Bridge and Tunnel Traffic Drop Tied to Toll Increase

The Times reported Saturday that vehicle traffic on Port Authority bridges and tunnels declined by 2.9% in March, in the wake of toll increases that took effect on March 2. In typical bizarre fashion, the Times’ lede asks, “Who needs congestion pricing when plain old toll increases seem to do the job?”

Why not this instead: "Dip in traffic after toll hike shows missed promise of congestion pricing"?

After all, the Hudson River portal accounts for just 18% of CBD-bound auto trips, according to traffic guru Brian Ketcham. So a 3% dip in traffic through that portal yields a measly one-half of one percent dip in total traffic into the Manhattan charging zone.

Message: just raising tolls on already-tolled facilities won’t do much to bust traffic. Who needs congestion pricing? NYC, obviously.

But there’s value in the story nevertheless: the PA datum offers a means to estimate the price-elasticity of car travel into Manhattan, and thus to validate (or not) the congestion pricing plan that didn’t make it, as well as alternatives like the Kheel Plan.

So put your math hats on boys and girls. Here goes.

By my numbers, the estimated average out-of-pocket cost to drive into Manhattan across the Hudson
a few months ago was $28.75. That reflects a $5 toll, $3/gallon gas, and a 70% chance of paying market-rate parking in the CBD.

Now the P.A.’s $2 toll hike and the concurrent 25 cent-a-gallon rise in the price of gas have bumped up that cost by an average of $2.30, or 8.1%.

Voila. An average 8.1% rise in the cost of a drive-in commute has led to a 2.9% drop in travel. That translates to a 36% price-elasticity (since 2.9%/8.1% = 36%).

Okay, that’s a first-cut figure. It doesn’t account for the possibility that the worsening economy has damped down traffic, though I doubt the incipient recession was a big factor. But it also doesn’t reflect that some
drivers take awhile to react to tolls, especially when their transactions are via credit card.

In my book, the 36% figure says that car use and traffic volumes are responsive to the price to drive. Not 1-for-1 responsive, but responsive nonetheless. Raise the price to drive — through tolls, gas taxes, parking pricing, whatever — and traffic will diminish.

The numbers also practically scream not to look to gas prices as a traffic solution. (Peak Oilers out there, are you listening?) The recent, latest hike in gas prices was barely a blip in the higher cost to drive and the consequent drop in Hudson River auto crossings.

Conclusion: Road pricing will raise the cost and reduce the frequency of driving into Manhattan faster and more permanently than events in the oil sector.

Photo: brandi666/Flickr 

  • Dave

    Can someone point me to a website that lists all the tolls in NYC and in which direction they are charged? I think rationalizing toll structures could lead to a substantial drop in traffic, especially in Manhattan.

    The difference in price to travel from Long Island to NJ via Staten Island vs via Manhattan is substantial; start with the $10 VNB toll but I don’t know if you need to add a Goethels or Outerbridge toll to that. Using the free ER bridges and the Holland Tunnel of course the charge is zero.

    I have asked Streetsblog to do a study of tolls and the differences in tolls driving toll-shopping, but they didn’t bite.

    Wouldn’t tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges and eliminating one-way tolls go a long way to reducing traffic, especially through the streets of Manhattan on the way to the free Hudson River crossings?

  • Mark

    OK, gas at $3.50/gallon is not having much of an impact. Now let’s try gas at $5 or $10 — along with spot shortages and the rising panic that will cause.

    You might well respond that the affluent will be the last to curtail their driving, and most of the people who drive into Manhattan are affluent. So let’s call this one a standoff for the time being.

