Kick Out the Jams

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

In 1907, horse-drawn wagons traveled through Manhattan's streets at an average pace of almost 12 miles an hour. A century later, the average vehicle speed at rush hour has dropped to eight miles an hour.

The slowdown may have something to do with the 800,000-fold increase, over the intervening 99 years, in the number of motorized vehicles that head each day into Manhattan's central business district.

Like Singapore, Stockholm, and Oslo before it, New York is about to enter a debate over a radical solution to its traffic problem: inner-city tolls designed to discourage vehicles from entering Manhattan between 60th Street and the Battery.

Gridlock story
image: Jorge Colombo
Gridlock story

Under such a plan, New Yorkers would be forced to pay a toll to enter that coveted driving zone —or be forced to leave their cars at home.

One side of the argument says New York City absolutely must do something now to save itself from crushing congestion. The Partnership for New York City, a pro-business think tank, estimates that "excess congestion" costs the economy $13 billion a year by delaying deliveries, postponing meetings, and wasting the valuable time of New York's workforce. "Traffic congestion can no longer be dismissed as an inconvenience," the Partnership declared in a report released last month. These experts believe congestion pricing might be the only way to significantly reduce the number of tires on the road and generate the revenue needed to fund crucial mass-transit projects like the Second Avenue subway. Says Brian Ketcham, a Brooklyn-based planner at Community Consulting Services who has studied the city's traffic problem for decades, "There's nothing else you can do."

Or it's the worst possible thing you can do, if you ask those who oppose congestion pricing for New York. They say it will steal money from the pockets of working-class people who are forced to drive to Manhattan because their neighborhoods are poorly served—if served at all—by mass transit. It'll raise costs for businesses and flood the blocks just outside the toll zone with drivers trying to avoid the fee. And it will convey the impression that wealthy Manhattan residents are trying to barricade their island from the outer boroughs. As Joshua Bienstock, a lobbyist for the Queens Chamber of Commerce, asked the suit-clad crowd at a Manhattan Institute conference on traffic tolls: "Are we really going to make New York City even more elitist?"

Opponents like to emphasize the unlikelihood of congestion pricing as reason enough to drop the discussion. "The chances of this happening politically are remote," says Walter McCaffrey, a former Queens councilman and independent lobbyist who represents garage owners and real estate businesses who detest the idea of congestion charging because it might pinch their profits. "This is the third rail of New York City politics," says Evan Stavisky, a lobbyist with the Parkside Group, which is representing the Queens Chamber of Commerce. Manhattan elites, he says, "don't understand the intensity of the opposition" to tolls.

But the proponents think they have a shot. There's growing grassroots support for doing something about traffic. There's a City Hall–backed campaign to make New York City grow in a sustainable way between now and 2030. And there's what happened in London.

London's congestion was terrible a few years ago, with traffic moving through the city center even more slowly than in New York. But in the past three years, congestion in central London has dropped 26 percent. That's because in 2003, London's socialist mayor, Ken Livingstone, instituted a cordon-pricing scheme that charges most vehicles 8 (now about $15) to drive into an eight-square-mile zone in the center of town. Livingstone's foes predicted that the plan would result in "Carmageddon" and foresaw disaster for downtown businesses, but three years on there's little evidence of any economic damage, pollution has been reduced, and some $240 million has been raised for transit improvements. Livingstone was re-elected in 2004.

In New York, it has always been political masochism to suggest charging people to drive. At least three mayors have considered East River bridge tolls, only to fail or quit trying. When Mayor Bloomberg had to close a multibillion-dollar post–9-11 budget gap, he pondered tolling the bridges but ended up finding the money somewhere else.

But the traffic remained; indeed, it got worse. So in November 2005, the Partnership for New York City first broached to City Hall the idea of imposing a congestion-pricing scheme here. The newly re-elected Bloomberg—not anxious to squander any political capital—said he wasn't interested, and the Partnership backtracked.

