely gecko is that they’ll think about the 600 vehicles in front of them and think they’re being delayed by an hour themselves.

  • fdr

    Charley, I dare you to go public that the fee should be $40. That will be the end of CP forever. LA Times today has an article on Ken Livingstone’s latest plan to raise the fee in London on high polluting vehicles to $50.

  • gecko

    Estimated excess 1000s of pounds of CO2 could also be included.

  • Hey fdr, isn’t S’blog “public”?

    And in January, I led the Kheel team in publicizing the idea of a $16 toll (charged 24-7, not 12-5) bankrolling free buses and subways. So, been there, doomed that.

    But I love the idea that my going public with *anything* pertaining to congestion pricing could be the end of it. That power ain’t available to me.

    Seriously … if any S’bloggers want to look at my numbers (which I *would* love), download the BTA spreadsheet from the Kheel link in my post, go to the Summary tab, navigate to Policy Choices (row 15), and input these values in the blue column: #1 (cordon fee), $2.07; #3 (truck fee multiple), 1.75; the number zero for #4, #5 and #6; the number 100% for #7 and #8. This should result in Cell K32 outputting as “(10,000)”, denoting 10,000 more daily car trips. Now go to the cost-Benefit tab. Cells H71 and H91 should each output as negative $70 million, denoting $140 million in increased time costs due to the 10,000 additional car trips. Voila!

  • Spud Spudly

    I was thinking that as well fdr. Normally you wait until the sucker signs on the dotted line before you drop the other shoe (or whatever mixed metaphors are appropriate to say that Charles is speaking too soon for his own good).

  • gecko

    Better yet, present a proposal to the likes of Google, IBM, Microsoft, etc. for local monitoring systems and realtime spreadsheets displayed globally detailing the amount of CO2 wasteful transportation practices continuously dump into our air.

  • Gecko — before you go out any further on the CO2 angle, consider that the CO2-reduction benefits of c.p. are outweighed 100-fold by the time-saving benefits to drivers. No exaggeration. See Kheel Plan report, pp 30-31. It’s not that the climate benefit is puny, it’s that the time-saving benefit is humongous. As James CARville (love that name!) might have said, “It’s not the tailpipes, stupid, it’s the gridlock.”

  • gecko

    Charles, Not sure I understand. Just seems that if the time savings are 100-fold so is the CO2 emissions benefit 100-fold which some may perceive as a moral issue.

    Further, in many instances time savings directly translates not only to dollars but also emissions such as for taxi drivers and truck drivers.

  • Gecko — glad to explicate.

    In the Kheel Plan report, we “monetized” (put a dollar value on) all of the main categories of benefits from reduced traffic: less carbon pollution, less air pollution, less noise pollution, less time stuck in traffic, fewer crashes, more physical activity (bike/walk). By our calculus, the time savings came to $3.9 billion a year, while the carbon reductions were “worth” only $40 million — there’s my 100-to-1.

    The Commission’s plan would show different numbers, but it’s highly likely that the *ratios* would be similar.

    It’s true that “judgment” entered into the calculus — judgment about the value of time, the value of carbon reductions, etc. etc. Our assumptions are summarized in the report and are laid out in edifying/stultifying detail in the BTA spreadsheet (Cost-Benefit tab). Take a look!

  • Larry,

    I brought up that exact issue with Dinowitz last year and he got offended at the suggestion that this is a class issue.

    As long as affluent Riverdale drivers want to drive through working class Kingsbridge to take the free bridge into Manhattan, no problem. But once CP kicks in and the Henry Hudson toll is no longer a disincentive, more people will drive through Riverdale instead of going through Kingsbridge.

    Something about correcting an unjust situation (wealthy people using the free bridge further away instead of paying to use the local tolled bridge) to improve the quality of life for the working class really ticked him off.

  • gecko

    Yes, and the dollar value of the services provided by the Earth’s natural systems has been calculated to be $30 trillion an absurdly low number since these services are crucial to life.

    In any case, I don’t think if we were talking about congestion pricing for bicycles and electric bikes the discussion would go very far unless the riders continuously eat massive amounts of onions, garlic, and beans.

    Probably, most importantly, congestion pricing is a great example of how quality of life can be greatly improved while reducing emissions and a key strategy for mitigating a daunting crisis.

    That the quality of life improvement is many times greater than the emissions benefit makes it all the more important in disrupting wasteful business as usual practices much for the better.

  • Hilary

    Mr. Region 11 says,”The Henry Hudson Parkway is a state-owned highway. Not the city’s job.”

    The parkway is co-owned by NYC Parks and NYS DOT, but maintained by City DOT. The pedestrian and vehicular streets are owned by City DOT. (For people interested in the complex jurisdiction of parkways, see the study by Sam Schartz posted on http://www.riverdalenature.org). The Scenic Byway program is part of State DOT, but Comall agencies with jurisdiction must cooperate on a corridor management plan in order to make the nomination. All of the parties were on board, NYMTC had secured the funding, and then halfway through the process, the wall collapsed and City DOT called for a halt. The ball is in City DOT’s court, and, as I said earlier, it is baffling why they would decline the opportunity to a) take advantage of a new source of federal funding for landscaping and greenways, b) gain a cooperative partner in the state, c) secure the only real tool for controlling billboards, and d) nurture a private partnership like the Central Park Conservancy (or Bronx River Parkway Conservancy, Merritt Parkway Conservancy.)

    All of the city council members in the parkway corridor (Brewer, Dickens, Jackson, Koppell) supported congestion pricing. The state representatives are wobbly.

    Come on, DOT, throw them a bone! Show them that the main arterial through their parks and neighborhoods will not only be less congested, but more scenic and with the most beautiful greenway in the city, leading all the way up to Albany!

  • It’s not really a greenway if its full of automobiles.

  • Hilary

    Konrad said, “It’s not really a greenway if its full of automobiles.”
    The parkways include the parks they run through. They are not the curb-to-curb roadside. They include many greenways already (Hudson River Greenway and Shore Parkway for starters) and can host many more of the long-distance, separated, limited-access routes that would make New York as bike-commutable as, say, Washington, D.C. If you’re saying they include too many automobiles, you’re absolutely right. That’s why we want to tilt back the balance.

  • Hilary

    And to return to Dinowitz. He may be right that the toll offset will draw traffic from the free Broadway Bridge to the Henry Hudson Bridge — but I still support CP because I also know that the goal has to be to reduce OVERALL traffic. Redistributing the incentives can solve local bottlenecks, but that’s still thinking in terms of moving vehicles. Likewise, opening the parkways to trucks just expands the capacity for them (and degrades a resource with far greater potential for alternative transportation) while doing nothing to reduce them. It is, therefore, a shrunken vision, and not worthy of either Transportation Alternatives or the current DOT, in which we invest much hope for reshaping New York’s future.

  • Christopher Crowe

    “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.”

    Am I the only one who thinks that it’s COMPLETELY INSANE to drive through Manhattan if you’re on your way somewhere else? I mean, it’s only one of the most densely inhabited, most congested plots of land on the planet. It’s definitely a destination and not a thruway. My advice: find an alternate route. And if it’s still worth it to you to plow on through the heart of the city, pay your fair share for the privilege.


Photo: Rebecca Bailin/Riders Alliance

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