De Blasio’s Wrong — Congestion Pricing Will Make NYC Transportation Fairer

People who can afford a $10 or $20 Uber ride are slowing down people who can afford a $2.75 bus fare. Move NY will change that.

Toll reform creates a fairer transportation system. Ferry subsidies do not. Photo: Michael Appelton/Mayoral Photography Office
Toll reform creates a fairer transportation system. Ferry subsidies do not. Photo: Michael Appelton/Mayoral Photography Office

Andrew Cuomo may or may not be serious about enacting a congestion pricing plan for New York City, but by putting the idea out there, he has forced Bill de Blasio to clarify his position.

Every time de Blasio gets asked about congestion pricing, he retreats to the rhetorical haven of calling it “unfair.” Most recently, in the Democratic primary debate, the mayor said the Bloomberg administration’s 2008 congestion pricing plan was “very unfair to the outer boroughs” and that the current Move NY toll reform plan “still doesn’t address a host of equity issues.”

Charles Komanoff and, more recently, the Daily News editorial board have pushed back against the notion that Move NY is unfair to the boroughs besides Manhattan. I want to push back on another common but incorrect assumption de Blasio is propagating: that congestion pricing is unfair to poorer New Yorkers.

The Move NY toll reform plan, which would put a price on driving into Manhattan below 60th Street and add surcharges to for-hire car trips where they are most in demand, is a powerful tool to address one of the great inequities in NYC’s transportation system: the time penalty that affluent people in cars impose on less affluent people riding the bus.

There are two major trends shaping travel on NYC streets right now, and they’re intertwined. One is the increase in traffic and congestion in the Manhattan core, and the other is the decline in bus speeds and ridership.

Between 2010 and 2015, average citywide bus speeds fell 2 percent, contributing to a long-term decline in bus ridership. Over the same period, average general traffic speeds in Manhattan below 60th Street fell 12 percent, according to NYC DOT. Congestion is slowing down buses in a vicious cycle that’s only picked up more momentum in the last few years.

Graphic: Bruce Schaller
Graphic: Bruce Schaller

Since mid-2015, the number of for-hire trips in NYC has skyrocketed, propelled by “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft. From 2015 to 2016, TNCs caused a net 3 to 4 percent increase in citywide traffic and were responsible for a 7 percent increase in traffic in Manhattan, western Queens, and western Brooklyn, according to research published by Bruce Schaller earlier this year. The more people opt for the personal convenience of an Uber or Lyft, the slower the buses go.

So far in 2017, bus ridership has fallen another 2 percent compared to the previous year. People who can afford a $10 or $20 Uber ride are slowing down people who can afford a $2.75 bus fare.

Move NY addresses this inequity by both pricing car trips across a cordon around the Manhattan core and adding a surcharge to for-hire trips in Manhattan roughly below 96th Street. It creates a fundamentally fairer transportation system, where bus riders have access to faster, more reliable service.

Graphic: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Improvement in bus service is one of several reasons that Move NY would have a progressive net effect, including the fact that it would transfer revenue from relatively affluent car owners to services that poorer car-free households rely on. The street space that road pricing opens up likewise makes it easier to repurpose traffic and parking lanes for transit, biking, and walking, benefitting New Yorkers who can’t afford cars. And it’s never been particularly fair that every transit trip in NYC carries a price, but driving into the congested heart of the city is free.

If fairness was a guiding principle for de Blasio’s transportation policy, his administration wouldn’t be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ferries for a small number of relatively affluent waterfront residents, or handing out 50,000 parking perks to a favored political constituency, or taking its sweet time with bus service improvements that should be an urgent priority. Toll reform and congestion pricing, on the other hand, would be on the agenda.

  • Reader

    Apparently, the “tale of two cities” act does not apply to driving. Who has the mayor’s ear? Donors. Who does he identify with? Motorists who, like him, live in Park Slope and other close-in neighborhoods. Perhaps if he was forced to take the bus everyday from Gracie Mansion to the gym, he’d start to identify with the majority of New Yorkers who don’t drive everywhere and can’t even afford a car.

