February 14, 2002
Congestion Pricing for NYC
A Speech for the Center For Civic Innovation
Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.
I’d like to dedicate today’s conference to the late Dr. William Vickrey who pioneered the concept of congestion pricing way back in the 1950’s while a professor at Columbia University. He finally received appropriate recognition in 1996 when it was announced that he had won the Nobel Prize for Economics; unfortunately he passed away a few days later.
I appear before you today to admit that I, in fact my whole profession, traffic and transportation engineers, have failed miserably time and time again in reducing traffic congestion here in New York, across the country and in many other parts of the world. I offer the premise that we failed because we only viewed the problem through government eyes. I offer a few related examples where the government failed but the private sector had measurable successes.
In 1970, the United States passed a Clean Air Act that for the first time dealt with motor vehicle emissions. New York City, under Mayor John Lindsay, responded with an incredibly ambitious and forward thinking plan, directed by Ed Ferrand and Brian Ketchum, calling for tolling the East River bridges, parking restrictions, motor vehicle user fees, improved transit and more.1 The document is still worth reading today. To make a long story short, New York City got cold feet, put in a few bus lanes, parking restrictions and a few good traffic engineering projects, but never got at the root of the problem. Essentially similar stories were played out at major cities across the U.S.
But the auto industry, worrying about car-free cities, did respond (admittedly kicking and screaming). Auto emissions plummeted. Most of the gains in cleaner air were accomplished by the capitalists, not the traffic engineers and planners.
A second example- in 1972 motor vehicle fatalities in the United States peaked at 55,600 people. In one year more Americans died in traffic accidents than in the decade-long Vietnam War. But, by 2000, despite more than a doubling in vehicle miles traveled, which by 1972 rates would mean about 115,000 deaths, the actual number of fatalities dropped to 41,8212.2 This is an amazing accomplishment. True traffic engineers did a pretty good job modernizing many roads but once again, I give more of the credit to the capitalists prodded by the insurance industry. The automakers responded by softening the interiors of vehicles, designing energy absorbing frames, and adding federally mandated seat belts and airbags. Fewer traffic fatalities are good business. By the way, among the 50 largest cities in the United States NYC had the lowest number of traffic-related deaths per 100,000 residents.3 Now we come to urban congestion. Again, I think the automakers have it figured out. It came to me while I was reviewing traffic statistics as I was preparing a “White Paper” for then mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg. I noticed an unusual deviation in a long-standing pattern of modal shifts. Every year all the transportation agencies in NYC get together and count, by mode, the number of people entering and leaving Manhattan’s Central Business District, defined as all of Manhattan south of 60th Street.
A Troubling Trend...Method of CBD Entry in 1996 and 1998
From 1983 to 1996, the motor vehicle share remained steady at 33%. In just two years, 1996 to 1998, the motor vehicle share of CBD entries increased by 4%
I was looking over a 50-year period 1948-1998 (the latest year for which I had data). Ironically, the same number of people entered the CBD in 1948 as did in 1998- 3.7 million people--but the modal split was quite different.4
We all know that post-World War II transit ridership plummeted while car travel surged. By the early 80’s the subway share dropped from its 1948 level of nearly two-thirds to just half while the car share went from 18% to one-third. Then, through the 80’s, and mid-90’s, a span of 15 years, this ratio remained constant. I always felt we reached a ‘balance of misery’ between the modes.
But, while doing research for the Bloomberg paper, I saw a sudden jump in auto share from 33% to 37% between 1996 and 1998, about 100,000 more motor vehicles. I scratched my head because there were no major traffic improvements; in fact many bridges had round-the-clock lane closures. Transit hadn’t gotten any worse, in fact service was improving. So what had changed?
Then it came to me. The capitalists were at it again--outsmarting the traffic engineers. The automakers had so much confidence that the planners would continue to fail in their attempts to curb congestion, not just here in New York but nationwide. Congestion indicators published by the Texas Transportation Institute found that congestion had worsened in just about every major metropolitan area and projected it would continue to worsen for the next 10-20 years. The automakers knew that people would be spending more time in their cars so they had better make that experience more enjoyable or they may lose people to transit.
Over the past five years cars have again grown bigger and roomier, with ergonomic interiors, phones, faxes, computers, televisions, DVD and VCR players, in-vehicle navigation devices and superb sound systems. Coming soon are variable messages you can send to nearby cars, perhaps a way of matchmaking, traffic periscopes to tell you what’s up ahead, massage chairs and more. No wonder more and more people are willing to tolerate worsening congestion; the car is probably their most relaxing and fulfilling space and time. I’ll bet soon some sharp advertising company will refer to their latest model as the “spa in a car.”
