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Posts from the Congestion Pricing Category

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The Real Reason Uber Traffic Matters in NYC

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Where traffic is worse, the politics of turning a wide, car-centric street into a safe, efficient street are tougher. Rendering by the Street Plans Collaborative and Carly Clark via Transportation Alternatives

For a moment yesterday, it seemed like the big clash between the taxi medallion industry and app-based car services, framed in terms of Uber’s effect on snarled Manhattan traffic, might veer into unexpectedly brilliant territory. There was Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in the Daily News, telling the MTA that City Hall would consider the Move NY traffic reduction plan to fund transit investment. Finally, a sign that some of the big players are getting serious about a comprehensive fix for the city’s congestion problem.

But the moment didn’t last long, with Governor Cuomo extinguishing the road pricing talk right away. Soon after, Mayor de Blasio beat a sudden retreat from his proposed cap on for-hire vehicle licenses, getting a few concessions from Uber, and now the whole episode will fade from the news cycle, at least for the time being.

The Uber fight was a rare case where transportation issues became front-page news, but the arguments about streets and traffic tended to descend into stupid talking points really fast. Uber NYC General Manager Josh Mohrer was hardly the only person who tried to blame bike lanes and other safety measures for the recent downturn in average Manhattan traffic speeds. Council Member Dan Garodnick, someone who generally gets how streets work and chooses his words carefully, was the first public figure on record to toss around that theory.

When you’re talking about the downsides of congestion, it’s tough to avoid framing the problem like an old-school traffic engineer, placing paramount importance on the movement of cars. Even on Streetsblog, we’ve run plenty of posts talking about the effect of Uber in terms of average traffic speeds. The trouble is that when you focus on how easily people can drive around the city, you create an opening for people to point their finger at anything that might slow down cars — like bike lanes, or a lower speed limit.

You can try to reason with these people and explain the difference between peak speed and average speed, or show the data about bike lane redesigns that had no discernible effect on traffic. And that might win some arguments. But if you want streets where bus riders have swift trips, where people of all ages feel safe walking and biking, you’re going to have to make some changes that — at least for a while, before a new equilibrium sets in — slow down cars.

We need to come at the problem from a different angle. So how about this: Traffic congestion in New York is terrible because it’s an obstacle to designing streets that work best for our city.

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Just in From London: Congestion Charging’s Street Safety Bonus

Figure-4-from-London-paper-by-Green-et-al.-_-10-March-2015

After London’s congestion charge took effect in 2003, traffic crashes dropped much more sharply than in other U.K. cities. “Treatment” line denotes the charging zone. Control line is weighted average of 20 other urban areas, with data normalized to match pre-2003 crash data for charging zone. Graph: “Traffic Accidents and the London Congestion Charge”

Add street safety to the list of benefits from congestion pricing. That’s the takeaway from a new “working paper” analyzing traffic crash rates in and around the London congestion charging zone by three economists associated with the Management School at Lancaster University.

Traffic Accidents and the London Congestion Charge” slices and dices the monthly changes in crash frequencies since the 2003 startup of London’s congestion charge in nearly every way imaginable: daytime vs. nighttime (the charge is in effect 7 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.); weekdays vs. weekends (no charge during the latter); within both the 8-square-mile charging zone and each of two “spillover regions” two and four kilometers outside the zone; for charged and exempt road users; for fatal and serious injury crashes and all crashes; and vis-à-vis a control group of 20 other British urban areas. (The comparison group is necessary to control for declining crash rates throughout the U.K.)

The bottom line: Traffic crashes are significantly lower with congestion charging — by as much as 40 percent within the cordon zone. Crashes are down in the spillover regions as well; they declined not only for autos and trucks but for “uncharged” vehicles like taxis, buses, motorbikes and bicycles; and the improvement registered during non-charge times as well as the hours when the congestion charge is collected.

Here are key findings:

  • Traffic crashes within the charging zone are down by approximately 400 per year, relative to ongoing trends, corresponding to a 38-40 percent decrease — a reduction several times greater than the drop in vehicle miles traveled.
  • Within both spillover zones, crashes are 13-14 percent less than in the control cities, belying fears that rerouting of journeys and/or destinations would merely relocate traffic conflict and danger to areas outside the zone.
  • Even with considerable mode-shifting from cars to bicycles, motorcycles and taxis, crash rates for “uncharged” vehicles within the zone are 12 percent below those for the same vehicle classes in the control cities.
  • Crash rates inside the zone during non-charge hours are also significantly less than in the control cities, i.e., gains in safety haven’t been confined to the 55-60 hours a week in which congestion is charged but are spread across all 168 hours per week.
  • The congestion charge has led to an estimated 46 fewer serious and fatal crashes within the charging zone each year, including 4-5 fewer fatalities per year.

