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Congestion Pricing’s Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo Getty Images

Two things New Yorkers can agree on: There’s too much traffic, and it’s someone else’s fault. I’ve listened to cabbies blame bike lanes for gobbling up space, been yelled at by drivers for crossing the street on foot and interfering with their God-given right to run a red light, heard passengers fulminate at buses for getting all but immobilized, and found myself biking in a narrowing slot canyon between two SUVs. The roads keep getting worse, too, as suburbanites and urbanites both add to their stables of cars.

Congestion pricing, that euphemism for a midtown and lower Manhattan vehicular entry fee, will finally help mitigate the snarl and maybe even quell the snarling. I was in favor of the Bloomberg administration’s first proposal back in 2007, and I believe we need it even more urgently now. The essence is simple: Make drivers subsidize public transit. In a well-tuned system, the relatively few who must — or feel they must — steer their vehicles into Manhattan, anywhere from Central Park to Battery Park, will pay for the privilege. The money helps improve the experience of millions who arrive by train, bus, ferry, bike, or on foot. The toll also lightens traffic (but not too much), which makes driving more enjoyable (but not too enjoyable), purifies the air, and leaves more space for everyone not in a car. Everybody wins.

But slide out the wrong brick from that transportation Jenga, and the whole thing could collapse. “Done right, congestion pricing will result in a healthier city and region,” predicts Regional Plan Association president Tom Wright. He’s correct both in his optimism and his caveat. As the reality of congestion pricing finally comes into sight, so does the flashing red alert signaling the danger of failure. The program could still wind up mired in unintended consequences, be judged a flop, and get scrapped. If that happens, New York will have squandered its best shot at remaining a world-class metropolis. Given the danger in the details and the height of the stakes, the MTA has not done nearly enough to reassure supporters like me, let alone antagonists, that it will come up with a system as smooth and overarching as, say, London’s.

When London first instituted its congestion charge in 2003, improvements were dramatic and immediate. The streets became less sclerotic, cars moved more fluidly, the air grew cleaner, and money flowed toward public transit. A look at the experience since then reveals an imperfect record marred by periodic transit strikes (and the threat of more), but a city that’s been precise, patient, and flexible. When Ubers reclogged its arteries, London responded by tweaking the system. The initial £5 fee has tripled in 20 years with an extra charge tacked on for the most polluting vehicles entering a Low Emission Zone. The city later upped the ante by creating a smaller Ultra Low Emission Zone with higher standards and more charges. Even as tolls have risen and rules changed, the upsides have endured. Today, London has fewer cars (though still plenty), cleaner air, more bus passengers, and a lot more pedestrians and cyclists than it did at the turn of the century. In recent years, I’ve happily tapped my Oyster card on the tube, double-deckers, river buses, and suburban trains; worn out shoes; and even driven through the premium zones. That last one, piloting an American-size SUV down narrow carriageways from Bloomsbury to Richmond, was the only stretch of expensive misery. I instantly regretted getting behind the wheel, which is part of the point.

The work’s not finished: London’s transportation agency documents travel habits in obsessive detail and concludes that there is still room for improvement, since more than a quarter of current car trips remain “switchable” to other modes of transit given the right incentives. Throughout these decades of change, one permanent condition has set in: The congestion charge is now just a fact of life. Londoners complained, then they shrugged. That’s progress.

The journey to normalcy will be tricky for New York to emulate, since our system for getting people where they need to go is a uniquely tangled mess. The MTA (which is controlled by the state) has dominion over subways and buses, but the Department of Transportation (the city’s, that is) controls streets and ferries. The MTA runs trains to Long Island and Hudson Valley suburbs — but not to New Jersey, where two other agencies (PATH and NJ Transit) answer to a different state’s authorities. Oh, and Amtrak owns many of the tracks and tunnels (but not all). Consequently, every major decision yields a negotiation (at best), a quagmire (often), or a permanent standoff (at worst). The MTA has a shaky reputation for overspending handling money and a stately approach to capital projects — not a good look for an agency charged with designing and implementing the congestion-pricing program, collecting an extra $1 billion in annual tolls, and spending all the revenue. An ambitious plan announced in 2010 still has many idle and incomplete projects, and a 2020 update has barely gotten going. The state comptroller pointed out last year that the MTA has been borrowing tens of billions and spending billions more to service its debt. Bailouts — first from the federal government, then from the state — have kept a state of emergency at bay. Yet even the MTA’s successes can feel like letdowns: It’s hard to say that the $11 billion spent on Grand Central Madison will have the widespread positive impact that, say, a new subway line would.

London once had a similarly fragmented transit system. That changed as Transport for London centralized control, becoming a sprawling, ubiquitous presence in Londoners’ lives with jurisdiction over the tube, buses, cycling infrastructure, main roads, and the congestion charge. Over the past 20 years, TfL has modernized signals, replaced cars, expanded the bus fleet, overhauled stations, connected airports, opened the new Elizabeth line, and, with its expansion of the Overground and Docklands Light Railway, extended its reach far out into the suburbs. It has also built an ever-expanding, 220-mile web of cycleways — the kind of dedicated long-distance routes that bike commuters long for. And, miraculously, it seems to have its financial house in order.

Central London has accommodated many more bicycles and fewer cars since 2003. Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Local culture has helped. London has a long history of all classes (including members of Parliament and government decision-makers) shuttling between the city and countryside by rail. And southern England doesn’t have American-style interstate rivalries, which can get preposterously counterproductive. (The strains between the country’s well-connected south and the spottily served north are another matter.) Objections to congestion pricing tend toward the parochial: Am I exempt? Where do I park? Me, ride a bus — are you kidding? But the benefits are collective. That doesn’t always register in the New York area.

