KOMANOFF: How to Counter the Latest Congestion Pricing Objections

Mayor de Blasio and State Senator Diane Savino have objected to congestion pricing. Both of their concerns can be addressed.
Mayor de Blasio and State Senator Diane Savino have objected to congestion pricing. Both of their concerns can be addressed.

It’s tempting to dismiss Mayor de Blasio’s offering tepid support for congestion pricing so long as there are toll exemptions for the poor and elderly as the sputterings of a rank hypocrite. After all, this is the same mayor who has botched the rollout of Fair Fares and who looks away as thugs in NYPD uniforms attack hard-pressed immigrant delivery-bicyclists.

We could also point to the 2017 report from the Community Service Society that delivered the indelible finding that for each member of the working poor who will face a congestion toll daily, 38 poor people will benefit from better transit paid for by the congestion tolls. Case closed, one could say.

But neither of those arguments would quite respond to Sen. Diane Savino, whose 23rd District “transit-starved residents lack the luxury of a one-seat ride via public transportation,” as she pointed out during the mayor’s appearance yesterday in Albany.

Savino’s constituents and those in other underserved parts of all five boroughs deserve more than glib answers on congestion pricing’s incidence. After all, those billion or more a year in toll revenues that have us transit advocates salivating must come from somewhere. And most of it won’t come from millionaires living in Connecticut. New York City residents will pony up around two-thirds (the precise share varies depending on toll levels and whether the figures count surcharges on taxis and Ubers).

Nor is it sufficient to point out that for most daily commuters, the tolls will be dwarfed by the costs of car ownership and use including parking. A lot of habitual drivers into Manhattan’s Central Business District have their parking, uh, carded. And don’t overlook status quo bias, which leads us humans to calibrate equity in terms of deviation from current conditions rather than overall fairness. Citing pricey parking or $200 theatre tickets only makes prospective congestion toll-payers feel more targeted.

Here, then, are ways to think about, and push back against, appeals for carve-outs from the congestion tolls, whether they come from a posturing executive or a thoughtful legislator:

  • Carve-outs are a Trojan horse. Not only are “broad exemptions beyond [the] disabled a recipe for corruption,” as NY Post columnist Nicole Gelinas tweeted on Monday. They’ll cut into the net revenue available for transit by shrinking the number of tolled trips and adding new administrative costs to tolling’s deadweight loss.
  • Carve-outs undermine the fairness of congestion pricing. Despite getting little ink these days, congestion pricing is still rooted in the need to make would-be drivers cognizant of their trips’ congestion-causation. Except in the wee hours, every minute that a motor vehicle is occupying space in the CBD steals two or more minutes from the “commons” of other vehicle users. Exemptions blur that signal with the confounding message: Your congestion-causation matters, but not mine.
  • Some of the transit gaps in long-neglected communities will be filled by fully funding NYC Transit chief Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, which includes a citywide redesign of the bus network with more-efficient routes and more-frequent service.
  • Nevertheless, even Fast Forward may not cover all of the gaps. That points to the need to fill remaining holes with the Transit Gap Investment Fund that Alex Matthiessen has championed for years since spearheading Move NY. And that in turn points to the need to hold the line against carve-outs, since every exemption takes away revenue needed for MTA funding.
  • Assuming congestion pricing is included in the April 1 budget, with a start date of January 1, 2021, car commuters will have 21 months to work out alternative commute plans to blunt the toll bite. It’s worth bearing in mind transportation analyst Bruce Schaller’s singular finding from 2006 (in “Necessity or Choice? Why People Drive in Manhattan“) that municipal workers solo-drive to the CBD twice as much as their neighbors who work in the same zip code. It shouldn’t take long before apps show up that can pair or triple up those commuters, dropping their daily toll costs by half or more.

The sixth and last pushback may be the hardest, but it’s also the most basic. New York is an opportunity city, an immigrant city, an expanding city, with 1.3 million more people in 2017 (8,622,000) than in 1990 (7,322,000). The jobs boom that drove this growth rested on improved public transportation, as Gelinas pointed out last year in her underappreciated report, “New York’s Economic Future Rides on Its Subways.”

The city won’t sustain this performance while its streets are choking and its trains are failing. Congestion pricing isn’t the only change we’ll need to fix our roads and transit. But it’s hard to imagine a functional transportation system and a viable city without it.