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The Move NY Fair Tolling Plan Is Polling Better Than Congestion Pricing

Toll reform is polling better in New York City than congestion pricing did, even when pollsters don’t mention that the Move NY plan would mean billions in transit revenue.

Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein reports

“Would you support or oppose a plan to charge tolls on the East River bridges, which go into Manhattan, and at the same time reduce tolls on the bridges between the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island?” a Quinnipiac University pollster asked New York City voters earlier this month.

The voters were divided, 49 percent against, 41 percent in favor.

Support fluctuated by borough — it was strongest in Staten Island and the Bronx — and was about the same among voters who drive to work (51-43 percent opposed) and those who take transit (49-42 percent opposed).

These are stronger numbers than congestion pricing got in 2007 and 2008. The proposal for a road charge below 60th Street in Manhattan during rush hours polled in the 30s, generally, when transit revenue was not mentioned. Pricing polled in the high 50s and low 60s when it was framed as a way to keep fares low.

The Move NY plan, developed by transportation consultant “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, would establish a Central Business District cordon at 60th Street and add tolls to East River bridges, while tolls on outer-borough crossings would be reduced. The plan calls for removing the Manhattan parking tax rebate and adding a taxi trip surcharge. It would raise nearly $1.5 billion a year, with a quarter of revenue dedicated to road and bridge maintenance and the remainder to transit capital and operating funds.

Congestion pricing has risen in popularity in cities that have implemented it. Despite intense opposition beforehand, after three years 70 percent of Londoners said that city’s road pricing program was effective, and twice as many supported the charge as opposed it. Though it doesn’t yet have a champion in Albany, a coalition of interests, from the Straphangers Campaign to AAA New York, has coalesced behind the Move NY toll reform proposal. There’s room for its poll numbers to climb, if the upside for transit is part of the framing.

Here’s another figure for state lawmakers to consider: In 2007, 87 percent of voters said traffic congestion was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. This month it was essentially unchanged at 86 percent.

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Congestion Charging on the Horizon for China’s Cities

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Photo of Shanghai traffic: Bert van Dijk

Which Chinese city will be the first to try congestion pricing? Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai — megacities whose populations are on the scale of New York’s? Or second-tier but still mighty cities (think Chicago) like Hangzhou, Nanjing, or Xi’an?

Road tolling à la American turnpikes and thruways is already extensive in China, as a means to finance highways rather than manage traffic. Increasingly, however, with traffic and vehicle exhaust demonstrably harming business as well as human health in dozens of cities, and with strategies like quotas on new vehicles unable to offset the growth in driving, officials are looking to “economic measures.” Tolling vehicle entries to congested city centers has established a strong enough track record elsewhere in improving traffic flow and air quality that it is attracting interest not just from municipal officials but also from China’s national transport and environment ministries.

Cordon or congestion pricing, as such tolling is called, was Topic “A” last week in Hangzhou, a city of nearly 4 million (6 million counting suburbs) south of Shanghai. Some 200 officials and academics from 11 provinces, 30 cities, and at least a dozen universities packed a two-day “International Forum on Economic Policies for Traffic Congestion and Tailpipe Emissions” organized by the Energy Foundation China. Representatives from the four largest world cities with cordon tolling — Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan — related their successes and fielded questions on everything from the digital nuts and bolts of tolling technologies to the political path that led to implementation. I was invited to report on NYC’s mixed record and share analytical insights from my traffic modeling work.

I’m still sifting impressions, but here are some takeaways thus far:

  • The biggest driver of China’s interest in congestion pricing is air pollution, with gridlock, which is spreading to more hours and more areas in every city, a close second. “Congestion and ‘smogs’ have become major concerns of the public and major bottlenecks for urban development,” summed up one high-ranking official.
  • Revenue generation for public transport — a huge motivator for tolling vehicle trips into the Manhattan Central Business District — is downplayed as a rationale for congestion pricing, perhaps because Chinese drivers already pay road tolls. Revenue may become politically salient, however, as dwindling revenues from sales of land force municipalities to come up with other ways to finance transit lines.
  • The economist’s paradigm of “congestion causation” (the aggregate delay to other road users caused by each additional car trip to the CBD) has barely surfaced in transportation planning and the design of road pricing instruments in China, yet it seems an important metric for screening candidate cities for congestion pricing.

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You Know What’s Fundamentally Regressive? NYC’s Current Toll System

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You can drive into the center of town and clog up the streets without paying a dime, but you’ve got to pay a fare to ride the bus.