  • Car Free Nation

    What the NYTimes article doesn’t mention is that there has probably been an increase in drivers over the East River and other free crossings when there’s a choice. Unfortunately, those drivers go through my neighborhood (and converted CP supporter-Assemblywoman Joan Millman’s as well). It’s only going to get worse, as it seems like one way to fund the MTA that is being discussed (now that CP has failed) is increasing the tolls on MTA bridges. In response, I’m sure the DOT will increase the capacity of local streets in downtown Brooklyn to handle the bridge traffic that stems from toll shopping.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I have asked Streetsblog to do a study of tolls and the differences in tolls driving toll-shopping, but they didn’t bite.

    Dave, they didn’t bite because congestion pricing would have taken care of most of that, and they were focused on congestion pricing.

    Now that congestion pricing is off the table, you may get more support for your efforts – if you’re not so combative about it.

    Here are the web pages concerning tolls:

  • Curious

    10:53 – You cant add capacity to the local streets in Downtown Brooklyn. Well, maybe if you got rid of illegal placards and cut down on double-parking that reduces capacity. But otherwise, there is no feasible way to increase capacity. Demand must be lowered instead.

  • Dave

    Sorry if I sounded combative…just trying to get the conversation started. BTW I think toll-shopping would have been an issue with CP as well.

    I realize that tolls on the ER and HR bridges are a tough political sell, but can’t the argument be made that we subsidize people to drive to Manhattan; driving and most parking is free while taking transit costs $2 per person each way.

    I’ll be happy if we eliminate toll-shopping by putting back two-way tolls at the VNB, spreading to the PA Hudson crossings. One-way tolls were an idea before EZ-Pass; let’s point out the traffic they create and eliminate the disparities.

  • Hilary

    The PA toll data begs another question, though: what is the price that will yield the 7% drop in each portal’s CBD-bound traffic that we’ve agreed is the goal? Is it Mr. Kheel’s $16? More? Less? Whether we have CP or tolls, their prices should be pegged to achieve a traffic objective, not just a revenue one.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Dave, there’s a whole group of influential people in Staten Island who are ready to take up arms against any politician who suggests changing the tolls. You can’t just go up against them without a plan. You need to win them over or otherwise neutralize them and mobilize enough people in favor of whatever changes you’re proposing.

    A similar thing can be said about Brooklyn, Queens and Riverdale, but they’re not quite as numerous or well-organized.

  • NAAT

    “.. The numbers also practically scream not to look to gas prices as a traffic solution…”


    George Bush, the oil companies, and the foreign oil nations would agree with you. But gas taxes are the fairest and most efficient way of charging for the use of the roads. They also encourage less use of fuel which has many benefits.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (What the NYTimes article doesn’t mention is that there has probably been an increase in drivers over the East River and other free crossings when there’s a choice. Unfortunately, those drivers go through my neighborhood (and converted CP supporter-Assemblywoman Joan Millman’s as well)).

    You mean CP opponent, up until the moment after it was dead. One possibility is that MTA, seeking to ward off going broke, will increase tolls again, further increasing the incentive to drive through Downtown Brooklyn instead.

    I’ll say it again, the most important benefit for the outer boroughs of CP would have been an equalization of costs regardless of crossing, and an end to people going out of their way to get something free. Heck, even I do it — my direct route would always be the BBT. I might have stopped in sympathy had CP passed even though I only drive on weekends (not affected by CP), but will not now.

    Perhaps people can stand there with signs saying “Best Route to Free Bridges” and direct people past Ms. Millman’s house.

  • Dave

    I know that Staten Island is in arms about the toll situation and Molinaro would be a tough sell. But the toll rate would not increase it would just be charged in both directions which to an EZ-Pass holder would mean no difference. For those without EZ-Pass, get it.

    And if we couple it with tolls on the currently free bridges it might help spread change throughout all boroughs.

    The goal here is less traffic on local streets in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens headed to the free crossings and more on the highways. Yes a tough sell but the city has to realize it is in everyone’s best interests.

    I can hear the soundbites from Staten Island about more traffic on the Staten Island Expressway; do you think we will hear from the other boroughs about reductions on their local streets?

