With Congestion Pricing, Saving Time Trumps Reducing Pollution


A prime target of the early environmental movement was car tailpipes. And for good reason. Put a human in a garage with a running auto in the old days, and he or she would pass out within minutes and be dead in an hour. Run a few million vehicles daily in New York or Los Angeles, and the toxic air would kill thousands each year and sicken many more.

But as the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Cars now on the road are 30 to 50 times less polluting than in 1970. True, there are more cars being driven more miles, but even with a tripling of VMT (vehicle miles traveled), U.S. passenger vehicles today are probably putting out only a tenth as much air pollution as they did on the first Earth Day. Even trucks and buses are getting cleaned up. Thanks to advocates like NRDC attorney (and local transportation advocate) Rich Kassel, diesel fuels and engines are in a decade-long transition from dirty to clean. (Stood behind a soot-belching NYC Transit bus lately? Me neither.)

Old notions die hard, however. Witness the asthma mantra before and during the unsuccessful 2007-08 campaign for Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. And just last week, the New York Times picked up the same cudgel in a New Year’s Day editorial:

The latest report on air quality from the city’s health department is especially alarming: it showed unhealthy levels of pollution in high-population areas throughout the city. Mr. Bloomberg should revive his fight in Albany for some form of congestion pricing.

A classic non sequitur: Yes, pollution is still at unhealthy levels; yes, congestion pricing is needed; but the link from the first fact to the second is tenuous.

To see why, please pay a visit to the Balanced Transportation Analyzer. I’ve set the BTA with “Kheel-Komanoff” inputs: a variable $3-$6-$9 toll to drive into the Manhattan Central Business District (less on weekends and holidays), a 33 percent taxi fare surcharge, and revenues dedicated to make subways and buses cheaper and free, respectively. But my point holds with almost any cordon-based congestion pricing plan:

Direct environmental benefits from congestion pricing — fewer crashes, less traffic noise, reduced carbon emissions, and cleaner air — are worth only one-tenth as much, combined, as the time that users of autos, trucks and buses will save getting around. The air pollution benefit alone, computed as the monetary value of fewer illnesses and deaths, is less than $100 million, even counting the reduction in stop-and-go driving inside the CBD, where traffic speeds during the morning and evening peaks are predicted to increase 20-25 percent. In contrast, the projected time savings are worth $2.5 billion, or roughly 25 times as much as the improvement in air quality.

How can this be? The 25-fold difference between time benefits and air benefits isn’t from cooking the numbers. I’ve programmed the BTA with conservative estimates of the “value of time” and liberal estimates of the health value of curbing soot and ozone-forming gaseous pollutants. (I doubled the dollar-per-ton values that the hawkish California Air Resources Board uses to screen antipollution measures.)

Rather, there are three reasons that in almost any congestion pricing plan, whether Kheel-Komanoff or Bloomberg or Ravitch, the value of the time savings will dwarf the air quality benefits:

  1. On a regional basis, congestion pricing eliminates only a small percentage of VMT. Ditto, tailpipe emissions.
  2. Emissions from present-day cars (and, increasingly, trucks and buses) are low and trending lower. Thus, the vaunted improvements in traffic flow won’t eliminate much car exhaust, because there isn’t much to begin with.

  3. Time savings from tolling gridlocked roads rise geometrically with congestion. A given percentage increase in speed saves six times as many minutes when the base speed is 5 mph as when it’s 30 mph. Considering that slow speeds also imply high volumes, congestion pricing is practically ordained to generate big time savings — particularly if the tolls are varied by time of day and day of week.

The lesson for congestion pricing advocates is clear: give the "green" angle a rest. We’re not in 1970 anymore. (If per-mile emission rates hadn’t changed since Earth Day, the air quality benefits would be some 40 times greater, equaling or even surpassing the time savings.) Clean air no longer provides a powerful rationale for congestion pricing.

From a cost-benefit standpoint, the overwhelming reason to adopt congestion pricing in New York City — in addition to providing a vital new revenue stream for public transit, of course — is to enable people stuck in traffic to save time.

Curing aggravation, not asthma, should be motivation enough for congestion pricing.

  • Hi Charlie,

    Well written and well argued, as usual. I have a few minor technical comments and then a general policy comment.

    Technical comment #1: as you know, health effects from air pollution depend greatly on the degree of exposure, and I suspect that people in NYC are much more exposed to auto pollution than is the notional average person in the analyses that undergird the CARB figures. This difference could be greater than your factor-of-two bump-up of the CARB numbers.

    #2. There are other pollutants that matter, especially in NYC (e.g., CO), and other effects (visibility, plant damage, materials cost). These however are likely to add up to less than the ozone and PM effects you’ve already estimated.

    #3. What did you use for GHG damages? Estimates of this can vary by two orders of magnitude.

    #4. There also are social external benefits related to using less oil, which can be counted as another benefit of a congestion toll, albeit not as an air-pollution-reduction benefit, obviously.

