Congestion Pricing: Does New York Have the Will?


Brad Aaron reports:

Political will, holistic planning, centralized management. That’s
what Malcolm Murray-Clark says it takes to implement an effective
congestion pricing plan.

He should know. The Director of Congestion Charging at Transport for London (TfL) oversees a program that is as ambitious as it is successful — a
program that went from idea to implementation in just 26 months,
significantly reducing traffic and pollution while earning approval
ratings as high as 59 percent.

As cars and trucks clogged the arteries of lower Manhattan on their
way out of the central business district yesterday evening (right),
Murray-Clark held forth to a capacity crowd at 7 World Trade Center.
Sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences,
the lecture also featured Stephen A. Hammer of Columbia University and
CUNY’s Dr. Robert "Buzz" Paaswell, director of the University
Transportation Research Center and former executive director of the
Chicago Transit Authority.

From the start, Murray-Clark said, London Mayor Ken Livingstone
pulled no punches regarding his intention to reduce auto traffic. In
fact, Livingstone ran on a platform that included congestion pricing.
And upon taking office in 2000, he got to work. Today, London is one of two major world cities experiencing a reduction in car trips (Paris is the other).

"It was a bold policy to embark upon," Murray-Clark
said, and one that proceeded through a combination of thoughtful
planning and shrewd political maneuvering. Rather than wait years for
upgrades to London’s already overcrowded subway system, for example,
TfL leveraged congestion pricing revenue to invest heavily in new
buses. In order to ease opposition in the early stages, Livingstone
offered a 90 percent discount for residents of the congestion zone, and
courted the trucking industry by offering it the same rate per vehicle
as passenger cars.

Despite early skepticism
and a highly critical media, Londoners warmed to congestion pricing
shortly after it took effect. Livingstone has since won re-election
once, and though he is up again next year, he has a series of
more radical environmental proposals, like reducing — or even
eliminating — charges for low CO2 cars while raising the fee for
high-emission vehicles like SUVs to the equivalent of $48 per entry.

"his was announced, and there was no uproar," Murray-Clark said. "This is where Londoners are at the moment."

Still, congestion pricing remains "contentious and newsworthy,"
he said, and support fluctuates depending on fluid circumstances.
Anxiety over a recent expansion of the zone caused approval ratings to dip, while new transit investments normally rate an uptick.

"This isn’t a panacea," said Murray-Clark. "This isn’t something
you do on its own. This is something you do as part of a wider package."

The package — more buses, effective traffic management inside and
outside the zone, reliable monitoring technology, a convenient payment
system, and steep fines for non-compliance — was possible in large
part because London transportation planners and transit officials work
for the same agency, an advantage New York doesn’t have. Another
obstacle is New York’s culture," according to Paaswell.

"Congestion pricing is like the Second Avenue subway," Paaswell
said. "We’ve been talking about it a long time, and it isn’t here."

The most significant issue New York needs to overcome, said Paaswell, is that of leadership, both political and bureaucratic. Who
would collect congestion fees? Who would allocate them? Would a new
authority be needed? Who will make these decisions? In short, read a
PowerPoint slide beamed behind the panel:  WHO IS IN CHARGE??

In Murray-Clark’s experience, someone has to be.

"A referendum," he said, "probably is a basis for doing nothing."

NYC photo: Brad Aaron
London photo: Aaron Naparstek

18 thoughts on Congestion Pricing: Does New York Have the Will?

  1. The bureaucratic obstacles to pricing in NYC are trivial compared to the political.

    In London, because of a once in a lifetime historical opportunity created by “devolution” and the creation of a new mayors office, the mayor had the unilateral authority to impose pricing. The last TfL pricer to pass through, Derek Turner, told an RPA audience a couple of years into London’s pricing effort, that had Livingstone had to get pricing through a legislative body it would not have happened.

    Compare London where the mayor had the power to impose pricing with NYC where you need the mayor, City Council, state senate, state assembly and the governor all to say yes.

    So, this is not about a better bureaucratic structure its about the nature of democracy in New York City. We have a whole additional layer of government here called the State of New York

    That’s why these comparisons of relative political will between NYC and London are such BS. There’s little doubt that, given the authority, Mike Bloomberg would impose pricing in Manhattan’s Central Business District. He comes from the same business elite that has publicly backed a congestion zone. But it’s not his decision, nor is it even City Council’s decision.

