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Posts from the Congestion Pricing Category


Why NYC Needs Busways and Traffic Reduction, in Two Pictures

Photo: Clarence Eckerson

Here’s a look at Roosevelt Avenue and 82nd Street in Jackson Heights earlier this afternoon. Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson says the line to get onto these buses snaked twice as long as what you can see in the frame. Buses were already rolling up full and proceeded to crawl along Roosevelt, in traffic, at walking speed.

Eventually these buses merge onto Queens Boulevard, where today they would have run into this hellish traffic jam:

Each of those buses, packed as they were, was probably moving about as many people as all the cars in this picture combined.

With HOV restrictions in effect tomorrow, everyone riding the bus won’t have such a sluggish trip. And if the city reserves some lanes exclusively for buses — which seems like it could be in the offing, though specific plans are unknown right now — bus riders can bypass traffic even more quickly.

Of course, gridlock on streets like Queens Boulevard was worse today than it usually is, but grinding traffic heading to the free Queensboro Bridge is a fact of life when the subways are functioning perfectly well, too. The steps the city is taking to make the transportation system function during this emergency are pretty close to what needs to be done to eliminate the daily dysfunction on NYC streets: road pricing and busways.


Bloomberg: Transit Should Be Free, and Drivers Should Pay More

Mayor Bloomberg talks transit in his 2007 PlaNYC speech. Photo: Sarah Goodyear

Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg rode the Staten Island Ferry, which has the distinction of being one of the few forms of public transportation in New York that is free to its users. At the press conference to announce the world’s largest ferris wheel (plus additional parking!) near the ferry terminal in St. George, the mayor was asked for his thoughts on transportation. He replied:

If you were gonna design, keep in mind, the perfect public transportation system, you would have it be free and you would charge people to use cars, because you want the incentive to get them to do that.

This short quote provides a window into the philosophy that has guided the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policy. It’s about more than congestion pricing. Free transit is not just the dream of progressive activists, it’s also a policy goal of the billionaire mayor.

Will any among the current crop of candidates to succeed him best Bloomberg on this front? How many of them think that, in an ideal world, transit should be free? How many of them would actually work to make that happen? If the next administration doesn’t step up for transit, other cities will continue to leave us in the dust.


NYC Doesn’t Need Albany’s Permission to Enact Congestion Pricing

Roderick M. Hills, Jr. is the William T. Comfort III Professor of Law at New York University Law School.

When Mayor Bloomberg failed in 2008 to persuade the state legislature to give New York City the power to toll roads and bridges into the Manhattan Central Business District, the fight for a congestion charge appeared lost. Behind this perception was the assumption that New York City did not already have the power to enact congestion fees.

In my view, this assumption is false. Section 1642(a)(4) of the NY Vehicle & Traffic Law already authorizes cities with a million residents (a.k.a. New York City) to impose “tolls, taxes, [and] fees … for the use of the highway or any of its parts where the imposition thereof is authorized by law.” As I argue in the latest issue of City Law [PDF], this provision is best construed to delegate to New York City the power to toll its roads and bridges, so long as the City Council enacts a local law defining the toll. Such a local law would satisfy Section 1642(a)(4)’s requirement that “tolls, taxes, and fees” be “authorized by [local] law.”

In short, New York City does not need Albany’s permission to pass a “congestion fee” ordinance. It already has the power to do so without further state legislation.

Is there any argument against this straightforward reading of Section 1642(a)(4)? One might respond that those last three words — “authorized by law” — mean “authorized only by state law.” But this reading makes little sense. Reading the statute to require an additional state law before New York City may toll its roads effectively reduces Section 1642(a)(4) to a tautology, essentially reading it to say that “state law gives New York City the power to toll roads if state law gives New York City the power to toll roads.” By contrast, reading the statute to allow NYC to impose congestion fees when “authorized by either state or local law” construes the statute to place a familiar “non-delegation” limit on local officials’ power, by requiring the mayor or commissioner of transportation to secure a fee schedule from the City Council before they impose tolls on drivers.

Does this argument mean that New York City’s enactment of a “congestion fee” ordinance would not face legal challenges? Unfortunately, no: For one thing, opponents of congestion pricing would almost certainly litigate to protect the status quo. Moreover, notwithstanding the straightforward language of the Vehicle & Traffic law, many prominent attorneys with expertise in local government law are skeptical about the idea that New York City can act alone on congestion fees. What explains this skepticism?

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Traffic Pricing Is Evolving. Can Its Opponents?

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones,” wrote John Maynard Keynes in his ground-breaking 1935 treatise, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.”

Richard Brodsky. Photo: Assembly Democrats/Flickr

Keynes was bemoaning budget-balancing nostrums that deepened the Great Depression. But the famed economist’s lament applies equally to Richard Brodsky’s exhumation last week of his outdated criticisms of congestion pricing.

