Kick Out the Jams

Will a toll booth at the corner of 60th and Fifth solve midtown's traffic nightmare?

But the proponents just keep driving forward. "There's a perfect storm," says Jeff Zupan, an analyst at the Regional Plan Association, a 77-year-old planning think tank whose members are advising both Bloomberg and Spitzer on transportation policy. "We have a mayor who is not going to have to worry about re-election. We have a governor who's not going to have to worry about re-election for four years. If there's a time, this is the time to do it."

New York's traffic has been bad since at least 1866, when a guidebook, Miller's New York as It Is, dubbed the streets "a Babel scene of confusion." And that was before cars.

When the auto arrived, it didn't take long for New York to cement its reputation as a tough place to drive. According to Edward Robb Ellis's The Epic of New York City, America's first auto accident took place here in 1896 (the driver was from Massachusetts), and the first auto fatality occurred at Central Park West and 74th in 1899. The next year, the nation's first auto show was held at Madison Square Garden. The days of traffic were over! "It's hardly possible to conceive," wrote journalist Ray Stannard Baker at the time, "the appearance of a crowded wholesale street in the day of the automobile vehicle." He thought cars were too small and quiet to cause traffic. Let's just say he was overly optimistic.

Gridlock story
image: Jorge Colombo
Gridlock story

But if cars couldn't cure congestion, maybe roads could—or so thought Robert Moses, the unelected master builder who, as city parks commissioner and head of several state bodies like the power and Triborough Bridge authorities, laid virtually every mile of highway there is in the city, in Westchester, and on Long Island. Moses had a simple approach to traffic control: If a road gets too crowded, build another one. When traffic swamped his new Triborough Bridge, Moses built the Bronx-Whitestone, and when the Whitestone was overwhelmed he constructed the Throgs Neck. Moses blasted through Brooklyn neighborhoods to build the Gowanus Expressway and, when the traffic got bad, simply widened the road. Robert Caro's biography of Moses, The Power Broker, recalls that Moses once started to build a new bridge a mere 68 feet away from an earlier project that had grown too congested. When a few planners and editorial writers noted that no matter how many bridges Moses built, the traffic always grew to swamp them, Moses sent an acidic letter to the Herald Tribune. "Traffic will run pretty smoothly here within three years," he promised. That was in 1945.

In the 1950s, a Columbia University economist named William Vickrey noticed the pattern of congestion, linked it to issues of scarcity of resources, and wrote about ways of solving it. Vickrey, who died just days after winning the 1996 Nobel Prize, is considered the father of congestion pricing. His idea was that people who insist on driving their "rubber-shod sacred cows" (that's what he called cars) on congested streets ought to be charged a price in line with the costs they impose on others. It's not that strange a concept: Airlines, theaters, utility companies, restaurants, and parking garages all charge more when they're busy. Vickrey's intellectual descendants merely want to apply the practice to car travel on busy streets—to create a market for road space. "I don't want to ban anything," says Charles Komanoff, a New York transportation economist and environmental activist who runs Komanoff Energy Associates and helped found the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "I just want to price it."

The theory is that, by charging people to drive, the government encourages them to take only the trips that are worth more than the fee and to skip the journeys that are worth less. The result is that fewer cars travel—and even a small decrease in vehicles can lead to a large drop in congestion, because it allows roads to operate closer to the capacity for which they were built. So the cars that pay the fee get less traffic for their money. And the revenues fund mass transit.

Singapore began a system of congestion pricing in 1975. Three Norwegian cities followed in the 1980s and 1990s, and Melbourne, Paris, and Toronto launched variations on the idea. Orange County, California, implemented variable tolls—prices that vary based on congestion levels at different times of the day—on a special express lane starting in 1996. A few roads in Florida and Texas followed suit. The Port Authority, in early 2001, started charging E-ZPass users more to cross bridges and tunnels during peak hours.

Several variables come into play when designing a pricing system, such as where the zone starts and ends, who pays, the level of the fee, and when it applies. It's not exactly clear what a congestion charge would look like in New York, because no one has put an actual plan on the table. The Partnership merely wants the city to apply for a federal grant to study the idea. So far, proponents are avoiding the details. They say it's time for New York City to take a bold step but don't want the debate to get hung up on specifics.

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