  2. Yes, it’s an excellent point, the mayor can set on-street parking prices. This is why there is growing interest in using parking as a traffic management tool. It’s also an area in which traffic flow oriented DOT types and driving reduction advocates can agree. My guess is that Commissioner H. will get to work fairly quickly with the BIDs on establishing 15% curb occupancy zones. Neighborhoods like Park Slope should be asking for similar congestion parking pilot projects on the intensely retail sections of 5th,7th and 8th Aves.

    All this said, it remains to seen how high the mayor/DOT can set curb rates before being overruled by the “Pay to Pray” City Council.

  3. But JK, they said the same thing about education — a New York City mayor couldn’t do anything about NYC’s broken schools because the system was all controlled by the state and, even worse, these dysfunctional local school boards.

    Bloomberg ran his first campaign on the idea of overhauling education and taking somewhat dictatorial control over the system. Granted, he won on 9/11, not on education. But he came in and and he got it done (whether you like the results so far is another issue).

    But I see no reason why the next Mayor — as long as he is identified with the outer borough working man — couldn’t do a similar thing with transportation. All we need is another terrorist attack and an endorsement from Rudy for the pro-congestion pricing candidate and we’re in business.

    Mayor Doctoroff? Mayor Weiner?

    Lord knows Marty Markowitz isn’t going to be the guy:

  4. H’mm I dont see congestion pricing and education as politically analogous. There was decades of sky high parental and public disatisfaction with the grossly incompetent Board of Ed. The deal clencher was getting the teachers to support mayoral control in the legislature.

    The kind of support Bloomberg had on education is more akin to if he had 40 votes in City Council, plus at least half of car commuters and AAA supporting pricing. All this said, if the MTA faces $1 a ride far hike and a bankrupt capital plan in 2008, it could shake things up.

    The public knows Albany is broken. But they didnt do a damn thing to change the equation. Bruno and Silver are still the other two men in the room.

  5. I see a dozen years of pent up anger about traffic congestion, crappy planning and increasingly un-Livable Streets. We saw it manifest as nearly 700 people at a CB6 transpo commitee meeting in Brooklyn last week. We’re seeing it all over the city. Top issue of virtually every neighborhood group. Just about zero action on the mayoral level. I think these issues are ripe for the picking if they are sold properly and the policies bring money back to the outer boroughs.

  6. What Corporate Elite sees as a tsunami of grass roots support for congestion pricing I see as merely small permutations of normal NIMBY opposition to any traffic (abutters rights). A quick look at the West Side (Hudson Yards) projects built in parking requirements and the Atlantic Center shoe-horning more cars into Downtown Brooklyn permanently should show where the planners are really at. Yeah, we can turn a lot of people out at a meeting to oppose almost anything (just try to add onto your own house under the existing regs). But that is a long way from the political center of gravity needed to make congestion pricing happen.

  7. The meeting last Thursday was much more than your typical NIMBY uprising. Brownstone Brooklyn is polite even when the City is sticking a dagger in its back. They’re not being polite anymore. Something has changed and I think there’s enough energy in it to create some new politics.

    But I don’t see it as a tsunami for congestion pricing per se. I do see a reaction to real estate developer-driven Bloomberg years creating a new politics that is moving the city pretty rapidly in the direction of the “livable streets” quality of life urban environmental agenda espoused on this blog — or whatever you want to call that agenda. It won’t all be “livable streets” either. And, yeah, there will be plenty of NIMBYism in it too.

    Re: All of the new parking — The civic groups around Downtown Brooklyn actually don’t call for new parking space anymore, for the most part. They mostly understand that more parking in and around Downtown Brooklyn means more car trips through their neighborhoods. They are actually way ahead of the city on that particular issue.

    People’s understanding of this stuff seems to be way ahead of Bloomberg.

  8. As the Atlantic Yards debate has proven, successful manipulation of the media, no matter the public sentiment, is as much a factor in a project’s success as the project’s actual merits.

