Graphed: Support for Congestion Pricing Depends on How You Frame It

Toward the end of last week, City Council speaker and current 2013 mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn set off a burst of transportation policy buzz when she said she still supports congestion pricing but doesn’t expect it to get revived in Albany.

Remember, though, that while risk-averse Albany electeds may try to preemptively dismiss road pricing as politically impossible, public support for the idea is actually quite strong when it’s framed as a way to fund transit, according to a series of Quinnipiac polls conducted in 2007 and 2008.

Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah has done a huge service by graphing the results of those Q poll congestion pricing questions. When the policy was framed as “charging vehicle owners a fee to drive below 60th street in Manhattan during rush hours,” support tended to fall below 40 percent. But support surged when the pollsters asked, “Would you support congestion pricing if the money were used to prevent an increase in mass transit fares and bridge and tunnel tolls?”

Here’s his graph of the percent support for congestion pricing in response to the different questions:

Graph: Azi Paybarah/Capital New York

Paybarah notes that the last two polls, in January and March of 2008, used another variation on the question instead of the “preventing fare hikes” angle. This question asked simply, “Would you support congestion pricing if the money were used to improve mass transit in and around New York City?” (Any road pricing plan would likely pay for transit improvements by funding the MTA’s capital program, and keep fares lower by reducing the amount of capital spending that’s covered by fare-backed debt.)

Paybarah incorporates the change of language into this graph of how Democratic voters responded to the Q polls:

Graph: Azi Paybarah/Capital New York

The other critical piece of public opinion data about congestion pricing (which we regrettably have to get from outside NYC), is that support shoots up dramatically after implementation. In Stockholm, a survey found opposition to congestion pricing at 80 percent before a six-month trial was implemented in 2006. After the trial, 53 percent of city residents voted to keep it in place in a public referendum. In London — where a single elected official, mayor Ken Livingstone, championed the policy in the face of protests and media doomsaying — public support for the program stood at 70 percent three years after implementation.

  • Anonymous

    Ben, thanks for this extraordinarily useful post.

    A caveat, however, about the notion that 80% of Stockholm residents were opposed to congestion pricing prior to implementation. I believe that’s an exaggeration. According to one of the architects of the policy there, Jonas Eliasson, “Public opinion changed gradually from a support of less than 30% before the trial to just over 50% towards the end of the trial and nearly 70% at the end of 2007, after the reintroduction.” (

  • Larry Littlefield

    In New York, support for everything shoots up after implementation, as the same pols and tabloids that make a living opposing change continue to do so — but with different existing conditions in place.

  • Joe R.

    With the majority of city residents not owning or using cars, it’s a given that if congestion pricing were implemented, a vast majority would love it. In fact, I’ll even hazard a guess that a vast majority would love a total ban on private autos and taxis in Manhattan. The problem is the minority who use autos happen to be in charge, so we’ll never get the chance to find out. If we had a truly democratic system, things like congestion pricing would appear as referendums on the ballot. Of course, the moneyed minority who use cars could still campaign heavily against such measures, but my guess is eventually they would be voted in. All we need to do actually is reduce auto traffic in a small part of the city and other areas will want the same, much as the desire for 20 mph zones has gone viral. People just don’t know how much better their quality of life would be if we reduced auto traffic by, say, 80% because most people alive today aren’t old enough to remember a time when the city had much less auto traffic. All they hear is the gloom and doom from those opposed to congestion pricing about how it’ll bring the city’s economy to a standstill, violate our fundamental freedoms, and end Western civilization as we know it.

  • Davidmhanna

    Much of the rich already live in Manhattan. They will be little effected. The working class in the outer boroughs will get stuck with the tax once again.

    Most of the tax money will end up going once again to the politicians, the connected, and the unions. These folks usually drive most of the time.

  • Joe R.

    @cb3c91eae1076ab5c262dbd163343542:disqus How do you figure that? Some of those on the City Council who opposed the congestion tax made the same claim except it’s false. How many of the outer borough working class drive into Manhattan? By definition nobody because a working class person couldn’t afford the parking fees, not to mention it takes far longer to drive than to just hop the subway. I’ve little doubt there are a small minority of outer borough residents who drive into Manhattan, but they’re not working class. Most likely they’re either the wealthy, or politicians, or news reporters. Anyone with any iota of common sense doesn’t drive into Manhattan, not when you can get there in half the time by subway.

    The vast majority of private cars coming into Manhattan are suburban auto commuters whom I think we can all agree should have no say when it comes to the city deciding where to put tolls.

  • Stephen Bauman

    Mr. Komanoff noted the other day that congestion pricing is a very inefficient way of raising revenue. If a charity had the same percentage for overhead as congestion pricing, it would be prosecuted as a fraud.

    The big problem with finding a dedicated source of revenue is that it will be hijacked by non-participants. Consider what happened when the TBTA tolls were raised from $0.25 to $0.50. The money was supposed to support the subway operating expenses. Subsequent toll increases had to be shared 50-50 with the suburban counties to subsidize Metro North and the LIRR, even though a small minority toll payers come from the suburban counties. One of the sweeteners during the last congestion pricing debate was to take some of the congestion money to subsidize suburban railroads.

    Somehow, the toll revenue got diverted from subsidizing operating expenses into paying off the MTA bonds. This allowed the State to substantially reduce its responsibility to fund the Transit Authority’s capital program. The agreement that resulted in the state taking over the Board of Transporation and establishing the TA back in 1953, called for the farebox to cover operating cost, while NYS assumed the capital costs.