New Jersey’s leaders, reading polls instead of mobility data, treat congestion pricing as a cross-border attack. Governor Phil Murphy, who has threatened legal action to stop it, launched an ad campaign designed to coax New Yorkers into moving across state lines. “Less Congestion. No Congestion Tax,” the billboards promise — a thought that drivers have plenty of time to contemplate while sitting in turnpike traffic. In truth, the two sides need each other, and both should get a boost from congestion pricing. Despite New Jersey’s reputation for auto-addiction, a 2020 study showed that proximity to public transit helps people at both ends of the economic spectrum, providing access to jobs for those who have nothing and a bump in real-estate value for those who own their own homes. The overwhelming majority (84 percent) of residents of northern New Jersey who work in Manhattan — a rapidly growing population, at least before the pandemic — commute by public transit. In practice, the admission fee for Manhattan’s business zone would barely register in the districts that keep it fed with workers.

Unfortunately, the two states’ transit systems coexist but collaborate as little as possible, which is a weird way to serve an intertwined set of needs. While the MTA wrestles its demons, in New Jersey, the hybrid workweek is keeping people closer to home, causing private companies to cut services, NJ Transit to go begging for riders, and commuters to scramble. This matters, because many of the people whom New York’s employers (and restaurants, shops, politicians, and commercial property owners) would love to lure back to the office live across the river. Northern New Jersey is where a growing slice of the workforce lives, where young families are moving, and where homes are getting built. If those employees are ever going to voluntarily return to midtown’s echoey office towers, they’re going to need reliable ways to get there. Sharing Manhattan toll proceeds with New Jersey could help prevent the walls between city and suburbs from getting any higher, but no power center is ever going to willingly give money away.

None of that means the program is doomed or the situation is hopeless. The subway is running pretty smoothly these days, even though it’s carrying far fewer passengers than it did before the pandemic. With new infusions of cash and a new CEO, Janno Lieber, the MTA is trying to right itself. I hope it can forge into a new era without screwing up a major innovation. But that will require a scary leap of faith. The agency is constantly playing catch-up with its counterparts abroad — adopting new turnstiles, travel clocks, cars, and fare cards years after other cities. Even as the MetroCard fades out of use, for instance, the AirTrain at Jamaica still continues to require one. The crush of confused and anxious travelers at the turnstiles makes it seem doubtful that the MTA will ever achieve premium levels of competence or that promised improvements will come quickly enough to make a difference.

In London, TfL was already engaged in expanding and upgrading transit well before 2003, so the public enjoyed the carrot long before the stick fell. Then, on the day the congestion charge went into effect, an extra 300 buses rolled into action, reinforcing a fleet that now plies three times as many routes as New York’s, carries five times as many passengers each day, and (even if riders complain about sluggishness) chugs along briskly compared. Sure, New York buses are being electrified and, bit by bit, fitted with cameras that automatically ticket drivers who block bus stops and lanes. But it would take a major act of wizardry to make the bus network anywhere near as extensive or efficient as London’s.

Getting congestion pricing right is a matter of life or death — not just metaphorically. If the fee’s too low, drivers will keep cramming into the city, and some of them will crash; too high, and fewer drivers will race through empty streets, some of them careening out of control. Either way, people will continue to get killed. The goal is balance and moderation. “The most successful places have traffic moving slowly but still moving,” urbanist Jeff Speck recently pointed out. Slowness equals survival. In 2020, London reduced the speed limit from 30 to 20 mph, rigorously enforcing the change with cameras. The combination of fewer cars and a slower pace has made London safer, not just inside the zone but outside its borders too. Drivers killed or seriously injured 25 percent fewer pedestrians after the change, partly because they avoided more crashes and partly because a two-ton hunk of iron does a lot more damage to human flesh when it’s moving faster. The MTA has no jurisdiction over new roadway designs or lower speed limits, yet without them, congestion pricing could come to nothing.

TfL’s congestion charge is part of a citywide strategy to change the way Londoners get around. In New York, achieving such a coordinated campaign of restrictions, choices, incentives, design, and enforcement would require sustained harmony among disparate agencies, which is an implausible goal. Department of Transportation workers paint new bike lanes, and cops promptly park in them. The redesign of an intersection to make it safer gets bogged down in procedural conflict. Speed limits are slackly enforced, and scofflaws have grown adept at dodging toll cameras by covering or defacing their license plates. For the effects of congestion pricing to bear full fruit, streets will need to be redesigned at a far faster pace, with more deterrents to recklessness, than the city has been able to sustain. 

One of the great ironies of the pandemic was that a respiratory illness helped clean the air — for a while anyway. London’s experience shows that a congestion fee helps to keep fumes down without the aid of a global catastrophe. In New York, though, it might merely wind up pushing pollution around as truckers looking for cheaper routes across the city converge on parts of the Bronx where it can already be tough to breathe. For now, the MTA is trying to fight that risk with money, promising millions to potentially affected areas. But until the day electric vehicles become ubiquitous (which would create all kinds of other problems), emissions will keep crossing neighborhood lines. The ideal way to keep truck traffic from passing through Manhattan on its way to points beyond — and, incidentally, to relieve pressure on the crumbling BQE — would be to build the cross-harbor freight tunnel that’s been in the works for a generation. Don’t hold your breath.

Congestion pricing has spent years inching through the approval process, getting endlessly studied, critiqued, contorted, and tweaked. Even so, New York is running out of time to get it right. The state lacks the impetus to restructure power, build out the transit system, make deals with other authorities, redesign traffic patterns, or knit a toll system into a whole fabric of far-reaching policies. New Yorkers might look at the gulf between reality and aspiration and shrug that it can’t be bridged. London shows that it must.

Congestion Pricing’s Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them