Urban Density and a Pocketbook Plea for Congestion Pricing

350px_US_Metro_popultion_graph.pngOf the ten largest cities in the United States, New York has far and away the greatest population density: 26,402.9 people per square mile, more than double the second densest big city, Chicago. The chart at right shows how the largest metropolitan areas stack up in terms of core population, overall population and core population density.  This fact alone should force New York City authorities to think differently than the rest of the country on all sorts of matters of public policy. New York is a quantitatively different animal than the other big American metropolitan regions in terms of percentage of people that live in the core, density and size of the core and size of the metropolitan area.

The movement for congestion pricing needs to start here, would inevitably start here and has started here. Here is a simple submission: People should pay for the privilege of bringing their air-polluting, noise polluting, lethal, two-ton pieces of private property onto the streets of such a dense place. But the reason for the payment shouldn't be for any of those unsavory attributes of the automobile.

Drivers everywhere should be required to pay for the cleanup that will be needed for their pollution, not just here. Many industries with more concentrated negative externalities, to use the economic term, are required to pay into funds that ameliorate the consequences of their pollution. G.E. had to pay to clean up the Hudson River after it contaminated the river with PCBs; motorists should have to pay to clean up their pollution too.

Noise pollution (namely, honking) isn't a problem unless there are people around to have to hear it. Here in New York, heavy fines are threatened on anyone who honks unnecessarily. We are also working toward a ban of audible car alarms.

As for the car's deadliness, its worst attribute, well, the engineers are working on it.

No, the best reason for congestion pricing is that cars get in the way of business.

As Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City says, "The gridlock on New York City's streets has become a brake on the city's economy." She warns, "It is going to be increasingly difficult for New York to market itself as a place where you can get the most done in the least period of time with the best workforce if we're not able to solve the congestion problem."

Traffic congestion slows you down when you're trying to get somewhere. It slows down the delivery of essentially goods throughout the city and slows the movement of people -- the city's most valuable economic input -- by clogging the roads that could be moving them along much more quickly with free flowing buses, cabs and bicycles. Traffic congestion gets in the way of emergency vehicles, no doubt contributing to the finding that heart attacks are more likely to be fatal in New York City than anywhere else in the nation. The fact that congestion pricing would lead to less air and noise pollution while improving the public realm is just a happy coincidence. But it is one that should make every New Yorker support congestion pricing, whether you're in favor of making New York into an efficient platform for commerce or you are concerned about a rise in sea levels or you simply want to live in a more pleasant, breathable city.

Congestion pricing is working in the world city most similar to New York and it would work here. In fact congestion pricing should be applied not just to New York, but to every city in the United States with more than 8 million people living at a density of greater than 25,000 people per square mile.