De Blasio’s Wrong: Poor New Yorkers Stand to Gain a Lot From Congestion Pricing

Hundreds of thousands of low-income New Yorkers stand to benefit from new transit funding, compared to just 5,000 who might pay tolls to car commute under the Move NY plan.

Just 4 percent of outer borough workers car commute into Manhattan, and of those, the vast majority are from middle- or high-income households. Image: Community Service Society
Just 4 percent of outer borough workers car commute into Manhattan, and of those, the vast majority are from middle- or high-income households. Image: Community Service Society

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mayor Bill de Blasio insists that congestion pricing is “a regressive tax.” A new report from the Community Service Society [PDF] shows that the mayor doesn’t have a leg to stand on: The people who would pay more to drive into the most congested parts of the city are disproportionately affluent, and poor New Yorkers stand to gain much more from reforming the city’s toll system than from the status quo.

On Sunday, announcing a congestion relief plan that’s doomed to fail, de Blasio reiterated his opposition to the Move NY plan, which would charge a uniform price to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street while lowering tolls on farther-out MTA crossings.

“Rich people will pay it without even knowing and poor people and working class people will really take a hit,” the mayor said.

That’s not what the Census data says. For every low-income New Yorker who drives into Manhattan from the outer boroughs and might be affected by Move NY, dozens would reap the benefits of transit improvements made possible by Move NY revenues, according to CSS.

Just 4 percent of all NYC workers who live in the outer boroughs commute into Manhattan by car, according to American Community Survey data from 2011 through 2015. Most of those commuters are on the upper end of the income ladder: 55 percent qualify as high-income, while just 16 percent earn less than double the federal poverty threshold.

Of all outer borough households earning less than double the poverty line, just 2 percent commute via car into Manhattan — a total of 5,000 people. That still overstates the number of people who would pay, since many commuters to jobs above 60th Street would not be affected by the Move NY toll cordon.

The benefits of congestion pricing, meanwhile, would accrue to low-income New Yorkers in a number of ways. Relieving traffic jams will improve bus service, which has been consistently losing speed as streets get more crowded with cars. Revenue from the congestion fees will also be reinvested in capital improvements that can make trains and buses faster and more reliable.

Those service improvements would benefit more than 2.1 million subway and bus riders. Of those, 190,000 would be eligible for half-price MetroCards under the “Fair Fares” proposal — 38 times the maximum number of low-income car commuters who would pay a congestion fee.

“The high cost of riding the city’s buses and subways is pushing people into poverty,” said CSS President and CEO David Jones, one of mayor’s representatives on the MTA Board. “That reality cannot be ignored as we consider solutions for fixing our deteriorating mass transit system and ensuring its viability for the millions who rely on it daily and drive the city’s economy.”

Image: Community Service Society
Chart: Community Service Society

“CSS’s data analysis confirms that the City’s working poor are clear beneficiaries under the Move NY Fair Plan — a highly progressive proposal that will slash traffic and raise over $1 billion a year to upgrade and expand our mass transit system,” said Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen. “If we are serious about improving outcomes for the lowest income New Yorkers, we need to invest in mass transit and make it easier and more affordable for working people to get to their jobs, look for work or access job training and education programs.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    In New York it’s never really about the poor, something I find infuriating.

    Per $1,000 of all state residents’ personal income, which state spends the most on cash assistance to the poor under “public welfare” programs like TANF (the former AFDC)?

    Utah. New York is not close.

    New York leads in money going to middle class and affluent people “for the poor.”

    You look at numbers for a few decades while being BSed and you end up getting pretty ticked off.

  • reasonableexplanation

    If all we care about is reducing commuting by car to manhattan, it would make sense to have the congestion fee kick in after a certain number of trips per month (e.g. 4, or 1 per week). This way it will only hit those that commute, and not those that occasionally drive back into the city for a night out or something.

    This would be trivial to do if tied to ez-pass, and would probably make the plan even more popular.

    This model has been done elsewhere; there’s a new tolled highway that gives you 1 free ride per month, basically, if you’re just passing through once in a blue moon it’s all yours, but if you use it more often that to commute, you gotta pay.