    Pretty shameful that he hasn’t educated himself on all the benefits of congestion pricing. Even more shameful if he has and has still reached this conclusion.

  • bolwerk

    It’s rather tragic that there are no better viable candidates out there at this point. He was so obviously not remotely progressive when he started running, even if he sincerely thinks he is. He believes all the same tired neoliberal platitudes that are practically Bloomberg’s religion, and then tops it off with driver-centric faux populism. Bloomberg’s a-bus-for-thee/a-limo-for-me chauvinism is a better outcome than de Blasio’s populism.

    New York needs a mayor who only uses the subway and buses to get around, and knows what that’s like.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    Well written and 100% spot on. I would add that anything that decreases automobile traffic will also support Vision Zero; remember Vision Zero Mr. Mayor?

  • Amazing how politicos and private investors are all-in on “solutions” to mobility in large cities that involve everything EXCEPT the things that ACTUALLY improve mobility – congestion pricing, a FUNCTIONAL subway, bus, and bike network with DEDICATED, PHYSICALLY-SEPARATED infrastructure for the latter two, and even the ferries – cats are using ’em – but that further underscores the need for bus reform.

    Fancy new bridges devoid of transit won’t fix it. Autonomous cars (and especially autonomous car highways) won’t fix it. Hyperloop won’t fix it. Investing in subways and buses (and reducing traffic through better biking facilities and Move NY) WILL.

  • bolwerk

    Almost no investment is necessary to make some serious improvements.

    Want faster buses? Let buses have certain streets to themselves.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    I agree with the Mayor. Congestion pricing allows richer people to haul empty seats faster than poor. Better to begin transitioning to highway-capable thin electric vehicles. Like pedaled and motored cycles, thin cars are best for traffic throughput, land use, and pollution control.

  • aaron clare

    Hey- never forget, all the pro livable streets people who vouched for de Blasio on this website even when Gioia and Mark Green were light years ahead of him on congestion pricing (Gioia voted yes even though his district was opposed). Shock, de Blasio was against it then and he is now.

  • The better candidates have decided to stick to the recent Democratic practice of not challenging the incumbent in the primary.

  • fred

    ur an idiot! there is something called weather! also your selfish not thinking about the majority of people just your little stupid bike for you.

  • fred

    exactly here is another stupid moron bike rider. who only cares about a stupid sliver of the population! we should go back to trollies or something like that. remove stupid bike lanes that are clogging up the city for a very small sliver of stupid people.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Highway-capable, electric cars have four-wheels and they are fully weather protected. They’re not bikes. The poorly designed side seats of cars debilitate cities. I oppose congestion pricing and support buying, leasing, selling, and driving thin electric vehicles to fix city and highway traffic and parking.

    NYC Mayor de Blasio is courageous and correct on this issue.

  • rao

    In spite of high transit use in the core, the majority of people living in the New York area drive themselves to and from work and drive cars for all of their daily needs, as do, in all likelihood, the majority of the mayor’s core supporters (city workers who, unlike most people, are well organized and got a generous contract, and now parking-placard perks, from him). Drivers, not transit riders, are the main political audience for both the governor and the mayor, and they would need to see some tangible benefit from congestion pricing for it to be politically palatable.

    If Move NY had started with this premise, it might have come up with a workable proposal. For example, consider a small, focused charging zone to deter drivers from entering the areas of the worst congestion, such as central Midtown. Such a zone could easily be traversed on foot for those who do not wish to pay, and the money from the charge could go to build streetscape and pedestrian improvements in the area. The benefits in terms of reduced traffic and improved streets would be tangible and would clearly redound to those who pay the costs and use the area in question.