Now the proponents of pricing are trying again—with the Partnership's recent report and a conference at the influential Manhattan Institute think tank, all timed to precede the mayor's big speech on the sustainability initiative last month.

Officially, the mayor still isn't interested in congestion pricing. In his December 12 sustainability speech at the Queens Museum, the mayor didn't even mention the word "traffic." Bloomberg recently told newspapers that a congestion-pricing scheme would only work if city residents were exempt, and then it would look like a commuter tax, which Albany would never support. You could call that a punt. Eliot Spitzer decided not to field the ball: A spokeswoman said that while the governor would consider all options, congestion pricing really wasn't on his agenda, either.

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.

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.

Bloomberg has been equally careful. His sustainability speech offered broad goals rather than specific proposals. He left it up to former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who followed the mayor with a Q&A featuring urban advocates and experts, to broach the topic of congestion pricing —and the mere mention of the term elicited applause. Asked about the mayor's own views, City Hall spokesman John Gallagher replied: "The mayor has indicated that it probably won't pass in Albany, but he is not ruling anything out when it comes to achieving the sustainability goals he laid out in his speech [in Queens]."

When will all the tiptoeing stop? The timing is tricky for toll proponents. It will be three years before the next major local election, meaning politicians have a little breathing room to try a new idea before facing the voters. So now is the time to move. However, it can take a long time to make the case for congestion pricing. London's Livingstone made the policy part of his platform in 2000, won that race, and only instituted it after several years of discussion and planning. "We really need a compelling reason for congestion pricing," says John Falcocchio, professor of transportation planning and director of the Urban Intelligent Transportation Systems Center at Polytechnic University. He does not believe there's a crisis on the roads to justify any radical steps. "I don't think the case has been made."

There are major obstacles to making that case. One of them is David Weprin, a Democratic councilman from outer Queens and likely the 2009 candidate for city comptroller. He grants that there's "a major problem with congestion," and he ought to know: He drives to work at City Hall because his district includes that lonely northeastern part of the New York City transit map where no subways go. But Weprin thinks the city can alleviate the crush by enforcing existing parking rules. "I don't think the answer is to tax residents in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx," Weprin says. "We're not talking about wealthy individuals. Imposing what I consider a tax—and it is a tax—is unfair."

Supporters of congestion pricing tend to dismiss Weprin's argument that there are thousands of working-class people in the outer boroughs who simply must drive to work. After all, these supporters say, the Independent Budget Office found that city residents who drive across the East River bridges are more affluent than those who take mass transit. But the fact is, outer- borough residents have every reason to be suspicious: It wasn't too long ago that people in outlying areas had to pay two or even three fares for the privilege of getting into Manhattan. They have reason to fear they'll be mistreated again.

One way to minimize resistance is to give everyone a better deal. London figured this out and created an extra 11,000 bus seats before the rollout of its pricing scheme. But people need something more than just a payoff. The policy has to seem like the right solution to a pressing problem. And some congestion-pricing proponents have a way to make that argument: Turn traffic into a health issue.

After all, this is the mayor that banned smoking in bars and trans fats in restaurants. The Environmental Protection Agency says tailpipe exhaust contains material linked to cancer and heart disease. And thousands of kids in the city suffer from asthma, which several studies have suggested is worsened by breathing the particulate matter in car and truck exhaust. With projects like Atlantic Yards stoking traffic fears in the outer boroughs—which is where the political fate of congestion pricing will end up being decided—the health risks of traffic are what these advocates know they must emphasize.

And for those unmoved by the image of wheezing kids, consider this: By the year 2030, a city of 9 million will be trying to get to work. Traffic will spill off the major thoroughfares onto side streets as cars seek the dwindling supply of open road, spreading traffic through the city's bloodstream—"like cancer," as Ketcham describes it—and devouring not only space, but also time. As even the side roads clog during rush hours, drivers will race to snatch up the only capacity that remains in the surface system, which is during the "off-peak" periods. The morning and evening rushes will blend into an endless sea of traffic—a 24-hour rush hour. Do local radio stations' traffic choppers even carry that kind of fuel?

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