  • AnoNYC

    No exemptions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just say that Diane Savino has only represented people who now live in Florida, or will be there within five years, at the expense of everyone else.

    https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2015/S5359

    This should be thrown in her face whenever she crawls out from under her rock to say anything. And when they eliminate bus service, her district and Abbate’s districts should be first.

  • Joe R.

    Also worth asking is how many of those 1 in 38 poor people who might face a congestion charge have viable alternatives, but to date have been unwilling to use them? This is NYC. It frankly insults my intelligence when somebody says a poor person who lives in the Bronx has to drive into Manhattan.

  • In terms of reality, the appropriate thing to say to outer-borough drivers is: “You are the problem. Therefore, you do not get to have a say in the solution to this serious crisis that you yourself have caused.”

    But figuring out what to tell these people in terms that are palatable according to the norms governing acceptable political discourse, this is a whole other question.

  • carl jacobs

    Carve-outs are a Trojan horse.

    And yet they are inevitable. Why? Because powerful political constituencies will demand them. They will correctly see this tax as a diminution of their standard of living and demand either exemption or compensation. And they will receive what they demand.

    You must deal with reality. The reality is that a large number of people will use their political clout to avoid paying this tax.

  • sbauman

    for each member of the working poor who will face a congestion toll daily, 38 poor people will benefit from better transit paid for by the congestion tolls. Case closed,

    That’s assuming: there’s a positive correlation between the money available to the MTA and the transit quality that’s provided; and the congestion toll money will be spent on transit projects that these poor people use. Those are bad assumptions, based on the MTA’s past performance.

    Carve-outs undermine the fairness of congestion pricing…Except in the wee hours, every minute that a motor vehicle is occupying space in the CBD steals two or more minutes from the “commons” of other vehicle users.

    Does the proposed cordon toll differentiate between the amount of time each vehicle spends in the CBD or is it a flat fee regardless of how long the motor vehicle remains on the roadways within CBD?

    Some of the transit gaps in long-neglected communities will be filled by fully funding NYC Transit chief Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan…Nevertheless, even Fast Forward may not cover all of the gaps.

    Name 1 new subway station in “Fast Forward” that will eliminate a transit gap (more than 1/2 mile from a subway station). There aren’t any. Byford is on record as stating there won’t be any.

    a citywide redesign of the bus network with more-efficient routes and more-frequent service.

    Redesigning the bus network does not depend on implementing congestion pricing. Nothing has prevented the MTA from doing this for the past 50 years. A bus network redesign will do little to improve the lot of those who live in the transit gaps. Local NYC bus service might be slow (in mph) compared to other cities. However, local NYC bus trips are also shorter in terms of distance. This means that the average time spent on the bus is actually less than most other cities. This is because most bus trips are first/last mile to the subway, that isn’t as ubiquitous as the comparison cities. The number of daily bus trips that cross each intersection is highest near the subway terminals that serve the transit gaps. This should not be surprising. What is surprising is that this number already exceeds the hourly volume that can be handled by these intersections. Adding more frequent service will only compound the problem.

    an expanding city, with 1.3 million more people in 2017 (8,622,000) than in 1990 (7,322,000). The jobs boom that drove this growth rested on improved public transportation

    NYC had plenty of public transit surface car lines before consolidation. It’s the expansion of public transit that’s below or above the street that drove NYC’s population increases in the first few decades of the 20th century.

    This expansion was to the existing transit gaps, the areas not served by the late 19th century elevated lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Plenty of gaps still exist. 25% of NYC residents live in them, generally in low density housing. Expanding the subway system in their direction is what’s needed sustain NYC’s population growth without simultaneously increasing its surface traffic congestion. Unfortunately, the current congestion pricing proposal is directing its proceeds elsewhere.

  • Sassojr

    Once more for those in the back:

    Motorcycles are a viable tool to simultaneously a) increase mobility, b) reduce congestion, c) reduce strain on an already strained system. They should not be penalized (and are not tolled in the European systems which are proven successes).

    The Lexington line is already over capacity during morning rush; other lines are close. Does anyone honestly think things get better here by implementing congestion pricing before fixing the MTA? London fixed their transit woes FIRST.

  • nyc-cynic

    I’m sure that Lex ave is still pretty crowded, but by now we should have seen at least some reduction courtesy of the Second Ave Stub. Any word on how much that’s helped?