Brodsky is the former state legislator who almost single-handedly derailed Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal in 2007-08. He retired in 2010 after nearly three decades representing parts of Westchester County in the State Assembly and carving out a reputation as Albany’s most ardent — and acerbic — champion of progressive economic and environmental policies. Indeed, it was by attacking from the left, as the upholder of egalitarian ideals, that Brodsky outflanked the “billionaire mayor” and defeated his pricing plan.

In truth, though, Brodsky’s objections were overblown, and traffic pricing has evolved considerably since 2008, even as the city and region’s need for transit funding has grown dire. But you’d never know that from the shopworn rhetoric Brodsky tossed out last week against Gridlock Sam Schwartz’s traffic plan, in an article in the New York Observer:

You can call a banana “broccoli,” but it’s still a banana. They are looking for answers in the wrong places, still pursuing tolls. Equitable? That’s not equitable.

That’s the short version. Brodsky detailed his “issues” with congestion pricing in the January 2008 minority report of the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission (PDF, p. 8):

Four particular facets of the pricing scheme exacerbate the regressivity and unfairness of the Commission’s proposal. First, it is a flat fee paid by all regardless of income. Second, those who pay tolls on other facilities are exempted from the fee, intensifying the unfairness because those in NJ, CT, Westchester and LI tend to be wealthier than those in the outer boroughs who must pay the new fee. Third, there are clear wealth distinctions between the outer boroughs and Manhattan [which] increases the regressivity of the scheme. Fourth, the largest single group of contributors to congestion, taxi users, whose average income is higher than the average driver, is largely exempt from the fee.

Of Brodsky’s four issues from 2008, three do not apply to Schwartz’s 2012 plan.

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Why Gridlock Sam’s Traffic Plan Could Go the Distance

Saturday will mark two months of non-stop acclaim for Gridlock Sam’s traffic-pricing plan. The accolades kicked off on March 5 with a gushing op-ed, “Meet Sam Schwartz,” by New York Times emeritus editor Bill Keller, and they haven’t let up. The Wall Street Journal, Transportation Nation, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Channel 13, and Crain’s New York (a profile plus an editorial) have extolled Sam’s plan to overhaul New York’s tolling network and generate $15 billion over the next decade to improve roads, bridges, subways and buses across the city. By now, any New Yorker who professes ignorance of the plan has either been hiding under the proverbial rock or is flummoxed by its political implications.

Such an outpouring of support is unprecedented for congestion pricing proposals anywhere, and is virtually unheard of for any serious policy proposal in New York. I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering it from my vantage point as a long-time traffic-pricing proponent; as an exponent of rival but complementary pricing plans, first with Ted Kheel and more recently with the Move NY coalition; and currently as a modeler helping Sam quantify his plan’s traffic and revenue benefits. (That work is supported not by Sam but by the Kheel family’s Nurture Nature Foundation.)

So how do I explain the overwhelmingly positive press reactions to Gridlock Sam’s Fair Plan, as he calls it?

First, the plan feels inclusive, far more so than any prior traffic-pricing plan.

Consider what it offers residents of Queens, the city’s most car-dependent borough after Staten Island: dollar fares on MTA buses in subway-less areas; Bus Rapid Transit service on the Long Island Expressway; and, most spectacularly, a halving of current tolls on the borough’s five MTA bridges, from the Throgs Neck in northern Queens to the Gil Hodges and Cross Bay Blvd. Bridges in the Rockaways. These benefits are palpable — the MTA bridge discounts alone will save Queens residents $100 million a year — and they are integral to the plan, in accordance with the precept of charging premium tolls to drive into the congested heart of the city. Other boroughs are slated to get similar discounts and benefits including BRT on the Belt Parkway and the Bruckner Expressway, a widened Staten Island Expressway, and highway expansions intended to take trucks off Brooklyn streets.

Second, Sam’s plan feels egalitarian.

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Mapped: Dramatic Changes on London Streets in the Congestion Pricing Era

For the last nine years, private motorists entering central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. have paid a fee (currently £10 or US$16.22) to drive on the city’s scarce street space. The revenue from the congestion charge is plowed into the city’s transit system, and as Transport for London has amply documented, many Londoners have changed their commuting habits.

Now a flurry of maps released by ITO World, a British company that specializes in visualizing transport data, shows London’s dramatic shift to more sustainable modes from 2001-2010. (The congestion charge went into effect in February 2003.)

The map above depicts the extraordinary decrease in private motor vehicle traffic, with the bright blue dots showing where driving has gone down more than 30 percent and the bright red dots showing where it’s up more than 30 percent. By the looks of it, the drivable suburbs are still a bastion of private vehicles, but the central city is seeing far less traffic.