    Instead, apparently because of MoveNY’s obsession with the idea of rationalizing the tolls on the bridges and tunnels, it has produced a much more complicated proposal whose costs and benefits are fundamentally misaligned. The object is supposedly to cut congestion throughout the core–and yet the charges would only be levied at crossings and the 60th Street cordon. We know for a fact that the prices on the MTA crossings are already very high, and yet they are heavily congested anyway. Even high charges aren’t enough to deter drivers from using these crossings, likely because they are the essential links in countless paths between many different combinations of origins and destinations. Meanwhile people would still be able to drive for free within even the most congested areas of the charging zone.

    Then, instead of using the revenue to improve the crossings which are being charged, the idea is to simply toss it at the gaping maw of the MTA and its union–without even knowing what the money will be used for or whether it will be used efficiently (or, frankly, used at all, as MTA management is so incompetent that it can’t seem to spend even the money it now has).

    In sum, this is a poorly thought-out idea that for some reason has become a single-issue shibboleth among activists. My expectation is that we will see universal self-driving cars before Move NY-style congestion charging gets anywhere.

  • Tom Newby

    It’s the cars that are the problem and they have to go. They keep traffic so glommed up that buses full of people can’t move, and worse, emergency vehicles can’t move. We see them every day — police cars, fire trucks, ambulances paralyzed in traffic with sirens blaring and unable to move. Not to mention the pollution cars cause and the people they kill. It is outrageous that when we do the right thing — use public transit — we have to pay for each trip, no matter how short. But if we do the WRONG thing — drive cars — the government uses tax money to build and maintain roads to subsidize the drivers, then lets drivers of cars use the roads for free. Backwards and wrong.

  • stairbob

    Today someone honked at me on my bike and I told him that his problem is that his car is too big. Maybe you’re on to something.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    It’s like a soup company selling 50 brands knowing only three sell at all. Building side seats in cars protects the shelf space and keeps people from questioning whether cars should have side seats even though they’re never used by single occupant vehicle commuters.

    Yes, when it comes to fitting the highways and roads they travel on, cars are way too wide. Bikes would have it much better if everyone switched to a thin car. There would be a lot more room on the roads for bikes, and people would start thinking about bike lanes on highways, too. To concentrate on tolling before rightsizing cars is the wrong approach. It would be more effective to lease narrow cars like bike share.

  • Joe R.

    Those numbers at least put to bed the notion of “poor” outer borough residents being hit with a congestion charge when they car commute into Manhattan. For a long time that was the objection floated by politicians to a congestion tax. Surprise, surprise, but it seems the vast majority of poor people don’t even own cars, much less use them to commute. The income disparities between households which own and don’t own cars are staggering. Catering to car travel in this city truly is favoring the upper middle classes and the rich over everyone else.

  • stairbob

    OK, now you lost me. The cost of replacing everyone’s existing car fleet would be enormous. And it also doesn’t raise any money for transit, or encourage drivers to take more direct routes in lieu of toll-shopping (like taking Canal Street instead of the Verrazano).

  • abienyc

    I agree with you. But I would just like to point out that medallion taxis
    should not be included in the congestion charges. Medallion taxis pay 50 cents for every trip to the MTA. This amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The taxis get nothing in return for this. On the other hand the FHV’s (Uber, Lyft and other black cars) pay 0 so I agree that they should be charged for congestion pricing. Not only should they be charged they should be limited in numbers and capped at an amount that is reasonable to do the pre arranged rides that they are licensed to do. That would help ease traffic even more than congestion charges would.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    If you have a new, much better mode of transit, do you invest in it or pay money to continue the inefficient system? The roads are already built, so it’s a matter of making better use of the existing road width resource. The NYC city council could insist Lyft, Uber, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and other automotive delivery services switch to a narrow vehicles fleet or pay road width fees for vehicles greater than 39″ wide. With the money from the fleet payment, new narrow roads could be created which could attract shopping. Although the fees wouldn’t directly pay for transit, it would address congestion the most directly and successfully. Subways and trains are good for efficient road use. Since buses are wide and slow, they are a big cause of congestion, but the biggest cause of congestion is the side seats of cars. Uber and the rest of the companies listed are uber rich. They could pay for the narrow car fleet.