    We already give Staten Islanders huge discounts on the VNB and a free ferry ride (why that isn’t on Metrocard with a free transfer is beyond me) so I don’t think we owe them anything else.

  • Hilary

    Gas taxes may levy an equitable cost on global emissions, but not on local costs, one of which is emissions. Urban roads (and especially those that are chokepoints like bridges) are far more expensive to build. They are expensive to maintain. They are expensive to police. They incur disproportionate public health costs. A gas tax in no way captures the disparate costs of driving 1/4 mile over the Brooklyn Bridge and say, Wyoming.

  • Charles is making one point about raising the gas tax: that an increase is not likely going to have an impact on driving habits.

    He doesn’t make the flip point (because it’s not necessarily relevant to his analysis in this post): that raising the gas tax is an effective way to raise revenue because it is unlikely to change driving habits (at least at any level that’s politically feasible).

    To say, as Hilary does, that a gas tax won’t capture the cost of infrastructure ignores the fact that any increase captures more or makes more available for alternative transportation.

  • Moser

    Dave, have you been in Alaska for 12 months? Eliminating toll shopping was one of the main points of Bloomberg’s plan. Anyone coming in from any direction pays $8 bucks. Simple.

    It’s one reason the craven fiddling of pols like Millman is so repulsive – her district stood to see huge congestion relief benefits.

  • Dave

    Moser: Have you been on Pluto for a week? CP is dead.

    CP was also limited in that it was only in effect for 60 hours a week and toll-shopping is a 24/7 problem.

    Fixing toll inequities is a better way to end toll-shopping than CP.

  • Clearly, the response to the Port Authority toll hikes is less traffic. Price does matter!

    If a desirable reduction in motor vehuclar travel in the Manhattn Central Business District (CBD) is say 20%, the toll hike is going to have to be a lot more than the Port Authority just put into effect (as well as comparble tolls on other approaches to the CBD).

    The Port Authority intends to invest the funds gained from toll hikes in transit capital improvments, many of which will take years to complete. To gain more widespread support for higher tolls, the transit improvements need to occur sooner, and benefit many more people.

    That is why a “carrot and stick” approach to transport pricing is so important. Charging motorists enough to really reduce traffic and using these revnues to increase transit service and reduce transit fares (all the way to Zero as in the Kheel plan) is the way to go.

    At the same time that the Port Authority it raised PATH fares, and continues to operate infrequent PATH service, particualrly mid-day, evenings and weekends. All stick and no carrot. A really sensible approach, for cross-Hudson River traffic, would be to raise tolls to much higher levels, particularly at times when back-ups make life miserable in Hell’s Kitchen and in Hudson County, and to greatly increase service on NJ Transit, while cutting, not raising fares.

  • Clarence

    I love reading these kinds of stats from the master. I always think I am good at math until I read stuff like this. Thanks Charlie.

  • NAAT

    “The gas tax is an effective way to raise revenue because it is unlikely to change driving habits”

    It is certainly true that the gas tax is an effective and very very cheap way of raising revenue – whatever you are going to spend it on.

    It is not true to say that the gas tax is unlikely to change driving habits.
    Higher fuel prices encourage lower fuel use – (1. not travelling, 2. using another means of transport, 3. sharing, 4. easing off the gas pedal, 5. using a smaller or more efficient vehicle).
    Higher tolls have effects 1, 2 and 3, but not effects 4 and 5. Tolls also encourage drivers to take detours or even go to different destinations – this will involve using less suitable routes and possibly longer journeys with more fuel consumption. Tolls are also VERY expensive to collect and are associated with misuse of funds and waste.

    Tolls are for trolls from the dark ages.

  • J. Mork

    There’s a good summary of the NYC tolling picture here:

  • Louis

    NAAT, The gas tax will only encourage people to drive significantly less if it is significantly high. Right now, gas prices are essentially inelastic. That means that gas tax increases should be significant enough so as to actually cause a disproportionate effect in use. If decreasing driving is really the point.