    Nonetheless, I think your basic argument is sound, although I am worried that some people will interpret it as a reason to ignore all externalities other than time savings. I would therefore argue explicitly that we should have a gasoline tax on top of a congestion tax; the gasoline tax would have a component related to climate change and a component related to oil use.

  • JK

    Charlie I do not agree about giving the “green angle a rest.” You yourself have thoroughly documented the huge environmental and social costs of excessive automobile use, which far transcend tail pipe emissions. These costs include noise and safety, and huge opportunity costs due to cars consuming immense amounts of public space and discouraging walking and cycling among other things. If time savings for motorists are the priority, then building the Moses superhighway on Canal Street starts making sense.

  • Richard Rosenthal

    I am, as always, dazzled by Charlie’s work and count myself a huge supporter of him and it…but how do you put a price on time saved? In the course of the workday, commercial drivers, yeah, maybe I can understand that. But the casual commuter? Or errand runner? Or shopper? Assigning money/value to their increased pleasure or non-stress from driving or getting home to dinner and TV quicker, that I don’t get.

    Here’s a favorite joke that might be apposite. A salesman calls on Farmer Smith–

    Salesman: I’ve got a miracle product to show you. It’s an electro-servo-mechancial pig and hog and sow feeder and what it does is cut two-thirds the time it takes you to feed your pigs. Now I won’t even talk about it further. Lemme just plug it in and it’ll demonstrate itself.

    (Whereupon he does and it performs just as promised.)

    Farmer: That’s an impressive bit of machinery you got there alright. What’s it cost?

    Salesman: Well, of course I’ll tell you; after all, I’m here to sell it to you. But, first, let’s review what it does. It cuts by two-thirds the time it takes to feed your pigs. It’s $117,500.

    Farmer: It sure is impressive alright, but let me ask you this: What’s a pig’s time worth?

  • Hilary Kitasei

    There are so many problems with this argument I don’t know where to begin… But here’s just one thought. It is not only car (emissions and fuel) technology that have changed since 1970. There’s been a information/communications revolution in the interim. A driver (and passengers) today occupies a rolling office more powerful and cheaper than the most high tech work environments of that era. I know people who consider the time spent in the car the most productive of the day.

    But the real problem with your argument is that it tries to win CP (which I support) on the same argument that lost it. As long as it fails to address the real health concerns of the communities outside the CBD, there will be no political support for it.

    I expect others more qualified than I will take up the environmental/social justice/economics issues you raise. I am amused by your iconoclasm, Charles, but this is not helpful.

  • A couple of posters have questioned the value of travel time (VOTT) Charlie used. I don’t know what VOTT Charlie estimated, but I can say that, in general, the research on estimating the VOTT is pretty sophisticated, and accounts for the possibility that for some people the opportunity cost and the disamenity cost are low or even zero.

  • Charles: Thank you for an informative article. What I take away from it is that the link between a CP plan and air-quality relief that the Times presupposes is not very strong.

    Hilary’s point about the mobile office contrasts nicely with Richard’s point about how to value time spent commuting. Great discussion!

  • a

    This is silly. What type of rigorous analysis is this? You have some type of half-baked model that relies on a variety of untested assumptions.

    Professional epidemiologists are just beginning to rigorously explore the link between auto emissions and health (this is a difficult question – plagued by identification and selection biases). So how exactly do you know what the link is?

    While, I might agree with the fact that travel time benefits are larger than health benefits, the fact that you are audacious enough to throw around a number like $100 million is absolutely ludicrous.

    The EPA’s Value of a Statistical life estimates are around $7 million per life. So, you would need something like 14 premature deaths averted to come up with this number (out of X MILLION people in the pricing area). That seems pretty low based on epidemiological evidence of particulate matter health effects alone!

    Give me a break, and stop trying to stir up controversy.

  • JK

    NYC congestion pricing passed the City Council, in which reps from Manhattan have about a quarter of the votes. Somebody from outside Manhattan voted for it. No other road pricing regime has had to pass three legislative houses, not London, Milan, Singapore, Stockholm etc. The State Assembly and it’s leader Sheldon Silver do not like Mayor Bloomberg, and congestion pricing was strongly identified with him. It is very possible that a Mayor Thompson, DiBlasio or Weiner could get bridge tolls or some form of congestion pricing through the legislature.

  • MU

    In defense of the article, I don’t think he is arguing that we should ignore direct air quality benefits nor the ancillary health/environmental gains from any reduction in automobile use. He is making the argument that when you are going to support your push for change, you use the strongest data you’ve got. While I’m sure there are a few who feel that driving time is their most productive of the day, I don’t see many plans out there that increase driving time. Even if the assignment of a specific dollar value to that time is speculative, reducing driving time has a strong desirability for vast majority people.