  • Vooch

    exactly – only cost is red paint for exclusive bus lanes and some signs.

    should be default on every arterial

  • Vooch

    it’s faster & healthier for him to citibike to cityhall than to ‘exercise’ at his gym

  • bolwerk

    What do you need the red paint for if the streets are bus-only? The capital investment seriously just consists of some no-turning signs.

    And I’d bet daytime throughput could be far more than quadrupled.

  • Joe R.

    It’s not just the side seats in cars which are the problem. It’s also the shapes. By its nature a car moves through the air fast. That means it should be highly streamlined, like a bird or a fish. Why we’re making boxes is beyond me. Putting the seats inline instead of next to each other helps with the aerodynamics. Making the car resemble the fuselage of a fighter jet helps even more. Couple the with ultra-low rolling resistance tires and you easily have EVs with 1,000+ mile range.

    The bottom line is “stylists” shouldn’t be designing cars, at least the exterior shapes. Let the stylists stick to the interior. Let wind tunnels dictate the shape.

    Incidentally, I also strongly feel we should apply the same philosophy to human-power vehicles. No reason something power by legs should be limited to fairly low speeds. You can make road-worthy, practical human-powered vehicles which a person in average condition can propel at 30 mph. A strong person could cruise at 45 or 50 mph. Think what this could do to revolutionize human-powered transportation once we have the vehicles plus an appropriate place where they can just get up to speed and maintain it for most of the journey. You could go from the fringes of the outer boroughs to midtown in 30 minutes or less.

  • Vooch


    I’m not not as fanatic as you 🙂

    I’m thinking one lane for buses and one lane for all other motor traffic ( plus likely 2 lanes for car storage )

    You are most correct that reallocating arterials to exclusive bus ( and possibly commerical only ) would more than quadruple throughout.

    But I don’t think Queens is ready for that technically correct solution you propose.

  • sbauman

    The congestion pricing cure is based on two assumptions: the increased congestion within the CBD is due to increased vehicular traffic coming the CBD from outside it; reducing the vehicular traffic coming into the CBD will reduce congestion within the CBD.

    The first assumption, increasing vehicular traffic into the CBD, can be examined. Traffic counts at the CBD boundaries have been collected yearly for a long time. This assumption is not borne out by this data.

    NYCDOT’s bridge count data shows the average daily motor vehicle crossings for the 4 free East River bridges.

    It shows a nearly linear increase until 1985. Since then the average number of crossings has been nearly flat.

    The 60th St corridor data is available from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council annual Hub Bound Travel Report. Table 1A in the Excel Tables shows a similar pattern for inbound vehicle crossings.

    It’s difficult to attribute recent increases in congestion to increased incoming vehicular crossings from outside the CBD, when such crossings have been essentially flat since the mid 1980’s.

    One possible explanation for same number of incoming vehicles into the CBD creating more congestion is that the incoming vehicles are staying longer in the CBD. NYMTC’s Hub Bound Travel Report has a metric that measures the accumulation within the CBD. It’s basically an hour by hour “garbage in” minus “garbage out” calculation taken at the CBD’s cordon. Table 4 in the 2015 Hub Bound Report shows the maximum accumulation from 1971 through 2015 inclusive.

    This data shows a similar pattern. The maxiumum accumulation increased until the mid 1980’s, then was steady until 2001. It has been decreasing since 2001. The maximum accumulation of vehicles within the CBD from outside the CBD was less in 2015 than it was in the 1970’s.

    Increased vehicular traffic from outside the CBD cannot be a principal cause for any increased congestion within the CBD because yearly traffic measurements show such vehiclular traffic has been steady or decreasing since the mid 1980’s. Any attempt to limit vehicular traffic from outside the CBD, e.g. congestion pricing, would be misplaced. It would not be limiting the congestion’s cause.

    What is causing the CBD’s increased congestion, if increased vehicular traffic from outside the CBD isn’t. There are at least two possibilities: increased vehicular traffic within the CBD; and poor traffic management. There’s evidence for both causes.