    This does work fairly pretty effectively on other continents, especially as a fundraiser for transportation projects. You might say that tolling can be equitable, as it usually targets areas with alternatives. But I agree that taxes don’t have the negative affect of shifting economic activity. In fact, gas taxes would move more activity into places that require less gas to access (read: cities).

  • Higher fuel prices encourage lower fuel use – (1. not travelling, 2. using another means of transport, 3. sharing, 4. easing off the gas pedal, 5. using a smaller or more efficient vehicle).
    Higher tolls have effects 1, 2 and 3, but not effects 4 and 5.

    NAAT, different combinations of tolls and taxes can help us get to the following goals to various degrees:

    1. Effective transportation for all (including the poor, disabled, young, old, etc.)
    2. Reducing pollution – and thus global warming, asthma, etc.
    3. Increasing transportation efficiency – and thus keeping our economy going, avoiding resource depletion, avoiding dependence on foreign oil, etc.
    4. Helping people to interact better
    5. Reducing carnage

    The various readers, posters and commenters on this blog each prioritize these goals to different degrees. Some of us, in fact, feel that the focus on pollution and efficiency leads people to solutions like gas taxes that don’t do enough to reduce carnage, provide transportation for all, or build better communities.

    Please don’t assume that everyone has the same priorities that you do.

  • spike

    Its crazy that it is cheaper (free) to drive from queens to manhattan than to take the subway ($4). NYC should put modest tolls ($4) back onto all the now free bridges (which cost a lot to maintain).

    One big problem with the congestion pricing idea was that mass transit is already near capacity. NYC should make a big effort to increase car pooling. A simple way to do this would be to make it much faster to enter the city as a carpool (or a bus) than for a single driver. All they would need to do is to set up carpool only lanes into the tolls. NYC should adopt the two person is a carpool rule used elsewhere in the country rather than cling to its stupid three people carpool rule. Its a lot easier doing a two person car pool so more people would do it. Right now almost every car coming into the city has one person in it. If every car had two people, there would be half the traffic.

    I know this will get a lot of “death to cars” responses, but right now the city is dependent on cars to get a lot of people into and out of the city every day and that can not change overnight.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    One big problem with the congestion pricing idea was that mass transit is already near capacity.

    It isn’t. The problem is that people thought it was:

    The city’s Department of Transportation estimates congestion pricing would dissuade 94,000 current drivers over an entire day, but believes only 7,000 of them will shift to subways and buses at the peak morning rush between 8 and 9 a.m. “Other drivers presumably come from areas where it is more convenient to use commuter rail,” said DOT spokesperson Molly Gordy.

    If half of that 7,000 end up in the subway, they would add just 1 percent to the current morning peak-hour load of 345,000 riders. Roberts noted they would also be spread across the subway’s 22 lines.

    “This is a minimal bump that the system can unequivocally absorb,” he said.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Let me qualify that. The system is near capacity, but not so near that it can’t absorb 7,000 riders – about 2%, or 3-4 riders per train.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Excuse me: 3-4 riders per car.

  • Dave

    I think the whole transit capacity issue is a red herring put out there by those who want the status quo to be able to continue to drive into and park in the CBD for free. Walk to the ends of the train and there is almost always space.

    Given the compactness of the city and the proximity of drivers to the CBD a gasoline tax will have minimal to no effect.

    Tolls are the answer and with new technology the cost to implement new tolls is minimal; we can toll the East and Harlem River bridges for less than implementing CP (fewer entry points).

    Until we change parking policy and eliminate the free parking that 60% of drivers into the CBD receive, we need tolls.

    Speaking of which, Mayor Mike how are we doing on a REAL placard abuse policy? See my other post on how to implement one with the huevos to be effective.