    Maybe even have the toll ramp up; first trip free, then $1 for the next one, then $2, $3, up to the full congestion amount.

  • No. The fewer exemptions, the better. People who only make occasional car trips in the cordon zone already aren’t paying that much.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I guess you;d be against setting the congestion charge to only be in effect during peak times as well?

    If so, why? With a few exceptions, the CBD is pretty empty after hours.

  • A time-based variable toll is a very different thing than a blanket exemption for certain types of trips without regard to congestion levels.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Looks like we have some common ground! I really feel that this needs to be a part of MoveNY to get more folks to accept it.

    Instead of being “screw you, pay me” It will be obviously and directly tied to congestion.

  • Reader

    On congestion pricing, our allegedly progressive mayor said, “Rich people will pay it without even knowing and poor people and working class people will really take a hit.”

    The same could be said of the effects of traffic congestion right now. Rich people with flexible and salaried jobs can afford to sit in traffic, be late to work, or pay the babysitter a little extra when they’re late getting home. Working class people “really take a hit” when their bus isn’t moving and they don’t show up to the start of their shift, for which they’re paid by the hour. They take a hit when they have to pay more to daycare providers because they’re late picking up their kids. They take a hit when they have to pay a cancellation fee to a doctor when they miss an appointment and still have to take more time off of work to go back.

    The mayor is being willfully dishonest about this issue. He knows it and his advisors know it. I’d love it if the press could stop asking him for his opinions on congestion pricing and instead ask him on what basis he’s formed those opinions.

  • Komanoff

    Wow, I really appreciate this comment. It’s about as real as anything I’ve read about congestion pricing in a long time. I’m copying it to my fellow advocates at Move NY.

  • JarekFA

    It’s pretty busy on Sunday afternoons. You’d think it wouldn’t but induced demand is like that.

  • reasonableexplanation

    It’s pretty busy on Saturday afternoons too, but Sat-Thu after 7PM or so, you have most of the CBD to yourself if you’re in a car. There’s tons of parking too. That’s why a variable toll makes sense.

  • Joe R.

    You can also say the same thing about the subway fare. Those with good jobs hardly notice it, while it’s a big hit for those making minimum wage or less. However, our mayor doesn’t seem overly concerned about these people. If he did, he wouldn’t have said the city couldn’t afford a fare subsidy program for the poor. He is concerned about “poor” drivers who go into Manhattan each day, a group which is about as rare as unicorns according to the data.

  • Joe R.

    Variable is good, but let’s make it a non-prohibitive $5 or so during less busy times and something much higher during peak times (I don’t think $100 would be entirely unreasonable). Let delivery trucks pay lower amounts, the idea being we want to let essential traffic flow freely while discouraging non-essential traffic.

  • kevd

    I agree.
    But saturdays and sundays see some pretty heavy traffic in the day.
    overnight there is little weekdays or weekends.

  • JarekFA

    The one time I got NYRB tix was to see an exhibition against Arsenal. I would’ve taken the PATH but the PATH was shut down that weekend to WTC (great transit system). So I got a Zipcar. Took about an hour to get through the Holland Tunnel despite leaving from Battery Park City. Arrived at half time.

    Also, with one tube closed for the Brooklyn Battery, regularly takes about 20 mins to get through it to leave MN in the early evening on Sundays, and that’s with aggressive, cutting everyone off and merging late driving. I’m all for 24 hours/7day week congestion pricing with lowered pricing at off peak hours.

  • Komanoff

    I liked your idea enough to build the capability to analyze it into my BTA spreadsheet, some years ago. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t “test” well enough when it was tried out on various random folks, so we haven’t included it in the Move NY plan. Maybe it becomes part of a last-minute compromise to push the legislation over the top.

  • kevd

    its 2017. there can be a bunch of tiers.
    full on bad ass – 7am-10am / 4pm-7pm congestion, normal horrible NYC 10am-4pm congestion – or 10pm-5am doesn’t noramally exist except for construction congestion.

    I’ve been to Red Bull Arena twice.
    once for the US losing to Ecuador in an exibition, once for a dull 0-0 to the Philadephia Union. (at least the second was free – nearly made up for the $10 beers….)