Of course, people aren’t just sitting at home. They’ve embraced other ways of getting around. So while there are fewer vehicles in London now than in 2001, one motorized mode has become more ubiquitous: the bus.

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What’s the Secret to World-Class Transit Systems? Congestion Pricing

Top transportation officials from three global cities — London, Singapore and Stockholm — shared their experiences in expanding the use of transit at a panel at the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference last Friday. Eyeing those cities, it’s easy for New Yorkers to get jealous.

“I was, in many ways, salivating,” said MTA chief Joe Lhota.

Singapore's massive transit expansion plans -- the dotted lines are all system expansions planned for the next ten years -- wouldn't be possible without congestion pricing. For a larger version, click here.

Singapore is doubling the size of its rail network in the next ten years, according to the Singapore Land Transport Authority’s Lew Yii Der. Using driverless technology, he added, Singapore will soon be running subway trains as little as 90 seconds apart.

London boosted bus ridership by 60 percent in a decade (in contrast, New York’s bus system is seeing fewer passengers year after year) and recently hit an all-time high for Underground use, said Transport for London’s Elaine Seagriff. Projects in the pipeline will add an entire new rail line through the heart of the city and boost capacity in the existing Underground system by 20 percent.

Stockholm plans to spend 8 billion Euros on expansion projects through 2020 for a region of only 2 million people, reported Stockholm Public Transport Managing Director Anders Lindström. In the New York region, per capita spending on that level would come out to $115.5 billion.

In a city where “mega-projects” mean three new stations for the Second Avenue Subway and one on the 7 line — and where it’s possible no system expansions at all will be included in the next five-year capital plan — it’s hard to imagine the cash-strapped MTA ever reaching such lofty levels. How did these other cities do it?

It’s foolish to call anything a silver bullet, but even so, it’s no coincidence that each of these cities do something New York hasn’t done: price the use of scarce road space.

London’s phenomenal growth in bus ridership, for example, can be significantly attributed to the fact that surface transit doesn’t have to sit in gridlocked traffic, thanks to the city’s congestion charge. Analyst Kenneth Small estimates that in the typical American city, bus ridership would jump 31 percent due to the introduction of congestion pricing, without bus service even receiving any of the revenues.

But the money certainly helps. London’s congestion charge generated approximately $240 million in 2009, all dedicated to transportation. Stockholm’s pricing scheme took in about $112 million in a much smaller region.

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On Congestion Pricing, Cuomo Plays the Pundit, Not the Governor

At a distracted driving event yesterday, Andrew Cuomo dodged his own responsibility for the politics of transit funding. Image: Brigid Bergin/WNYC

Andrew Cuomo knows he’s the governor of New York, right?

You couldn’t tell from this exchange about congestion pricing yesterday, via Transportation Nation:

Q: Have you seen Sam Schwartz’s revised congestion pricing plan? Do you support it?

A: I have not seen it. We’ve talked about congestion pricing for many years. We’ve tried to pass it in the past. It hasn’t passed. I don’t know that anything has happened to change that dynamic. I just don’t know if you have the political support to pass it.

That’s the kind of detached punditry that might be appropriate coming from Chris Cuomo, TV journalist, but not the governor. Andrew Cuomo, for better and for worse, practically defines political support in this state.

Let’s look back at one of Cuomo’s signature achievements, passing a law allowing same sex marriage in New York. Two years before Cuomo signed that bill into law, gay marriage didn’t have political support either. It died by a vote of 38-24 in the State Senate. That’s significantly less support than bridge tolls had in the same year, which only needed votes from four more state senators.

Cuomo didn’t sagely nod his head and tell New York’s gay couples that he didn’t know if there was enough political support for them to marry. He launched an all-out effort to, in his words, change the dynamic.

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The Greater Good of Bike Tolls

Image: Sam Schwartz Engineering

Sam Schwartz’s proposal to collect a half-a-buck per bicycle entry on bridges to the Manhattan Central Business District is putting New York cyclists in a bind. Cyclists, like drivers, don’t relish paying for something they’ve been getting for free, particularly when they feel they’re being singled out. Yet Schwartz’s bike-toll idea is merely one part, and a minor one at that, of an audacious scheme to restructure bridge and road tolls across the city and revolutionize travel by car, bike, train and bus. If a bike toll can help sell the grand plan — and Schwartz insists it can — it might be a price worth paying.

Full disclosure first: I’m helping Sam with quantitative analysis of his plan; my BTA model runs its numbers. But my connections to Sam go back much further. In 2009, he hosted a briefing in which I showcased the BTA to other transportation wonks, and his rave for the model in Wired magazine was a big boost for me. I’ve been a Gridlock Sam admirer for decades, captivated by his ability — unique among policy types — to speak the language of the person he’s talking to: cab driver, planner, politician.

