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Congestion Pricing

Opinion: Here’s How to Get Congestion Pricing Right

Why focus on the vegetables when dessert is on the table? 

Photo: Sam Schwartz Engineering|

This city can be better, thanks to congestion pricing.

Why focus on the vegetables when dessert is on the table? 

Congestion pricing is set to start in a few months, and throughout years of public engagement, we’ve heard a lot about the pain and sacrifice necessary to decongest the Central Business District and support New York’s lifeblood, the MTA. The toll is designed to make it more burdensome to drive into the CBD; to make drivers think twice about contributing to overcrowding, traffic violence, and pollution. But we’ve focused a lot on those “vegetables” – the sacrifice – and much less on the dessert – all the things we can do with the space newly freed up by fewer cars.

So my organization released a set of congestion pricing desserts — good things we can get, thanks to the toll. We’re urging the Adams administration, the state and the MTA to get serious about making the most of congestion pricing’s potential. Here are four improvements that focus on transit and road safety:

Free fares

Congestion pricing should start with a bang, with the kind of fanfare that signals “this is the first day of the rest of our lives.” So we think the MTA should offer free bus service, and the city should offer free rides on the ferry, during the first week of congestion pricing. The only thing better than dessert is free dessert; free fares will benefit longtime commuters and entice some New Yorkers to try commuting by bus or ferry. Not having to worry about payment also alleviates some of the stress of trying a new routine for the first time. 

Get buses moving

This is our golden opportunity to move New York’s buses out of “slowest in the nation” territory. Prior to the start of congestion pricing in London, officials increased bus service by 27 percent. New York should follow that model.

We need dedicated bus lanes on First, Second, Ninth and 10th avenues, along all bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan, busways on major arterials into the CBD such as Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard, and on major crosstown streets like 23rd, 34th, and 42nd streets.

There are two packages currently in Albany that can get us there: Get Congestion Pricing Right, led by state Sen. Mike Gianaris and Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, calls for $90 million for more frequent service and the expansion of the fare-free bus pilot.

And the Six Minute Service campaign, led by Riders Alliance, would put up to $300 million in the budget to fund service with wait times no longer than six minutes on all city buses and subways.

Double-wide bike lanes

With less street space taken up by cars, DOT can repurpose car lanes for cyclists with greater ease. Building off their previous work on Third and 10th avenues, we’re calling for two-way, double-wide bike lanes on remaining major avenues – First, Second, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and 11th – as well as additional crosstown two-way lanes at 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 50th, 59th and 72nd streets.

Wide, two-way lanes are proven to cut down on chaos and create more comfortable riding for New Yorkers at any age and speed. We know that inadequate infrastructure keeps many New Yorkers, especially women and older riders, from cycling. Building more supportive infrastructure is a surefire way to encourage more cycling and ensure it’s equitable and accessible for anyone. 

More space for schools

One of congestion pricing’s sweetest benefits can be to improve the lives of children. Every day, we ask our students to travel on streets near schools that are more dangerous than the city average. And many students, once they arrive, have no safe space to greet friends and teachers or enjoy recess outdoors.

The DOT’s Open Streets: Schools program is meant to solve this problem by creating car-free space on school-adjacent streets, but the program is not as widespread as it could be. Rather than make schools come to the program, DOT should bring the program to schools by proactively designating school streets throughout the CBD. The agency can start by prioritizing the schools that don’t currently have any other outdoor space. 

Congestion pricing isn’t important only because it will reduce the number of cars below 60th Street in Manhattan; its true value lies in what else we can get when that happens. This is a sweet deal for New Yorkers of all stripes. We need City and State leaders to show up for us, support these changes enthusiastically, and make a plan to get the most out of this historic moment. 

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