  • Andrew

    Most New Yorkers don’t own cars, and those who do are generally far wealthier than those who don’t. The working class largely won’t be “stuck” with anything, since the working class largely doesn’t drive (into Manhattan or anywhere else) – but they will have better funded transit, faster bus trips, easier and safer walks and bike rides, and less pollution.

    As it stands, the city streets and bridges are paid for and maintained out of general city revenues, and the city has set aside most of its public space for use by motor vehicles, almost all free of charge (a small portion of the curbside parking is metered, but otherwise there is no charge to drive or park on a city street or bridge). New Yorkers without cars, including a large majority of the working class you claim to be concerned about, get the short end of the stick. If you add up all of the costs that motorists impose on the streets of New York City and subtract the prices they pay, I think you’ll find that, even with a few dollars tacked on as a congestion charge, they are still getting an incredible bargain.

    And not only does that hurt those New Yorkers who don’t own cars, it also hurts motorists who value their time and would rather pay a few bucks than sit in traffic, wealthy and poor alike. Our transportation policy is broken, and while congestion pricing won’t fix it, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

    Finally, why do you call this a tax? It’s a fee for services, much like the subway fare. Speaking of which, if you were seriously worried about the welfare of the working class, I’d expect you to be pushing for the subway and bus fare to be abolished, since that’s how the working class actually gets around the city.

  • Some drivers are paid to drive into Manhattan.  PORT study of bridge and tunnel users found 70% of car commuters  to Manh CBD had their companies pay some or all of: parking fees; tolls; gas; and/or complete lease of the car.  Despite federal tax law restricting basic commuting as a non business expense, businesses manage to lease parking lot space, pay for the EZPass, and pay for the lease of a company car – up to and including $130,000 Mercedes and luxury SUVs and giant pick-ups. 

    This employee is categorized as traveling on business with a need for the vehicle; thereby making the costs a tax deductible business expense.  So, instead of the employee paying extra income taxes on the value of the car, tolls and parking, the company gets to write off the entire cost against their profits as a pre-tax business expense.  The IRS does not effectively restrict this creative accounting practice.

    Why should anyone who gets a free luxury car, free tolls and free parking ever want to ride on transit, or support better transit for anyone else?  With a luxury car, including phones and computer, why would they even worry about reducing traffic congestion?  The car is already a leather lined luxury office space.

    Until the tax code was changed a few years back, if the company paid for a secretary’s subway fare, that entire transit subsidy was fully taxable as extra income.  Under current tax law, an amount north of $100 a month is tax free (I am not looking up the exact amount.)  Compare that to the value of the free car, free tolls and free parking that’s written off as a business expense? 

    I am sure that there are more than a few people who drive into Manhattan CBD in their own car, pay all their own tolls and parking, but according to PORT, they are in the minority. 

    Another survey of the Gowanus Expressway found the majority of car traffic was traveling between SouthWest Brooklyn (Bay Ridge-Bensohurst etc.) and the CBD.  One would have expected the majority was traveling across the VNB with destinations beyond the CBD, the places transit does not cover well.  Instead, the majority comes from parts of Brooklyn well covered by the BMT subway lines that now run directly into the CBD.  This count was taken after the Manhattan Bridge subway tracks were fixed, after a billion or so of new signal and track work were completed, but before the Atlantic-Pacific subway stating complex improvements were completed.  The subway trip and driving are competitive in time to the CBD, but it’s hard for transit to compete with a free car and free parking.

    What we have here is the image of a man standing up through the roof hatch of his company owned Mercedes, screaming about how the government is stealing HIS money by raising the tolls paid by his company, to subsidize mass transit, while on the way to his company paid parking garage spot.  Of course these government tax subsidized commuters – who are also usually the owners and senior mangers of the company – will be screaming against tolls and congestion pricing, particularly if it’s to support public transit.  It’s only logical.  Very selfish, but very logical.

  • Driver

    ” it also hurts motorists who value their time and would rather pay a few bucks than sit in traffic, wealthy and poor alike.”
    It’s not an either/or decision.  There will not be one congestion fee route for a toll and one heavily trafficked route that is free.  People will be paying the few bucks and still sitting in traffic.  Look at the Hudson river crossings.  It costs something like $10-12 dollars yet the rush hour backup is tremendous.  From what I remember of the prior proposal, these drivers would not even have to pay for the congestion charge.  People drive into Manhattan during business hours for a variety or reasons, but I don’t think any of those reasons are because it is convenient or cheap. 

    Andrew, I also disagree with your claim that the working class don’t drive for the most part. Something tells me you are not from Queens.

  • Joe R.

    @SB_Driver:disqus Lots of people here where I live drive, but not into Manhattan. Those who work in Manhattan generally take the subway, or perhaps an express bus.

  • Driver

    Joe, you are absolutely right, but the commenter I was replying to was not just saying that the working class doesn’t drive into Manhattan, but that they don’t drive at all.  That is simply not an accurate statement.


Public Support for NYC Toll Reform Highest in the Suburbs

Since March, Move New York has made the case that its traffic reduction and transit funding plan can succeed in Albany. Proposing to raise car tolls in the transit-rich but congested Manhattan core while lowering them in more distant, car-dependent parts of town, Move NY seeks to avoid the political pitfalls that have sunk road […]