    The Schaller Report noted: “Over one-half of TNC mileage in the CBD involves trips that both begin and end between 60th Street and the Battery.”

    This pattern may be true for other road users. If so, it indicates that cordon toll based congestion pricing is aiming at the wrong target.

    Another culprit might be traffic signal timing. It should be noted that their original purpose was to regulate vehicular traffic, not provide safety. Vehicular traffic regulation was required because automobile drivers were unable negotiate the right of way at intersections. The problem with traffic signals was that they limited average vehicular speed. One solution was the sequential timing seen on NYC’s one-way avenues. Vehicles would be able to proceed at the speed of the traffic signal sequence, in theory. This theory breaks down, when there are a significant number of vehicles at each block waiting for the next traffic signal to change to green. Indeed, perfect gridlock will be achieved, when each block is 100% occupied. The antidote is change all the signals in unison, as is done on the few remaining two-way avenues. This limits average vehicle speed to the speed limit times the percent of the green cycle. This would limit average speed to 12.5 mph for most traffic signals. This is still greater than the improvement being touted for congestion pricing.

  • qrt145

    Doesn’t Move NY try to address increased vehicular traffic within the CBD to some extent with the FHV distance-based surcharge? I’m sure you must know of some reliable data source, 🙂 but observation and intuition suggests that a huge fraction of traffic in the CBD is taxis.

  • Fool

    Isn’t it pretty obvious that the “middle class commuters” against congestion problem are the placecard holding civil servants?

  • It doesn’t matter whether the congestion in the central business district is increasing or flat. Either way, congestion pricing would reduce it, while at the same time generating revenue.

    Also, even if the total number of vehicles in the central business district has not risen lately, congestion is probably being worsened by the inappropriately ballooning size of vehicles during the last two decades.

  • Onovo

    Ouch. Why did ferries take such a hit here? I’m certainly blue collar and take the ferry over the subway whenever I’m back in the Metro. Even during the winter. The commute is tranquil and therapeutic. The unregulated Ubers running on investments fumes should be the main target. Lumping us in with Uber is a problem. Are there issues with the ferries? Yes. Will the city funding help? Not sure. But there’s a bigger spotlight on it. I heard Yale is focused on the ferries. As arguably the best uni in Metro NYC (sorry Columbia) its a comfort, but I guess it all depends on what Yale shows up. If its the Yale School of Architecture, Environmental Studies, or the Vlock team, its worth listening to. If its the Yale Urban Design Workshop, firewall the money and call the police. Even a better understanding of how a ferry port operates in the winter could have an impact. So many people blast ferry commutes before they even try it. Its not for everyone; but enough of a population takes them as their preferred mode of transport

  • Andrew

    Why did ferries take such a hit here?

    Because the NYC Ferry system, when fully implemented, is projected to carry 12,500 passengers per day, citywide – that’s the equivalent of about 10 moderately crowded subway trains, per day, citywide – at far greater subsidy per person than subway and local bus riders receive.

    In other words, the money being poured into the ferry system could do a heck of a lot more good if it were poured into the subway and local bus systems.

  • Andrew

    Don’t mind him. He’s a troll, or perhaps a spammer:

  • Andrew

    Since buses are wide and slow, they are a big cause of congestion

    No, they are not. Buses are tiny, per person, compared with cars (even your special kind of car).

  • Andrew

    The taxis get nothing in return for this.

    Without a functional transit system, traffic congestion would be far worse than it is today, and medallion taxis would be as stuck in it as everybody else.

  • Andrew

    Troll, meet troll.

  • abienyc


    With that reasoning it would be then proper to say that every one who drives should be paying the MTA anytime they start their car!