  • Author comments (in reverse order, and selectively … otherwise we’ll be here all day):

    #26 — I agree re minimal gas tax impact. Disagree that transit capacity is a red herring. It’s a real complaint by real people (I’ve done the 3-train wait myself.) Solution is investing in cars, signals, personnel, as outlined in Kheel Report. I agree totally re changing parking policy, for both substantive and political reasons, except that we need both tolls and parking policy. Come to discussion of “where do we go from here” at Auto-Free NY meeting next Tues. Info here.

    #23 — Careful, the passage in which NYCDOT is helpfully quoted doesn’t rebut the fact that much of transit is now operated at/near/above capacity; it simply shows that the c.p. plan wouldn’t have added much to current loads. The existing situation at peak is still unacceptable on too many lines.

    #21 — I like your way of parsing different transpo-reform goals and the tools to achieve each. I published a law review article along these lines back in 1994. It still pertains, give it a look.

    #20 — A careful literature review will dispel your notion that the demand for gasoline is essentially price-inelastic. Start here (Myth #2). Still, the larger point of my post (and Comment #26) stands: “market-driven” gas price hikes, and even gas taxes, won’t reduce congestion-sensitive driving in NYC nearly as fast and effectively as congestion pricing.

    #13 — Road pricing (including c.p.) is a very effective way to raise revenue because the price-elasticity of driving is less than one.

    #12 — The local costs you helpfully cite (road wear, emissions, etc.) all pale next to the time cost of traffic congestion. I stress this to underscore my view that the mayor made a big mistake in straying off the message that his congestion pricing plan would have saved New Yorkers millions of hours of precious time.

    #9 — A glance at the law review article I mention above (re #21) will help you rethink your belief that “gas taxes are the fairest and most efficient way of charging for the use of the roads.” The article explains that gas taxes are the fairest etc. way to charge for the myriad and enormous consequences of oil extraction and combustion (from climate change to military adventurism); whereas road charges are the optimal way to charge for use of roads.

    #7 (a/k/a #12) — Why not download the spreadsheet for the Kheel report (see link in original article or in reply to #26) and derive the toll figure yourself? Tell us what you find.

    #2 — You write, “try gas at $5 or $10 — along with spot shortages and the rising panic that will cause.” Gas at $5 (as opposed to the current $3.50) will add about two bucks to the cost of a typical round-trip into the CBD. That will dissuade some such trips — not a huge amount, but some. Obviously $10 would do much more, but waiting for “the market” (a/k/a Peak Oil) to permanently bring the price to $10 is not only passive, it’s also futile for the time frame most of us care about.

    Finally, a tip of my green eyeshade to John Kaehny, who helpfully pointed out (off-line) that the percentage of cross-Hudson drivers who pay market rate for parking is 40%, not my 70%. Fixing that reduces my calculated price-elasticity to 27-28% from the 36% I mistakenly reported in my article. Thanks John!

  • Bob Lutz

    The rising cost of energy is already raising the cost of living… My local (independent) coffee shop just had to raise prices “due to increases in delivery costs” for example.
    If the goal is to stop commuters from choosing their private vehicles instead of a mass transit option… There needs to be care taken not to negatively effect the overall cost of living through taxing business’ that don’t have a mass-transit option.

  • Bob Lutz

    In today’s NEWS:
    [i]To help people weather the [economic] downturn immediately, McCain was calling for Congress to institute a “gas-tax holiday” by suspending the 18.4 cent federal gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. He also renewed his call for the United States to stop adding to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and thus lessen to some extent the worldwide demand for oil.
    Combined, he said, the two proposals would reduce gas prices, which would have a trickle-down effect and “help to spread relief across the American economy.”[/i]

  • Louis

    Author: Agreed. Of course nothing will change NYC driving patterns like CP.

    Bob Lutz: Time is money. In that sense, tolling is more fair than taxes, because the money spent goes a great deal further to reduce the travel time. This makes deliveries cheaper.

    Also, delivery prices, per se, are a red herring, as is some supposed cost of living idea that does not take into account at least a dozen factors, to begin with.


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