    Many of the benefits for policies that reduce driving go far beyond the obvious environmental and health rewards. And using other payoffs in support of these policies will help enlist support from sections of the public who don’t respond well to “green” arguments. There’s nothing wrong with backing up “green” policies with good old fashioned financial arguments. In fact, they increase the likelihood of success buy removing the notion that these policies are a zero-sum game between the environment and our lifestyles. You win an argument better by speaking to people’s concerns rather than your own.

  • NattyB


    Do you know the legal basis for why it would required State Legislative approval? If CP would solely be in NYC, I don’t see why the City just can’t do it on it’s own.

    I guess there’s probably some statute out there, but, I wonder what it is?

  • David_K

    Mark Delucchi called his technical comments (#1, above) “minor,” but are they really? Other forms of pollution matter: noise pollution, oil pollution both jump to mind. Oil pollution from cars certainly impacts our local waters: a few years back, the National Academies of Science published “Oil in the Seas,” in which they concluded that nearly 85 percent of the 29 million gallons of petroleum that enter North American ocean waters each year as a result of human activities comes from land-based runoff, while less than 8 percent comes from tanker or pipeline spills. Check it out:

    Pollution is serious, and air pollution isn’t the whole story. However, it is might be easier to sell the “saves time” angle of congestion pricing than to play up the environmental angle.

  • I love this discussion. To have the godfather of motor vehicle externalities, Mark Delucchi, ace activist John Kaehny, and others with strong points of view too, is terrific.

    Mark: you’re right that I should count air pollution’s non-health effects, plus CO, though as you say it won’t change my qualitative conclusion. Yes also that I should count oil dependence, thanks for the reminder. As for my doubling of CARB’s values, I chose that after wading deep into your and McCubbin’s “The Social Cost of the Health Effects of Motor-Vehicle Air Pollution, Report #11 …” and seeing (Tables Tables II-A-46 and II-A-50) much higher per-ton health effects for L.A. Basin than NYC region. Please let me know if I misinterpreted. My climate-damage factor is $50 per metric ton of CO2, which I wish was low but is evidently far higher than what Congress is willing to assign. Comments and corrections welcome.

    John: Thanks for reminding me of my 1990s work on m.v. externalities. I think that in your comment you may be confusing my take on the societal costs of m.v. use across NYC and the region (immense, still) with my estimates of the externality-cost reductions from the strategic reassignment and reduction of CBD-bound vehicle trips from congestion pricing (modest, except for time savings). Am I right? Please also note that noise and danger are included in the “stack” of environmental costs in the chart and were noted in my post (second paragraph after the break). The encouragement of walk/bike from congestion pricing is included in the chart, under Physical Activity.

    Hilary: You’re right about my iconoclasm (love that word — hey, if anyone remembers Mort Sahl, raise your hand!). I do at least try to ground it in data. I also agree that concerns in “upstream” neighborhoods over increased air pollution helped sink c.p. in 2008, but to some extent wasn’t it a case of the enviro’s being hoisted on their own petard, i.e., their claim that c.p. would improve air quality in the CBD and thus would impair it upstream (when actually it wouldn’t have had much impact anywhere? Nevertheless, I think that c.p.’s biggest albatross was the accurate perception that costs would be borne mostly by the boroughs while benefits would be reaped mostly in Manhattan — a situation that I seek to address with free buses and a taxi surcharge — which I hope you’ll come ’round to support.

    a: Instead of getting angry over my assertion that the health benefits of cleaner air from c.p. wouldn’t even reach $100 million a year, wouldn’t it be better to see how I came by that figure? My dollar “factors” (per ton of pollutant eliminated) are clearly stated in the Cost-Benefit “tab” of the BTA model. My derivation of the number of tons eliminated is somewhat more complicated, involving a chain of links: congestion tolls to car trips, car trips to traffic levels, traffic levels to vehicle speeds, vehicle speeds to emissions. It’s all laid out in the BTA (please see link in post), and this operator is standing by to assist you in seeing how it’s put together.

  • In response to a, who called Charlie’s analysis “silly,” “half-baked,” and “ludicrous”: while it is true that a model such as Charlie’s inevitably has considerable structural and empirical uncertainties and simplifications, it is not reasonable to dismiss it out of hand. There is a large scholarly literature — and has been, for more than 20 years (including research by “professional” epidemiologists) — on the links between auto pollution and health, and the results of many analyses and models, including some more sophisticated than Charlie’s, have been widely published. So there is a reasonable basis for Charlie’s estimates. One might disagree with his assumptions — I am sure that I would, in at least some cases — but the overall conclusion seems reasonable to me, at least qualitatively.

    Given that the change in VMT is relatively small and that the per-mile PM emission rate for LDVs is quite low, am not surprised that the number of avoided deaths is less than 20 per year. (As an aside, I wouldn’t use the EPA’s VOSL; there are better estimates in the literature.)