    I think it will be no different with congestion pricing. It will take a lot of work to counter Post and Daily News headlines like “Priced Out” that will probably feature one poor shlub from Queens who feels unfairly burdened by a congestion toll or fee. Parking garage companies, gas companies, livery companies and others will have the money to hire PR firms to paint this in the worst possible light, never mind the facts. The media – and not just the Times – has to get behind this policy or it won’t pass.

  9. Mind you, I’d love to see street pricing, but I Slopers convinced that a tsunami of discontent will unleash pricing should take a look at the resolution that their community board issued in their name. It contains truly mealy mouth language about “facilitating traffic” in a number of places.

    Whether 70, 700 or 7000 people showed up, Slopers concerned about livable streets still haven’t demonstrated the political organization to control their own community board’s transpo policy — let alone that there is an organized, grassroots citywide movement that can move this issue through the legislature.

    Anyone who really thinks that NYC is at the political cusp of Manhattan pricing zone should help organize a sign-on letter of assemblymembers calling on Sheldon Silver to support it. How many names could you get on it? Can you get the assemblymembers representing Park Slope and downtown Brooklyn to stand-up and call for pricing.

    It may seem small bore but I’d be happy to see the tsunami translated into 15% vacancy targets for retail streets in CB 6.

  10. I think opposition to so-called congestion pricing is feeling that those pushing it are really trying to reduce reduce private car owners that may live in areas of city without quick public transport to mid-town or downtown manhattan – so that the Manhattan folks that hop into cabs or use black-cars/limos can move around more freely.
    Now if they talked about adding a few $ surcharge for every cab/limo fare in mid-town – you might reduce traffic much more.
    Most of the traffic outside my midtown office is not private car drivers.

  11. Just looked out the window and confirmed that the livable streets tsunami has not yet made from Park Slope to Flushing…But a couple of 7th order vegans in birkenstocks are kind of drifting around a street vendor. Can’t tell if they’re tourists from Germany or the hip parts of Brooklyn.

  12. > I think opposition to so-called congestion
    > pricing is feeling that those pushing it
    > are really trying to reduce reduce private
    > car owners that may live in areas of city > without quick public transport to mid-town
    > or downtown manhattan – so that the
    > Manhattan folks that hop into cabs or use
    > black-cars/limos can move around more >
    > freely.


    Per the last traffic survey, the biggest group of drivers are 1) government employees and 2) coming from neighborhoods with public transportation. The fact that there are all those fake city parking permits and bs parking lots (ala cadman plaza in brooklyn) has a TON to do with it.

    And, if you live where there is no public transportation and need to get into manhattan, you picked the wrong neighborhood. Just because you picked wrong (and that doesn’t mean you have the money, tons of low-income neighborhoods have manhattan-bound trains) doesn’t mean you get to screw it up for others. If you get screwed by this, then PERFECT. We want your ass off the BQE.

  13. This is a terrible idea. Just because something worked in London does not mean it will work here. It’s also interesting how the upper east/west sides of Manhattan are relatively unscathed by this 86th street decree. I agree that something should be done about congestion but this is not it- this simply serves to punish those who will balk at an $8 toll and make Manhattan even more of a playground for the rich. For all that nonsense about poor people not driving into Manhattan….are you going to take a bus or train to Newark to pick up family members? There are a million reasons to drive into Manhattan. This plan wont work even if it gets off the ground. And this is weird….but I pray our might bureaucracy kills this nonsense just like it kills things that would actually be beneficial to the city.

  14. “For all that nonsense about poor people not driving into Manhattan….are you going to take a bus or train to Newark to pick up family members? ”

    Why shouldn’t you? Both New Jersey Transit and PATH run to Newark where they connect with a city subway system, not to mention both local and express bus service.

    Oh so does Amtrak but that wouldn’t really be practical.

  15. Exactly, Rob. I and people I know have done this throughout our lives. I have no idea why Jon thinks people wouldn’t do it, especially when the airports are less than 45 minutes away from some parts of Manhattan with the Airtrain and the M60 bus. It’s just a baffling statement that shows the kind of worldview the congestion pricing opponents inhabit.

    I’d be hard pressed to come up with even twenty reasons to drive into Manhattan. The only reason I’ve ever done it is to move furniture.

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