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Thin electric vehicles are a new mode of transportation that clearly fit the Streetsblog/NACTO/Shared-Use Mobility template of better transportation for cities. They belong in discussions about transportation as much or more than any other road-tested vehicle, especially when solutions for congestion are discussed.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Congestion is about throughput, not about parked vehicles. The thinner the vehicle, the better it is for traffic thoughput. Here’s a video from IBM People for Smarter Cities which demonstrates why thin cars are a very good tool to consider for traffic congestion mitigation over buses and other forms of transport

  • AnoNYC

    Here is the true personal urban transport solution for many if not most trips:

    At least right now, this is one of the quickest and most reliable ways around town during the day. The electric bicycle.

  • sbauman

    Here are two links to what Move NY said in 2015.

    The second link states that medallion yellow cabs constitute 40% of the moving vehicles within the CBD. I don’t know how that figure was derived. Congestion pricing tolls should be directed at those causing the congestion. Do Move NY’s tolls on medallion yellow cabs come anywhere close to 40% of the money raised? I have not seen any such assertion in Move NY’s fairness declarations.

  • sbauman

    It doesn’t matter whether the congestion in the central business district is increasing or flat. Either way, congestion pricing would reduce it,

    I was looking at the number of vehicles within the CBD from outside it. The question of measuring congestion within the CBD is another question that needs to be quantified. Only then can targets be set as to what are acceptable congestion levels and strategies be developed to achieve them. The only definition for congestion is similar to Potter Stewart’s pornography definition.

    If the object is to reduce congestion within the CBD, then any strategy should target its causes. Strategies that target those that do not contribute substantially to the CBD’s congestion, will succeed in reducing the number of vehicles that are not causing the CBD’s congestion. Such strategies are not likely to succeed in reducing the CBD’s congestion.

    while at the same time generating revenue.

    How much of congestion pricing’s toll revenue would actually be transferred to the subway system? A lot of Move On’s toll revenue is siphoned off before reaching the subway system. That’s to make it palatable. OTOH, a far greater percentage of DeBlasio’s millionaire’s tax would reach the subway system. One of NYC’s problems vis-a-vis the state has been taxes paid by NYC residents are spent outside NYC. Move NY’s toll proposal is perpetuating this.

    congestion is probably being worsened by the inappropriately ballooning size of vehicles during the last two decades.

    My gut instinct is to agree with this. I would like to see studies to confirm or disprove this hypothesis. If proven, then it would further suggest that the current congestion pricing mantra is misplaced. It’s not the number of vehicles that is causing congestion but the total vehicular footprint. Toll larger vehicles and give subcompacts a free pass.

  • Michel S

    I always love this picture, but it’s also not even accurate. Those 60 vehicles would not be traveling together at such close distances. At even the slowest speeds, there would need to be about half-a-car-length between each vehicle, so the road space consumed is actually larger than what is pictured.

    You could argue the same thing about the bikes as well, but the distances between vehicles would be less and they would still outperform the cars. Unfortunately, they would never be given the total width of the road like cars are, which might negate the difference. Ultimately, the bus is always the winner.

  • ohnonononono

    “On the other hand the FHV’s (Uber, Lyft and other black cars) pay 0 so I agree that they should be charged for congestion pricing.”

    On the other hand, FHV fares are subject to sales tax while taxis are not.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Yes. Absolutely. Great. And the key attribute to why it’s the best is because of its width. No one thinks traffic would be the better or the same if side seats were included on pedaled or motored cycles like this: Same logic applies to highway-capable cars. Single-width cars are better to mitigate congestion on highways and cities than side-seated cars.

  • Rex Rocket
  • bolwerk

    The fanatics are the people who set up the current system. Nearly every street is currently dedicated to cars right now, with the majority of users pushed to a little sidewalk. It makes perfect sense to have streets dedicated to buses (or other surface transit). There should also be streets that offer respite from all vehicles except bikes, and maybe including bikes in some extreme cases.

  • Vooch

    you mean like this ?

  • “the time penalty that affluent people in cars impose on less affluent people riding the bus” – Thanks for putting this into words.

  • Lewis

    Yes that’s correct. The last draft I saw had a combination distance and time based charge.


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