  • Jeff Prant

    The other problem with making time savings for motorists the primary argument for congestion pricing is that it makes it harder to argue for taking street space away from cars after congestion pricing is instituted. After all, it’s hard to get too excited about a future that consists of slightly fewer cars, moving faster, on the exact same amount of street space.

  • I’m battling the impulse to comment on everything, but please let me reply to Jeff Prant — and forgive me if my tone gets harsh (Jeff and I have been together in the anti-car trenches for a long time, so I feel a bit entitled):

    You say “it’s hard to get too excited about a future that consists of slightly fewer cars, moving faster, on the exact same amount of street space.” I urge you to rethink, or at least open yourself to getting excited about raising CBD travel speeds circa 20%, for two reasons: one, less gridlock is the political sine qua non for passing c.p. and raising $1.75 billion a year for transit (as I estimate Kheel-Komanoff would); and two, by saving time for bus riders and truckers as well as car drivers, it improves quality of life and aids the city’s economy. Or are you saying that you don’t care about those kinds of benefits?

    But what frustrates me about your comment, Jeff, is that I’ve built “taking street space away from cars” into the (BTA) model and the (Kheel-Komanoff) plan, yet you don’t seem to know that. The time-saving numbers in my chart and post assume that the city removes from motor vehicle use “one Times Square’s worth” of street space (a bit more than 4 acres, or around 3 lane-miles). Without that assumption, i.e., keeping the present configuration of street space, the time savings to drivers would indeed be greater (since they would go faster), but only by $20 million — less than a 1% increase. Or, Jeff, you can go the opposite way and decommission huge swaths of street space with c.p. — in my model, anyway. If we decomm 10 Times Squares’ worth, the time savings go down by $180 million, or 7%. I like that tradeoff, myself, but I don’t know (nor do you) if, politically, it’s an effective one.

    My point is that you (and others) don’t need to be bound by my preferences. You’re free to open up the BTA, vary my policy assumptions, and see what you get in terms of revenues, time savings, fewer crashes, etc. I wish you (and others) would do more of that, and, perhaps, a little less bitching about what you don’t like. Thanks.

  • Charlie,

    As other readers have said in the past, the BTA could be a great deal more user-friendly. It’s tough to track down all the assumptions in the model.

    This post is all about how to make an effective argument for congestion pricing. I have to agree with Jeff that a campaign for congestion pricing in which time savings are weighted as heavily as they are in your graph would be less-than-inspiring for many.

  • David_K

    Ben, I disagree: the time-saving argument is the way to inspire many who think of auto emissions as an abstraction or who don’t give a damn about the environment.

    On the other hand, if the environmental argument is going to be made, it needs to encompass more than air quality. The NAS study (linked above in #11) is pretty persuasive regarding damage from vehicle oil runoff, but of course I don’t have any data for NYC — other than to ask, has anyone else noticed that whenever it rains, our streets look like an oilslick? I got fenders for just that reason, to stop getting sprayed with oil while riding on a wet day.

  • J. Mork

    Oh, darn, so we need a new WOTS. Let me try.

    It’s easy to get excited about an increase in non-motorized public space, $2B for transit and a more efficient road network — all made possible by congestion pricing.

  • Jeff Prant

    Echoing a bit of JK’s original point, the “auto-pollution” argument is also a proxy for the entire litany of the auto’s social and environmental effects. And until those effects are more widely appreciated by the general public, “auto-pollution” is a useful stand-in. And if you think of “pollution” in the broadest sense, it is in many ways descriptive of many of the auto’s externalities. The most damaging particulate associated with the automobile is the automobile itself.

  • I agree with Jeff. One Times Square worth is not much space. Can you think of any wide street in Manhattan that couldn’t benefit from at least one lane being dedicated to bikes, buses or wider sidewalks?

    At the congestion pricing hearings in Queens, the speakers in favor were mostly professional environmental advocates, plus a number of members of the Transportation Alternatives Queens Committee. The transit-riding public at large did not come out for them.

    I think the main reason there was no groundswell of support for congestion pricing is that most people think of “congestion” as a problem for cars. They didn’t think of it as a means to free up street space for other activities, as a way to relieve CBD and inner-ring neighborhoods of the burden of car commuters, as a way of speeding buses, or as a way of funding transit. They didn’t think of it as a way to make the air cleaner, either. They thought of it as a way to make it easier to move around for drivers who paid the charge – who were pretty likely to be more affluent than those who would choose not to.

    I agree with you that the air quality benefits are probably not worth the expense. Of course the benefits of faster buses, more money for transit and less congestion in the inner ring are worth the expense. But how do you convince the public that they would get that?