Well, a few words from Andrew Cuomo made clear that fixing NYC’s broken road pricing system won’t be on the table before next year’s statewide elections. But some opponents of congestion pricing — notably, Eastern Queens City Council Member Mark Weprin — are warming to Sam Schwartz’s toll reform plan, which calls for a uniform price on entry points into the Manhattan core, including the East River bridges and 60th Street, paired with lower prices on less congested, outlying bridges.

And so, the Times turned to former Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for a dash of his trademark fake populism:

Among former critics of ideas to toll the East River bridges, reactions to this one have been mixed. Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and a senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said Mr. Schwartz’s plan was “a fundamentally regressive tax,” even if equity problems among the boroughs were “addressed to an extent,” at least compared with the 2008 plan.

“It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” Mr. Brodsky said, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.”

It’s telling that Brodsky imagines his working-class stiff as “the guy driving the ’97 Chevy.” It’s not “the guy riding the R train” or “the gal transferring from the Q60 to the M15.” Transit commuters far outnumber car commuters in NYC and earn, on average, far less, but they never figured into his message.

Brodsky, who hasn’t held office since a failed run for attorney general in 2010, represented the wealthiest Manhattan-bound car commuters in the NYC region. He wasn’t looking out for regular Joes — he was defending free driving privileges for white collar elites earning, on average, $176,231 per year.

He also managed to obscure a core truth about NYC’s current toll system: It doesn’t work for the little guy. We are right now at this very moment living under the burden of a “fundamentally regressive” toll plan — it’s the status quo we’ve had for decades. It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses. It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.

Reforming NYC’s road pricing system will make the regional transportation network more equitable in profound ways. It will speed up the surface transit that less affluent New Yorkers rely on, improving access to jobs. And by injecting funds into the MTA Capital Program, it will help improve the transit system without fares eating up a bigger chunk of household budgets.

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Krugman: Costs of Driving Deserve Way More Attention

Two of the nation’s leading lefty commentators weighed in on transportation incentives last Friday, when both economist Paul Krugman at the New York Times and Matt Yglesias at Slate went on a congestion pricing kick.

Krugman kicked things off by remarking that the surest way to reduce the costs imposed on society by drivers is to “get the incentives right, and charge large fees for driving in congestion.”

Yglesias took it one step further, pointing out how a variable fee on roads could lead to a virtuous cycle of better transit service and higher ridership:

Congestion fees are a kind of force multiplier for transit. After all, in some big American cities the peak congestion charge would have to get quite hefty at some times of the day. Some folks will respond to that by paying the fee, some by time-shifting their driving to a less-crowded hour, and some by riding transit. A bus, after all, is a great mechanism for spreading the cost of road access across a large number of people. And while with highways the quality of the service provided declines with the number of users (traffic jams), with well-designed transit it goes the other way. The more people who want to travel on a particular transit route, the more financially viable it is to provide high-frequency service. And high-frequency service is the key to real-world transit useability.

As Krugman noted, congestion pricing is an important mechanism to account for the cost imposed by drivers on society in the form of lost time. Anything that brings the actual price of our transportation decisions in line with the cost to society will be a boon for transit, biking, and walking relative to the status quo.

The flipside of congestion pricing would be to account for the social benefits of non-automotive modes by subsidizing them. The European Cyclists Federation currently has an interesting proposal on this front. With the European Union examining the “internalisation of external costs for all modes of transport, the ECF is advocating for a policy that would function as a kind of carrot, rewarding cyclists through tax rebates and incentives. Meanwhile, in America, we actually have a “symbolic” bike tax gaining traction in Washington state.

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Graphed: Support for Congestion Pricing Depends on How You Frame It

Toward the end of last week, City Council speaker and current 2013 mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn set off a burst of transportation policy buzz when she said she still supports congestion pricing but doesn’t expect it to get revived in Albany.

Remember, though, that while risk-averse Albany electeds may try to preemptively dismiss road pricing as politically impossible, public support for the idea is actually quite strong when it’s framed as a way to fund transit, according to a series of Quinnipiac polls conducted in 2007 and 2008.

Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah has done a huge service by graphing the results of those Q poll congestion pricing questions. When the policy was framed as “charging vehicle owners a fee to drive below 60th street in Manhattan during rush hours,” support tended to fall below 40 percent. But support surged when the pollsters asked, “Would you support congestion pricing if the money were used to prevent an increase in mass transit fares and bridge and tunnel tolls?”

