New York City just voted to implement a policy that will charge vehicles well over $10 to drive in the busiest parts of Manhattan. Called congestion pricing, the plan would raise money to fund much-needed repairs to the city’s subway system, which serves a plurality (39%) of commuters and has, for the past few years, been failing at doing so reliably. The government has committed to some sort of congestion fee, and now will begin working on its specific design.
While cities like London, Stockholm, and Singapore have implemented congestion pricing plans of their own in the past several decades, New York is the first U.S. city to join the fray. Car dependency’s relatively strong hold in the U.S.–even in the city where proportionally, the fewest people drive–posed a significant hurdle in the push for a fee on driving in New York City, which has been years in the making. Now that the policy is set to be introduced, some transportation analysts have expressed concern that in trying too much to appease the car lobby, New York’s policy might get too watered down to meaningfully address the city’s traffic and subway budget needs.
So what must New York policymakers keep in mind in in order to make their congestion pricing plan effective? Fast Company spoke to some transportation experts who drew on both the lessons of other cities and their own extensive research into the subject to answer this question.
Make the fee as broad as possible
Something that’s emerged as a sticking point in New York City’s congestion pricing plan is carveouts: discounts or exemptions to the fee for driving in Manhattan south of 60th street. Charles Komanoff, a transportation policy expert who is widely known, in transit circles, as the creator of the Balanced Transportation Analyzer–an astonishingly detailed spreadsheet that models how congestion charges would affect both traffic and transit funding–has some strong words about exemptions. “I’m really impatient with most of this stuff,” Komanoff says.
Komanoff counts five potential carvouts: One for people who already paid a bridge toll on crossings into upper Manhattan; one for low-income car users; one for “essential” car trips by city workers; one for car trips to medical facilities; one for people with disabilities. “Any given carveout is going to cost the commons more than it will benefit the individual trip that gets carved out,” Komanoff says.
All of which is not to say, Komanoff adds, that he’s unsympathetic to the particular needs raised in the conversation around carveouts, particularly for people with disabilities. But to him, the way to meet these needs is to implement the broadest possible congesting fee, and come up with more creative–and potentially more effective and equitable–ways to address people’s particular needs.
Take rides for people with disabilities. New York City offers a service called Access-A-Ride, which offers affordable van trips for people with disabilities. But the service must be booked in advance, is inefficient, and the vans often get mired in traffic the congestion fee aims to mitigate. Rather than exempting Access-A-Ride, or individual license plates of people with disabilities, Komanoff would rather see services like Uber and Lyft receive a subsidy on the backend to offer affordable transport for people with disabilities, rather than implementing a sweeping exemption. (It’s also worth nothing that the revenue raised by a congestion fee would support making more subway systems accessible to people with disabilities.)
And for other categories, like car trips by city workers and low-income people (very few of whom actually drive into the central business district), what policymakers need to keep in mind, Komanoff says, is that a better-working transit system should alleviate the need for these trips in the first place. And a congestion price would help make that a reality. “We’re all trained to see the particular and not the general, the immediate and not the diffuse,” Komanoff says. A good congestion pricing plan prioritizes widespread and long-term benefits over individual complaints.
Be ready with alternate options
That being said, it’s incumbent on the city rolling out a congestion price to be ready with alternate options for people who will ditch their cars as a result of the fee. “The day London rolled out its congestion fee, it had an extra 300 buses lined up to transport people through the central district,” says Brianne Eby, a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, which is conducting an in-depth study of congestion pricing plans. London’s policy has proved a success: Since it was introduced in 2003, the number of private vehicles entering central London has declined by 39%.
If a city makes driving more expensive, it must be ready with alternative and affordable transit options. To its credit, New York City has worked on beefing up its bike-share program in recent years, and it should also look to get creative with offering improved bus service into the central business district as repairs to the subway system roll out. “The number-one mode to ramp up is buses, because it can be done really quickly and with no additional infrastructure,” Komanoff says. Congestion pricing, when done right, should improve bus speed by moving a good chunk of car traffic out of their way, and the city should waste no time in proving that logic out.
Don’t think of the policy set in stone
Almost immediately, a city with a congestion fee should see a reduction in car traffic, and lift in alternative transportation options, like biking and taking the bus. But this happening should not occasion abandoning the policy. Instead, any congestion plan should be constantly reassessed to see where it can improve.
London is a good example of this. When the city rolled out its plan 16 years ago, it included an exemption for taxis and for-hire vehicles. This was before the massive proliferation of services like Uber and Lyft, and as they ramped up their presence, congestion crept back into central London, and has continued to worsen outside the zone where the original congestion fee applies. Now, the city is contemplating expanding the zone and adjusting the fee to cover for-hire vehicles. It’s also considering replacing its flat-rate congestion fee with a flexible charge that varies on the time of day a car enters the zone and how long it stays, which is what Stockholm did when it introduced congestion pricing in 2006. It’s important that cities continue to learn from each other, and constantly adjust their programs to respond to changing traffic patterns and maximize revenue for transit.
Focus on the benefits
In the U.S., Eby says, some cities may benefit from tying congestion pricing to a specific aim: Los Angeles, for instance, is floating the policy as part of its strategy for the 2028 Olympic Games, for which it will need to raise a substantial amount of revenue for transit projects and dramatically rein in its traffic. While something like the Olympics may galvanize interest in congestion pricing, Eby says, it’s crucial for cities to emphasize the universal benefits that can stem from such a policy. “It’s about creating a constant stream of revenue for improved transit projects, and that brings about an opportunity to address equity concerns, like building out better transit for people across the city,” she says.
And for those looking to attach a monetary value to the results of congestion pricing, Komanoff’s spreadsheet comes in handy. On it, policymakers can input a congestion charge, and the platform will churn out a dollar value that illustrates the net benefit of such a plan. “My modeling suggests that a robust congestion plan will create a suite of benefits–faster trips, more reliable trips, cleaner air, safer streets, and more physical activity because people will be more motivated and able to walk and bike–to the tune of $3 billion per year,” Komanoff says. Especially as the environmental and public-health consequences of car dependency become harder and harder to ignore, cities have to emphasize the benefits on the other side of the balance sheet from what drivers will have to pay.
Just do it
Especially in the U.S., policies that impede the free flow of car traffic are going to face opposition. But perhaps they could learn from Stockholm, which faced opposition to its own congestion charge but went with it anyway. In an interview with Streetsblog, Stockholm’s transportation director gave New York City some blunt advice: “Just do it.” Before implementation, public approval for congestion pricing in the city dropped below 40%, but by 2011, support for the policy was at 70%. Even 50% of the people who had to pay the fee most often supported it. The reason: Traffic actually cleared up, and transit service improved. “There’s always going to be political pushback, but if you set a clear vision for what the policy should be and what it could accomplish, there’s a case to be made for policymakers getting bullish about implementing it,” Eby says.
What could help other cities follow in this vein is the momentum around ideas like the Green New Deal, she adds. As the environmental and public-health drawbacks of car dependency become harder to ignore, cities can push congestion pricing forward as a neat way to reduce car usage and deliver on necessary transportation improvements–like better bus service and bike networks–that the Green New Deal calls for.
“We’re so used to the status quo and caving in to the loudest constituents, who are usually the people who are driving cars,” Eby says. “We have to get past that and do something for the greater good and the long term.”