  • I would add that the one problem I see with this conversation is that it is focused on congestion pricing as the only solution to the problem that transportation is underpriced. One could argue that congestion pricing is the solution for the time lost due to congestion, while a general increased gasoline tax would be better for the air pollution issues, but that is difficult to achieve too. So maybe the ultimate point is not to focus on the different costs imposed by driving and which one best justifies congestion pricing, but that driving is underpriced (and how about that the roads pay no property taxes) and that congestion pricing is one of the most effective methods for rectifying this problem because it is time-based pricing that will most accurately reflect the costs imposed by driving.

  • Rich, it’s not like we’re not talking about other approaches in other places.

  • JK

    I appreciate Charlie’s efforts to quantify as many variables as possible via the BTA. It’s a great tool. But I don’t see any evidence that the argument for time savings via road pricing is politically compelling to motorists, or the people who claim to speak for them. The vast majority of motorists would also benefit enormously from properly pricing curbside parking meters. But I’ve been before community boards, and very few support those either. My hunch is that the carrot argument via time saving will not appreciably effect motorist support for pricing in NYC. Instead it will be saving the transit system from bankruptcy or truly monstrous fare hikes that will trump free motoring. (Lastly, I think the opportunity cost of lost bike/ped trips and the externalities of the distortion of the urban form from driveways, parking, offramps etc are grossly underestimated, but have not been adequately researched enough so Charlie can use them in his rigorous BTA.)

  • Ian Turner

    What a lot of commenters here seem to be missing is that Mr. Komanoff is not saying that the environmental cost of driving is small, just that congestion pricing will not make a big difference in reducing that cost.



  • Charles –

    I think you are right, and that much good could would come from these time savings, including beneficial changes in land uses.

    Which is why I am puzled that I cannot cannot answer the question posed by Hilary Kitasei: Why has the case for time savings not won the day?

    In this connection, one of toll road providers supports your case by having as its motto something like “Life is short – Save time”. [It was not referring to road fatalities, as toll roads tend to be safer than others.]


  • I do not like to surrender any argument for CP: productivity, time, emissions, funding, livability, health, national security (oil wars), etc. Right now a non-trivial portion of the world is more concerned about the environment than personal time budgets – far more than are willing to follow in the arguments in and after Charlie’s blog. Even though I accept Charlie’s analysis, I don’t want to abandon those people who are pro CP for green reasons.

    However, Charlie’s argument even if it were NOT backed up with data is far sighted. The reason that I have until recently left emissions OUT of my arguments is that I am an optimist about technology, but not about people. However much of the CP fight trades on emissions will be eroded as green cars arrive. “What, me worry, I have an electric car!” Zoom. Zoom.

    Electrification will prove Charlie prescient.

  • My point is that you (and others) don’t need to be bound by my preferences. You’re free to open up the BTA, vary my policy assumptions, and see what you get in terms of revenues, time savings, fewer crashes, etc. I wish you (and others) would do more of that, and, perhaps, a little less bitching about what you don’t like. Thanks.

    Since you asked, Charlie, I’ll admit that I was a little put off by the BTA 1.0. It was difficult to figure out where everything was. I have now downloaded the BTA 1.1, and it’s much more inviting. I think it would be even more welcoming if it were done in PHP, though.

    The BTA does not deal with the issue I raised, though: reallocating street space to exclusive, separated bus lanes. That would be expected to improve bus performance and thus revenue, but also to take away auto space. There was no place to put it in.

    There are a number of similar proposals that I’d like to model, but that aren’t covered by the BTA. It’s a good idea, and it adds a ton of support to your argument, but it’s not something that works for what I want to do. I’ll definitely keep it in mind in the future, though.

  • I wish when people have this discussion, they’d be specific about what kind of congestion pricing structure they are discussing. It’s possible to design zone-based or area-based pricing structures for VMT reduction, which should have subsidiary benefits for emissions. In London, the measured difference in air quality is evident before and after their zone-based tolls and increase in transit supply. At one point, area-based tolls were proposed for Paris that were intended to reduce VMT by 23 percent. That would be quite an intervention in emissions as well. Alternatively, you can optimize congestion pricing for traffic flow on links rather than traffic suppression, which, depending on the fleet traveling along the corridors, can either increase or decrease emissions. Those are only two possible riffs on the basic concept of corrective pricing. Anna Nagurney published a really interesting manuscript a few years ago that optimized prices by link according to the total marginal cost which would include emissions, accidents, congestion, noise, etc and subsequent reductions–assuming you could ever get the information you’d need to price properly (a huge issue in externalities) and you could inform drivers of costs such that they could choose effectively.

    All of that said, I usually prefer that people not make any claims about happens to emissions or air quality. The relationships are complex, and regions vary too much in physical and social geography to generalize that “congestion pricing has X benefit” other than rationing time & space on particular roads.

    Beevers SD, Carslaw DC. The impact of congestion charging on vehicle emissions in London. Atmospheric Environment. 2005 Jan ;39(1):1-5.