  • AnoNYC

    There has been a noticeable reduction in ridership along the Lexington Ave line on the Upper East Side. Crowded during peak hours, but much more bearable.

  • AnoNYC

    I have a friend and Brooklyn and anothero in the Bronx who are both about a 25 minute subway ride from their jobs in the Manhattan CBD. They have low wage jobs but still drive. They do so because they hate the subway.

  • AnoNYC

    Does anyone honestly think things get better here by implementing congestion pricing before fixing the MTA?

    It’s going to take at least about 12 years to modernize the signal system where necessary and the money isn’t there right now.

    You can’t fix the problem without the funding. And also think about the bus system, walking and bicycling. How do you make those modes of transportation more attractive without reducing the number of other vehicles? Once you further reduce the number of automobiles, you can create much more in the way of bus lanes, bike lanes and expanded pedestrianized space. Once those modes get enhanced priority they will become an even more attractive way to get around.

  • Brian Wilson

    By that logic, we should always bow to powerful political constituencies and accept their specious arguments, even at the cost of overall wellbeing, but that’s not how democracy is supposed to work. Congestion pricing benefits all users of the roadways, including motorists, by reducing congestion, so it’s not accurate to say that it would represent a net diminution of anyone’s standard of living.

  • AnoNYC

    As someone who lives one mile from the nearest subway station a few things that the MTA could do to make my life easier are:

    -At least queue jumps at the lights.
    -Traffic signal priority.
    -Off board payment on my route.
    -Reduce bunching.
    -Keep reasonable wait times (5 minutes or less) during peak hours, 8-10 minutes off peak. Reliably. (scheduling is currently 4-6 minutes during peak, 10 minutes off peak but very unreliable).

    I often find myself:

    A: Requesting an app-based for-hire vehicle, usually a Pool/Line/Via.
    B: Walking the 12-15 minutes or so (from door to platform it’s often tied or beats the bus).
    C: Sometimes biking to the subway, but not so much because I am worried about theft or just bike the whole way.

    Dying for Citi Bike or Jump expansion into my area, would only take the bus during inclement weather and significantly reduce for-hire vehicle usage to subway.

  • Sassojr

    When I don’t ride into the city, my 4 train from Mosholou typically spends 3 minutes stopped at 161, another 3 at 149, and a highly variable amount of time traveling to 125 (anywhere from full speed to 15 minutes). This hasn’t changed since the 2nd avenue stub.

    I have noticed fewer trips headed into Manhattan that are at capacity after 125.. 6 train is still generally terrible. Uptown is always packed in the PM. No noticable change there.

  • sbauman

    As someone who lives one mile from the nearest subway station a few things that the MTA could do to make my life easier are:

    It’s pretty difficult to justify a 1 mile bus trip on the basis of time savings. It’s pretty difficult to justify a 2.1 mile trip, which is what the length of the average local NYC bus trip.

    How much your suggestions would shorten the trip depends on the individual situation.

    How many traffic lights are there on your 1 mile bus trip? How much queue jumps would help depends on how many buses are ahead of your bus at the particular traffic light.

    It’s easy to quantify how much traffic signal priority would provide. Assuming a 50% green aspect on a 90 second cycle time, the average wait time is 13.9 seconds per light. TSP increases the green aspect an effective 6 seconds for approaching buses. This would reduce the average wait time to 10.8 seconds per light.

    Off board payment is expensive. That’s why it’s been used mostly on SBS buses that increase the distance between stops. Add the extra walking time onto your trip. Off board payment only speeds you onto the bus. Overall boarding time is not decreased, if there are standees. NYC local buses have more passengers per mile than than cities with faster bus speeds.

    5 and 10 minute wait times are not reasonable when walking is only 20 minutes.

    Bike share and e-scooter share are probably a faster solution than buses for most people who live 1 to 2 miles from a subway stop.

    An even better solution would be to expand the subway network so that all NYC residents live within 1/2 mile of a subway stop. That solution isn’t part of the congestion pricing proposal.

  • qrt145

    Maybe congestion pricing will make them reconsider. Where do they park? Parking in the CBD can be expensive. Or do they have placards?

  • carl jacobs

    You are confusing what is with what you think aught to be.

  • Brian Wilson

    The purpose of government is to create what ought to be.

