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Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think About Road Pricing

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Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think About Road Pricing

December 1, 2006

Traveling on New York City's streets and highways normally takes 50–75% longer at rush hour than under uncongested conditions. The value of time wasted from traffic congestion is about $8 billion annually. Congestion also increases the cost of doing business in New York and leaves drivers and bus riders stressed from clogged streets and unpredictable travel times.

Cities from London to Singapore to San Diego have shown that road pricing measures such as fees to enter a portion of the city or to use a highway lane are powerful tools in reducing traffic congestion. Yet most road pricing proposals stumble on the political toxicity of fees and tolls, which the public often views as tantamount to taxes aimed at drivers. With advances in toll collection technology, public acceptability is clearly the major barrier to adopting pricing measures.

This study tested the public acceptability of three well-known and widely discussed pricing policies:

  • Congestion pricing in which vehicles driving in the Manhattan business district on weekdays would pay a fee
  • “Express lanes” on highways for solo drivers who pay a toll as well as buses and high-occupancy vehicles
  • Increases in the cost of on-street parking.

The first two measures are aimed at reducing congestion on streets and highways. Increased parking fees are intended to increase turnover of parking spaces, reduce double parking, and make finding a parking spot easier.

In a series of focus groups held with a cross-section of New Yorkers, the express lane concept won broad support, particularly among auto users and owners of retail establishments, restaurants, and delivery companies. There is thus clearly an opportunity to use certain forms of road pricing to improve transportation in New York.

Congestion pricing produced mixed reactions, consistent with public opinion polls showing New Yorkers to be evenly split on the issue. To attract widespread public support, congestion pricing should be targeted to the most congested streets and highways throughout New York City. Congestion fees should also be adjusted by time of day so that the highest charges are during the most congested times.

Reaction to increases in the cost of on-street parking depended on the details of implementation.

A plan that combines a targeted form of congestion pricing, express lanes on selected highways, and a pilot parking-fee program is detailed in the report. The plan includes fees for vehicles entering and exiting the Manhattan Central Business District (CBD—below 60th Street) during the morning and afternoon peak periods. The plan also includes a fee for driving in the CBD during midday, when congestion is worst. Revenue from fees and tolls should be used for improving public transportation and for other measures to reduce traffic congestion. These could include greater traffic enforcement and designated truck-loading areas.

This plan responds to the public's demand that pricing policies solve transportation problems and enhance travel choices. The targeted nature of the plan will demonstrate that the impetus of the program is traffic reduction and that the program will not unfairly penalize drivers who do not contribute to the congestion problem, thus addressing fairness and equity concerns.

A final and important finding of the research is that a pricing program should be preceded by non-pricing measures that improve transportation in the city. Such measures should include greater frequency and reliability of public transportation service, less crowding on trains and buses, park-and-ride lots and express buses that cater to neighborhoods where most CBD-bound auto users live, and steps to better accommodate truck deliveries and relieve pedestrian/vehicular conflicts that stymie traffic. These non-pricing measures would enhance travel choices, increase the perceived fairness of pricing policies, and show that policymakers understand that no one measure is sufficient to solve the varied transportation problems in New York.