    Atkinson R, Barratt B, Armstrong B, Anderson H, Beevers S, Mudway I, et al. The impact of the Congestion Charging Scheme on ambient air pollution concentrations in London [Internet]. Atmospheric Environment. In Press, Accepted Manuscript Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6VH3-4WTHS9T-6/2/d07f21cf094777aeacfe9e7eb8140f1f

    Tonne C, Beevers S, Armstrong B, Kelly F, Wilkinson P. Air pollution and mortality benefits of the London Congestion Charge: spatial and socioeconomic inequalities. Occup Environ Med. 2008 Sep 1;65(9):620-627.

    Mitchell G. Forecasting environmental equity: Air quality responses to road user charging in Leeds, UK. Journal of Environmental Management. 2005 Nov ;77(3):212-226.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Thank you Lisa Schweitzer for pointing out both the limitations and the variations possible with CP. It is a powerful tool and should be used for more than increasing traffic flow (speed). Likewise new tolling technology should be exploited to favor the composition of traffic we prefer (commuter? regional? long distance? commercial? type of vehicle?) I wonder if we can agree on the optimum outcome, however. For me it would include curbing sprawl (not consistent with improving speed, which is what pushed settlement so far out to begin with), reducing speed within the city (including arterials), reclaiming the sidewalk and parkland space that road expansion encroached on, improving air and other environmental quality (including noise, directly correlated with speed of traffic), optimizing mobility (favoring transit), etc. etc. Until we all lay out our objectives on the table, we are wasting time arguing about the tools to achieve it. We’re looking at knives in the drawer for different purposes.

    Now I know Charles will say “but the purpose of CP is really to pay for transit!” Yes, like the parkway bridge tolls were supposed to pay for the parks.

  • Perhaps we’re overthinking a little here. May I agree with JK above and suggest that Shelly Silver is to blame for not having road pricing or cordon tolls in place today? We could spend all day framing road pricing or cordon tolls as “good for the environment,” or “speeding up your commute,” or “funding the MTA,” or “creating public spaces everyone can use,” but ultimately in order to bring the BTA’s forecasts to reality, state legislators will have to choose to antagonize their parking-garage and black-car donors.

  • Peter Jacobsen

    A paper in-press at Science magazine (http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1180606) on measuring happiness uses traffic fumes, traffic congestion, poor air quality, and commuting time as subjective and objective indicators of happiness. E.g. “[t]his study focuses not on people but on places. Places have characteristics that human beings find objectively pleasant (Hawaiian sunshine or Colorado scenery) and unpleasant (Connecticut land prices or New York City traffic fumes); many are cardinally measurable.”

    Congestion pricing addresses these factors that affect happiness.

    Compared to other states, New York ranks last in both the subjective and objective happiness measures.

    Would congestion pricing make New York City a happier place to live, and hence attract even more bright people to live there?

    In the 1950s, smoke pouring from chimneys was seen as progress. How soon will traffic be seen as the 1990s version of smoke belching chimneys?

  • What I am wondering is who is the audience we are trying to sway in favor of congestion pricing by emphasizing the value of the time savings?

    The only reason CP was even put on the legislative table and got as far as it did was the support of Partnership for NY and similar interests that seemed to place primary emphasis (or, at least, were presumed cynically by many to be concerned primarily with) the goal of reducing congestion to save the time of business people stuck in traffic. This was a key base of support for CP the first time around–relatively highly compensated people who work in Manhattan for whom the congestion charge was a non-issue, and Manhattanites inside the cordon for whom congestion is a major quality-of-life issue. These constituencies were joined by advocates for public health, the environment, and new urbanism–who got on board, I reckon, not because of time savings but rather because of the other benefits of CP–better air quality, reduced traffic-related morbidity and mortality, modal shift, more livable streets. In trying to woo and develop support among these constituencies, Bloomberg often stressed asthma reduction as a virtue of CP, in an attempt to broaden the appeal beyond the time-savings. Unfortunately, this argument was cynically turned around on him (and us), but those who argued without any quantitative data (or basis in fact or logic) that CP would create lasting increased congestion at or outside the cordon. The relative amount of quantifiable benefits in pulmonary health improvement vs. time savings never entered into that debate, which took place in the pages of the New York Post and the Daily News, and around dinner tables of families watching the evening news. The quantitative analysis in the BTA is very impressive and helpful, but primarily with the subset of the people who are making their CP decision based on quantitative analysis–most or all of whom supported CP.

    Sure, people like to see that you have numbers to back up what you are saying, and that gives the BTA added value (beyond the critical value it provides in helping convince policymakers and others who do rely on quantitative analysis). But if I’m talking to someone other than a scientist or a policy wonk who cares about, say, global warming, I don’t need to convince them that a certain quantum of reduction in exhaust with CP will translate in a specified quantum of decrease in pulmonary M&M. The movement against global warming is not supported by such a precise dose-response analysis. Indeed, the immediate public health impact of car exhaust on pulmonary health strikes me as intuitively much more convincing than the effect of that same exhaust on global climate. Yet I know of people who have donated money or taken other concrete steps to ameliorate global warming, but did not support congestion pricing because it was an unfair “tax on the middle class.” Likewise, recall that the New York State Academy of Family Physicians endorsed CP. I don’t think Charlie is saying that the pitch to obtain that endorsement should have focused exclusively on the time savings of CP. Sophisticated advocates know how to tailor their message to their audience without compromising their credibility, it is part of the political process.