So when Sam tried out his bike-toll idea on me months ago, I listened. You can sell easier with honey than vinegar, the saying goes, and Sam’s plan slathers on the honey with a 50 percent drop in tolls on MTA bridges like the Verrazano and the Throgs Neck that connect one outer borough to another. But not even honey packs the zest of sticking it to someone you can’t stand. “You’re going to make the bikers pay to pedal into Manhattan?,” marveled one elected official, an opponent of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, after seeing Sam’s plan in slideshow. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I introduced this plan?”

The plan Sam wants to sell would charge a uniform ten bucks for each auto round-trip into the CBD, whether via the Hudson, the East River, or 60th Street. After slashing outer-borough bridge tolls, paying for the tolling system and discounting bus fares in the city’s non-subway-served precincts, there would still be $1.2 billion a year left over to invest in infrastructure. Sam would apply most of that to expand transit routes and improve service without bonding that adds pressure to fares. Some would go to highways — Sam is convinced that widening the Belt Parkway to allow trucks will take dangerous commercial traffic off Brooklyn streets. And some will go to the bicycle bridges.

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Gridlock Sam on Traffic, Tolls, and Big Ideas for NYC Transpo Policy

Gridlock Sam's plan chops $5 off the roundtrip E-ZPass price of major MTA bridges and sets the E-ZPass price for East River crossings at a uniform $5 each way.

New York City is coming up on the four year anniversary of a moment that will live in infamy for transit riders and sustainable transportation advocates: the demise of congestion pricing, which was put down in the state Assembly without a vote on April 7, 2008. The city lost a great opportunity that day to fund its transit system while relieving the city’s most congestion-choked streets from suffocating traffic.

Road pricing has been hibernating since a plan to toll crossings into Manhattan was narrowly defeated in the State Senate in 2009. But last Sunday former New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller put it squarely in the public eye again, featuring the latest plan from the city’s best-known transportation engineer, “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz.

The basic bargain in Schwartz’s plan boils down to this: Motorists pay more to enter the most congested part of the region, and pay less to travel between the boroughs outside Manhattan. He’s also added a slate of fees so Manhattanites pay more into the system, and a menu of infrastructure projects ranging from widening the Staten Island Expressway to building three new bike and pedestrian bridges into Manhattan.

The plan aims to produce both broad-based benefits and broad-based sacrifice. While the package would be a huge improvement over New York’s dysfunctional road pricing system and result in a major infusion of revenue for the financially troubled MTA, the grab bag of spending is hit or miss. Unlike the 2008 congestion pricing plan, which was supposed to be paired with surface transit improvements and shift trips away from driving all over the city, Schwartz’s plan would induce traffic in some areas outside Manhattan.

Schwartz is constantly refining the plan as he takes it to different constituencies. Here’s a look at the major pieces in the current version of the plan, which is up on the Sam Schwartz Engineering website [PDF] (note: it’s a little different than the summary we posted on Wednesday):

  • $5 E-ZPass/$7 cash fee to drive into and out of the congested heart of Manhattan
  • $5 roundtrip reduction in tolls on the Verrazano, Triborough, Throgs Neck, and Whitestone bridges
  • $2 roundtrip reduction in tolls on the Cross Bay and Marine Parkway bridges, which connect the Rockaway peninsula to the mainland.
  • End the parking tax rebate for Manhattan residents, who currently pay about half the tax rate on car storage compared to residents of other boroughs.
  • $1 drop fee on yellow cab trips in the Manhattan CBD, with cabbies keeping part of the revenue.
  • Reduced express bus fares for residents far from Manhattan.
  • New elevated busways built over the median, Airtrain-style, on the Bruckner, the Long Island Expressway, and the Belt Parkway.
  • Widening the Staten Island Expressway and the Van Wyck approach to JFK.
  • Widening the Belt Parkway and allowing commercial traffic so fewer trucks are on local streets.
  • Building three new bike and pedestrian bridges into the Manhattan CBD, one from Hoboken/Jersey City, one from Red Hook via Governor’s Island, and one from Greenpoint/Long Island City.
  • Investment in MTA maintenance and capital improvements (specific dollar amount TBD, but it would be more than the amount spent on road projects).

According to Charles Komanoff’s Balanced Transportation Analyzer, Schwartz’s plan would raise a net of $1.26 billion annually, reducing the number of vehicles entering the Manhattan CBD each weekday by 21 percent, while increasing the number of people entering by 3.3 percent. The revenue would be bonded, allowing for up to $15 billion in borrowing that would be spent on transit investment, the roadway projects in Schwartz’s plan, and infrastructure maintenance.

I spoke to Schwartz this morning about how he’s been adjusting his plan over the last four years. Below are edited highlights from the interview.

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