Here’s his graph of the percent support for congestion pricing in response to the different questions:

Graph: Azi Paybarah/Capital New York

Paybarah notes that the last two polls, in January and March of 2008, used another variation on the question instead of the “preventing fare hikes” angle. This question asked simply, “Would you support congestion pricing if the money were used to improve mass transit in and around New York City?” (Any road pricing plan would likely pay for transit improvements by funding the MTA’s capital program, and keep fares lower by reducing the amount of capital spending that’s covered by fare-backed debt.)

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Quinn Says She Still Supports Congestion Pricing

After some pressing from Capital political reporter Azi Paybarah, Christine Quinn followed up her evasive and pessimistic statements about congestion pricing this morning with a firmer but still pessimistic statement about her position:

“I supported congestion pricing. I support congestion pricing. I do not see it coming back in Albany but my support for congestion pricing has not changed.”

So, if Quinn gets elected, don’t expect her to make the first move on this.

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Chris Quinn: “I Don’t Anticipate Congestion Pricing Coming Back Around”

Dana Rubinstein reports that City Council speaker and current mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn is bearish on congestion pricing’s political prospects:

“I don’t anticipate congestion pricing coming back around,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told an audience at New York Law School today, when asked about its near-term future. “It didn’t do well and I don’t expect that proposal to come back around in that way.”

Is this disappointing? Sure, it would be great news for New York City if a mayoral candidate ran in support of the single most transformative traffic and transit policy out there. And Quinn, who helped shepherd congestion pricing through the City Council in 2007 and 2008, is one of two contenders with a voting record in support of it. (The other is John Liu, who voted for congestion pricing when he was a City Council member representing Flushing, then turned around and opposed bridge tolls in 2009, when he had a citywide campaign to worry about. Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, voted against congestion pricing but is on the record supporting East River bridge tolls pegged to the subway fare.)

But is this significant? Well, I don’t think it means a whole lot.

Noted congestion pricing champion Michael Bloomberg, for instance, never campaigned on congestion pricing. He floated East River bridge tolls in 2002, a month after getting elected for the first time, but stopped pressing for them after then-governor George Pataki ruled out the idea. Running for re-election in 2005, Bloomberg again didn’t make congestion pricing a campaign issue, but it turned out to be his single biggest policy initiative in 2007 and 2008. Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer backed the idea, and if he wasn’t such a weak-willed dirtbag, who knows, he might have steamrolled congestion pricing through Albany.

So mayoral candidates aren’t going to campaign on road pricing, even if they believe in it, and in the end, the person who has the most power to make it happen is the governor. If the NYC region is going to get a rationally priced road network and a well-funded transit system, it’s up to Andrew Cuomo to get things started — from the looks of it, preferably sometime after the mayoral election.

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Lessons From London After 10 Years of the Congestion Charge

A Republican member of Congress told me last week that he recently was in London for the first time in a long while. “Traveling was so much better,” he said. “You can actually get around. That traffic-charging system they’ve got seems to be doing a lot of good.”

London’s system — known formally as congestion charging — started up 10 years ago this Sunday, on February 17, 2003. In the decade since then it has been meticulously monitored, analyzed and debated — perhaps more than any traffic-managing scheme since Moses parted the Red Sea. It has also spawned a raft of charging programs elsewhere, most notably in Stockholm, and, starting last month, in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city. Of course, an all-out effort to enact a comparable system here, the proposal to toll motor vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, died in the state legislature five years ago.

Ten years on is a good time to take stock. Let’s have a look.

What It Is: Cars and trucks pay £10 (roughly $15.60) to drive into or within the charging zone between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The zone is London’s commercial and financial hub and, at 8 square miles, rivals Manhattan’s 8.5-square mile Central Business District. Taxis are exempt, as are qualifying low-emission vehicles. Cars registered to zone residents, who account for 2 percent of Greater London’s 7 million people, pay one-tenth the standard charge.

How Drivers Pay: London’s system deploys 1,360 closed-circuit cameras at 348 sites within the charging zone and on its boundaries to record the license plates of vehicles entering and moving within the zone. The plates are continuously matched against a database of monthly accounts, and “spot” payments are made via Internet or at kiosks, drawing down accounts or billing license-plate holders. This cumbersome system arose not only from the absence in the U.K. of electronic toll collection systems such as E-ZPass when the system was launched a decade ago, but also from the decision to charge for car trips entirely within the zone in addition to vehicle entries. A byproduct is the relatively meager net revenue available for transport improvements.

Traffic Outcomes: In its first few years, the London charging scheme was heralded as a solid traffic-buster, with 15-20 percent boosts in auto and bus speeds and 30 percent reductions in congestion delays. Most of those gains appear to have disappeared in recent years, however. Transport for London (TfL), which combines the functions of our NYCDOT and MTA and which created and operates the charging system, attributes the fallback in speeds to other changes in the streetscape and traffic management:

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