    The key issue is how to convince state politicians to accept congestion pricing. The politicians who killed CP did so in the name of protecting their non-Manhattan constituents from a “tax” primarily to benefit Manhattanites. Outrageously, these politicians were permitted by a “populist” press to avoid admitting that they were screwing their constituents who use public transit.

    My gut tells me that the time savings argument is a non-starter with most non-wealthy motorists. I believe that many cherish their time stuck in traffic; away from the boss, spouse or kids demanding attention or being nasty to them; where they can eat, chain smoke cigarettes, text or talk with others, or listen to music or Howard Stern, in air conditioned or heated comfort. No, these folks don’t consciously seek to extend their commute, but they are in hurry to leave the house in the morning and don’t necessarily mind showing up late for work as long as it does not affect their job or compensation. And they are outraged at the thought of being priced out of what they perceive as a right to the conveniences of car commuting. Others have commented that the marginal value to some of time savings has been factored into the model, but I don’t know if the positive value of time “lost” has been factored in. These people want to drive and few of them will accept a CP charge based on the quantified value to society of their “lost” time, in the aggregate, or based on promises that they will reap a compensatory benefit in personal time savings or improved mass transit conditions.

    We will surely muff CP the second time around–assuming there is a second chance–if our appeals to the broad population are focused on the value of the time savings to those who drive into the CBD. The only hope is intensive, extensive grassroots organization of mass transit users capable of actually unseating their representatives in Albany, that joins with the base that was put together the last time around. I have no reason to believe that the “base” does not still support CP based on the virtues that motivated them the first time around–time savings, better air quality, quality of live for residents in the zone, reduced traffic-related morbidity and mortality, modal shift, more livable streets.

  • BicyclesOnly, but as Nicole Gelinas pointed out, the problem going forward with implementing road pricing or cordon tolls is going to be that the MTA already got a rescue package, the 2009 payroll tax increase.

    Advocating for road pricing/cordon tolls in Manhattan then will involve either seeing those revenues go into the state general fund, or canceling the 2009 tax increase and replacing it with road pricing/cordon tolls revenue. Neither option seems like something a state legislator would be fond of enacting.

    Without linking the road pricing/cordon tolls revenues directly to the MTA, it would be impossible to assemble that broad grassroots organization that you describe and that you and I both fervently long to see.

  • BicyclesOnly (#32) — I’m well aware of the slippery and abstract aspects of valuing drivers’ time, but thank you for articulating it so well (even if I think you overdid it a bit). I believe the dollar values in the BTA reflect your points, and I invite you to check them (they’re annotated in the Value of Time worksheet). I should probably try to disaggregate my time-saving totals and identify subgroups such as truckers and taxi passengers for whom there is little or no positive valuation of time stuck in traffic. Your strongest point, to me, is the political one. I concur that my dollar totals will mean little or nothing to the average outer-borough driver. I agree that they can’t be won over, rather they have to be neutralized by mobilizing transit users in their and other districts.

    Jonathan (#33) — I concur that the 2009 rescue package creates a new political hill for c.p. to climb. The Kheel-Komanoff Plan addresses that, I hope, by dedicating revenues to cutting fares and thus opening the door to mobilizing transit users to advocate for it. Also, though we haven’t “officially” modified the plan yet, we have for months signaled that we think it’s good policy and smart politics to apply some of the revenues that we had earmarked for subway fare cuts to the transit capital plan — a big plus among organized labor. It also wouldn’t hurt, and could win friends, to dedicate a small share, say 10%, of the toll revenues to reducing the suburbs’ payroll tax rate so they aren’t taxed at the same rate as city dwellers who derive more benefits from transit.

    Cap’n Transit (#27) — You can get the BTA to simulate dedicating CBD street space to BRT. You simply have to estimate how many “Times Square’s worth” (or lane miles) of street space to re-allocate, and the % improvement in bus route times you think that will bring about. I can show you where to input these assumptions. Let’s talk off-line.

    To others who would like my replies to your points: please write me off-line so I don’t fill this space even more. Thanks.

  • Thanks, Jonathan, for alerting us to that nasty, immature piece by Gelinas. I posted this in response, but it looks like it’s waiting for moderation:

    Seriously, Nicole? You know better than that. It’s not just “a couple of hundred million.” It’s that plus a couple more hundred million cut because the Legislature couldn’t put its priorities in order, and another hundred million for the TWU pay increase, plus the $350 million from the Feds that we missed out on. This kind of thing was predicted when the package was passed by the Legislature.