So, perhaps it’s time we city planners approached congestion as our capitalist colleagues would. Let’s take our most precious resource-space and charge people for renting it. We’d use the old supply-demand approach and charge most for places most congested and set a premium for peak times. New York City, in some places, does just the opposite. We have ‘sales’ on our bridges that can least afford the extra traffic.
Take the East River where we have four free bridges and three tolled crossings. Combined with a poorly planned one-way toll at the Verrazano Bridge, forced through by a local politician, the pricing scheme encourages Brooklyn and Long Island motorists heading to New Jersey, especially truckers, to choose downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan streets over limited access expressways through Staten Island.
For example, a trucker going from Brooklyn to New Jersey faces about $40 in tolls if he sticks with the expressways and crosses the Verrazano Bridge. But, if he chooses to creep down Flatbush Avenue, cross the almost century-old cracking Manhattan Bridge, and crawl along the scenic route through Chinatown and Tribeca via Canal St. he faces no toll at the outbound Holland Tunnel.
So, not only do I say restore two-way tolls at the Verrazano Bridge, but EZPass all the East River bridges. And integrate the toll structure among the many authorities so that it is always more expensive to travel through Manhattan than around it. In fact, all four East River bridges were tolled until 1911 when then Mayor William Gaynor, in a popular move coming just months after an assassination attempt on his life, removed the tolls. Thus dooming these four majestic structures to compete with the general fund for maintenance and repair, and we all know how that turned out.
While we’re at it, let’s keep capitalism rolling and offer first class travel on the bridges. For example, at the Williamsburg Bridge’s inner roadways one could be guaranteed a three-minute crossing or your money back. This could be achieved by setting a toll high enough to keep the volume down below the level that would deliver a three-minute crossing.
Certainly follow the Port Authority’s example and charge more during peak hours and less off-peak. The Port also manipulates truck travel with variable rates. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New York State Thruway Authority also have variable pricing schemes. New York City Department of Transportation uses congestion pricing to manage on-street parking for trucks in Midtown.
I’d take it a step further and EZPass travel through the CBD, which is currently being done in Singapore. But, I’d charge more for the interior slower avenues than for the outer faster ones. I’d also introduce seasonal and hourly factors. For example, if you want to take your family to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center on a December afternoon by inching down Fifth Avenue between 51st St and 50th St. I say fine, but charge for this premium space by the inch- say $25 in total.
I’ve heard all the arguments against tolling and EZPassing the East River bridges. Most notably that it benefits the rich over the poor, will cause congestion and that free travel within NYC is a right, these bridges are extensions of city streets.
As for the rich vs. poor argument:
- It’s already almost prohibitively expensive to drive and park in Manhattan’s CBD during peak time periods.
- Use the excess revenue, after maintaining the bridges, to improve transit. Far more lower income people take the subway than drive.
- There’s no reason we can’t have lower tolls for Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island residents and higher tolls for the 40% who come in from Long Island. Differential tolls are already used for Staten Island and Rockaway residents.
EZPass has shown that we can significantly diminish queuing dismissing that argument.
And I don’t buy the argument that driving free is a right and the bridges are merely extensions of city streets. Brooklyn and Queens motorists have suffered unbelievable congestion, and associated costs, as every single East River bridge has had structural emergency shutdowns of lanes and roadways and even an extended closing, from lack of maintenance of the entire Williamsburg Bridge in 1988.
There were times, over the past two decades, that as many as half of the 30 lanes on the four East River bridges were closed due to emergencies and construction. The culprit: corrosion from lack of maintenance from lack of dedicated funds. In contrast, there has never been a full or even significant emergency shutdown at any of the neighboring tolled facilities.
At this point I would urge the city and state to launch a full study of value pricing, including the economic impact. I am pleased to note that in Mayor Bloomberg’s Financial Plan, released just yesterday, he listed congestion pricing and E-ZPass initiatives and assigned an annual revenue of $800 million by FY 2006.
We’ve got an exciting program ahead so I’m going to draw to a close. I see value pricing as a way of improving vehicular mobility and improving transit. To me it’s a win-win situation.
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City Metropolitan Area Air Quality Implementation Plan Transportation Controls. (February, 1973)
- Intelligence. (The Urban Transportation Monitor, January 25, 2002) 5.
- Getting Home Safely: strategies to Make Our Communities Safer for Motorists, Pedestrian and Bicyclists. (The Road Information Program, December 2001)
- Hub Bound Traffic Report. (New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, 1998)