    In Germany many Bundesliga clubs have 15 euro standing spots (with german beer for only 3 Eur) bundesliga 2 have the same for 10 euros… and the football is much better, too. Standing sections there are a bit frightening. but not so crowded as to be unsafe.

  • Guy Ross

    Something to consider: rich people will just invest in multiple ez pass systems. And the working class who choose to drive will be hit the hardest again. I’m not prepared to shed a tear for either group but system-gaming needs to always be considered.

    I have friends in Mexico City. In the 90’s when the city implemented exclusion days per week for individual cars, my rich friends just bought more cars so they could always drive.

  • Kevin J Keley

    Underlying De Blasio’s thinking — or at least his rhetoric — is an Old Left politics that gives precedence to economic issues over all others, even when reality doesn’t conform to his belief system. De Blasio has shown again and again that he just doesn’t understand, let alone share, green-tinged progressive politics. For the same reasons — and I speak as a former Vermonter — Bernie Sanders might well be opposed to congestion pricing.

  • AstoriaBlowin

    I don’t think it’s anything to do with “old left” politics or a concern for the poor driven by socialist leanings. BdB has shown again and again an inflexibility and lack of imagination on so many issues, the idea of paying to drive just doesn’t fit with his windshield perspective so he can’t stomach it. Look at his joke of a congestion relief plan, it tries to give more space to cars instead of reducing the number of cars. It also doesn’t help that he’s locked into a childish feud with Cuomo so can’t support something the governor does.

  • Vooch

    BdB thinks like a suburbanite

    that’s the problem

  • Vooch

    profound insight

  • Vooch

    why should driving be free at any time ?

    should we make the subway free at off hours too ?

  • Vooch

    private cars :
    off peak – $5
    peak – $100

    commercial vehicles
    off peak $1
    peak $500

    gov’t officials
    off peak $200
    peak $2000

    BdB going to Gym
    always $10,000

  • Vooch

    they are only frightening when the English or Scots come to town

  • Reggie

    The mayor should be grateful that the Republican party couldn’t find a more popular candidate. I will vote for all three of the ballot initiatives and in my contested City Council election. I won’t even bother with a protest vote in the rest of the contests.

  • Andrew

    If all we care about is reducing commuting by car to manhattan,

    How on earth does it matter whether a particular trip is for commutation or for some other purpose?

    it would make sense to have the congestion fee kick in after a certain number of trips per month (e.g. 4, or 1 per week).

    Does this pricing model exist anywhere else? Do subway riders get their first four rides per month free of charge? Do taxi riders get their first four rides per month free of charge? Do grocery store customers get their first four cucumbers per month free of charge? Do clothing store customers get their first four shirts per month free of charge? Do apartment renters get their first four days per month free of charge?

    Why would anybody even suggest such a wacky pricing model? Driving is heavily subsidized everywhere, but it’s especially heavily subsidized in locations, such as the Manhattan CBD, where land values are very high. This creates problems of both equity and overconsumption. The point of any congestion pricing plan is to pass a small share of that subsidy back to the driver who incurs it, addressing in part both the equity and the overconsumption problems. Exempting four trips per month would dilute the benefits of congestion pricing for no rational purpose.

    Exempting four trips per month would also grant an excess share of the benefit to households with multiple cars. Just as car-owning households are considerably wealthier, on average, than non-car-owning households, so too are multiple-car-owning households considerably wealthier than single-car-owning households. If there’s anybody who doesn’t need extra subsidies, it’s households that own multiple cars.

  • Ishamgirl

    You’re not low income if own a car, you’re driving into Manhattan and/or you’re paying for parking.

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Photo: Crain's New York

Bucking de Blasio, Speaker Candidates Support Congestion Pricing

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Mayor de Blasio is pulling out all the stops to frame congestion pricing as a "regressive tax," even though low-income New Yorkers stand to gain enormously. Not a single contender for council speaker is on the same page as the mayor. In a debate hosted by Crain's this morning, they all signaled support for congestion pricing, with a few caveats.