    If Albany passes a sufficient congestion pricing scheme, I would hope they’d repeal the payroll tax. It’s a disaster, why wouldn’t they?

    I generally think of you as a constructive person, but this post is just badmouthing. It sounds like there really isn’t any way of adequately funding transit that you wouldn’t find something wrong with. Grow up already!

  • Jonathan @#33, the rescue has already failed: MTA’s got student transit on the chopping block. If MTA’s serious about that, I’m ready to try my luck building a grassroots coalition to impose CP, bridge tolls or some similar plan to create a dedicated revenue stream for MTA.

  • There is a lot of wound-licking here over the failed NYC CP proposal. The direct route, as attempted by Bloomberg, less often leads to London, Stockholm or Singapore, and more often leads to Manhattan or Edinburgh and many others that you do not hear about that died in mismanaged referenda. It is easy to defeat a referendum for what is generally perceived as a new tax. “I can already see the pain, and I don’t believe the benefit — besides it sounds like big brother/tax grab/government incompetence/a plot against the poor/a road give-away for the rich/a stupid way to avoid raising the gas tax/fill-in-your-own-excuse-from-yesterday’s-paper. Few people can handle an idea with two interacting variables. CP has dozens.

    There is another way to look at introducing road pricing. This mechanism was first used in the Trojan Wars. Here it is updated to ease us into the necessary tax shift, while decimating system costs for government (taxpayer, actually). http://grushhour.blogspot.com/2009/12/how-to-toll-country-for-free.html

  • Second Avenue Sagas says today: “Free bridges remain a reminder to the way state and city representatives view the MTA and our subways as second-rate transportation options when they are truly the economic drivers of the region.”

    This is a much better and much more persuasive argument, I think, than time savings, and could even make up for the “second rescue” problem I referred to above (comment 33).

  • Matthew Kitchen


    Here in the Seattle area we have been doing some analysis on congestion pricing for some time. As you know this has involved the largest controlled experiment ever implemented designed to understand behavioral response to congestion tolls. This has given us insights into how to approach the formal modeling of toll policy using our regional travel models, and especially a direct observation of users’ time/money tradeoff. We have also been developing assessment methods that reflect the core methods of benefit-cost analysis. In recent months this has culminated in detailed modeling analysis of the implications of implementing congestion tolling at a regional scale. This analysis used our reasonably advanced travel models (http://www.psrc.org/data/models/trip-based-travel-model/) that now incorporate trip generation response and are integrated with our disaggregated land use simulation model (http://www.psrc.org/data/models/urbansim/). Results of the travel modeling are used to conduct cost-benefit accounting at a highly atomistic scale (one million zone pairs x five daily time periods x eleven user classes x a half dozen consumer surplus measures http://www.psrc.org/data/models/benefit-cost-analysis/).

    I have not closely examined your methodology, but I can offer that our results are consistent with your primary observation regarding the magnitude of user benefits in relation to the magnitude of environmental benefits. These results are robust to alternate assumptions regarding the costs of the relevant externalities. I certainly don’t mean to imply that our analysis suggests the environmental benefits from congestion tolling are not important, and I am not qualified to suggest what approach should be taken to communicating the benefits of such policies or how to build political coalitions.

    I simply thought it worthwhile, in the face of the many thoughtful comments following your post, to provide some additional evidence for your general observation, arrived at through very different analysis methods.


  • The preceding comment, by Matthew Kitchen of the Puget Sound Regional Council, attests to the high caliber of dialogue in this thread (and on Streetsblog in general).

    The “controlled experiment” noted by Matthew is at the heart of the PSRC’s “Traffic Choices Study,” and constitutes the largest and best-analyzed experiment with road pricing and congestion pricing to date in the USA. The study’s fingerprints are all over my BTA model. It’s a landmark work, and I encourage folks to take a look: .

  • re: “The lesson for congestion pricing advocates is clear: give the ‘green’ angle a rest.”


    CO2 emmissions from cars are substantial and automobile transportation is a terrific drain on the environment. The fact that congestion costs about $13 billion a year in New York further advances the idea that green design makes good economic sense.

    New York’s Blueprint for Climate Resilience

    Panel Tells City to Brace for Heat Waves, High Water

    “. . . the city may experience a four-fold increase of 90-degree-plus days by the end of the century. This will potentially affect public health and demands on infrastructure including electricity water supply.

    “NPCC researchers also predict that New Yorkers can expect to see at least two feet of sea level rise by the 2080s. ‘Keeping a close eye on melting from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, we project that rapid melt could lead us to what we call a ‘rapid ice-melt scenario,’—an increase of up to four feet in sea level by the end of the century,’ said Rosenzweig. This poses significant risks not only to low-lying neighborhoods, but to water, transport and other systems, says the report.”