  • Joe R.

    Any reason you don’t just walk all the time? Honestly, I wish the nearest subway station was only a mile from me. In reality it’s 2.7 miles. And before they got rid of double fares I walked more often than not. By comparison walking a mile is a piece of cake. When things are a mile away I don’t even consider any mode BUT walking. Not worthwhile to take the bike out for such a short trip, plus there usually isn’t safe parking. Not worth it waiting for a bus. Certainly not worth paying a fare for that bus. The only time I might not walk a mile is if I’m boarding the subway, meaning the bus is essentially free, and the bus happens to come right away.

  • Joe R.

    I heard the “I hate the subway” excuse myself but it’s unfathomable how sitting in traffic breathing exhaust fumes is any better. I wonder when a lot of these people who claim they hate the subway actually last rode it. My guess is never. They believe all the crap they see on the news and in movies which depict the subways as rolling trash cans.

  • Joe R.

    In the meantime though doing things like getting rid of unneeded timers, fixing the necessary ones so they don’t trip at a lower speed, and restoring the original performance of the trains can do a lot to speed up trips. The MTA is doing at least the first two, although I don’t know why they waited so long. They also need to do the last.

  • AnoNYC

    The walk is kind of unpleasant. It’s through multiple public housing blocks and over a pedestrian bridge (highway). And I’m always trying to save a minute when I can, though I am persistently late for things.

    I am going to start walking it more often though, the time savings are not worth an Uber. Just more a pain with the colder weather.

    But bike share would cut the walk to the subway station dramatically. From a 12-15 minute walk, to like 5 minutes.

    I think my goal for 2019 is no for-hire vehicles to the subway unless poor weather conditions.

  • AnoNYC

    I wrote a lengthy response but unfortunately it never posted for some reason.

    I support TSP, bus lanes, all door boarding and the rest to help maintain scheduling along the route.

    I really want bike share in my area, but Citi Bike hasn’t announced the coverage for the next expansion. Unlikely it will hit my neighborhood though, maybe dockless. I also support ekick scooters.

    And I definitely support subway expansion. I would even pay increased taxes for it.

  • AnoNYC

    Off-street sometimes but usually in a garage as of late. They don’t work typical business hours. One works late day, the other late night.

    CP could probably influence their choices, especially the one from Brooklyn. Been trying to get him to bike but he keeps putting it off though he is interested. Bike trip is the same travel time as driving for him. The friend from the Bronx has a longer bicycle trip, but he’s not fit enough for it. An ebike though might be an option.

  • AnoNYC

    The problems on the subway are highly exaggerated. I mean yeah, it gets crowded, and yeah, it gets delayed, but most days are uneventful. Delays are annoying but traffic on the road is also a delay, but drivers automatically account for it.

  • carl jacobs

    What “ought to be” is dependent upon the worldview of the observer and therefore cannot be severed from the polity that discerns it. If Bob rejects Bill’s vision of “ought” then Bob is free to oppose it within the confines of the system. If he feels damaged or threatened then he may use the system to protect himself and his interests. He is not bound to meekly submit to the dictates of those with a contrary vision of “ought”.

  • sbauman

    I support TSP, bus lanes, all door boarding and the rest to help maintain scheduling along the route.

    It’s important to quantify how much these changes would improve bus transportation. It may or may not be worth the effort. Any improvement might be self limiting because the street grid might not be able to handle increased or even existing bus traffic levels.

    I really want bike share in my area,

    I do too. The big problem with sharing as a subway feeder is rebalancing. This requires more labor than is factored into the current bike share business model.

    And I definitely support subway expansion. I would even pay increased taxes for it.

    My parents voted for the increased taxes for subway expansion back in 1951. Taxes were increasd but the proceeds were re-appropriated. That’s been subway expansion’s history. Which comes back to congestion pricing: fool me once…

  • Brian Wilson

    As members of a democracy governed by laws, we submit to a consensus-derived vision of what ought to be at every moment. Some laws may be more controversial than others, but that doesn’t make them “dictates”, or make it necessarily ethical to defy them just because one objects to them.
    Congestion pricing is grounded in much objective reasoning about how we should treat the commons, and who should pay for damages to it. The fact that someone is accustomed to having others pay the cost while crowding, polluting and endangering the roadways does not entitle them to that arrangement indefinitely.

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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.