High Gas Prices Won’t Cure Gridlock

It’s the New Math: a dollar-a-trip rise in the cost of fuel for a car trip to Manhattan is cutting traffic almost as much as Mayor Bloomberg’s eight-dollar toll plan would have done.

Too good to be true, right? But that’s the slant of the front-page headline in today’s Times, "Politics Failed, but Fuel Prices Cut Congestion":

Soaring gas prices and higher tolls seem to be doing for traffic in New York what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ambitious congestion pricing was supposed to do: reducing the number of cars clogging the city’s streets and pushing more people to use mass transit.

The article reports that traffic on MTA bridges and tunnels within the city and the Port Authority’s Hudson River crossings was down this spring by 4-5 percent compared with a year ago — within hailing distance of the 6.3 percent drop sought by the mayor’s plan.

Good news, but how much of the decline is due to the price of gas and how much to the toll increases that took effect around the same time?

I think that so far the tolls have been the bigger factor. Here’s why: a typical round-trip into the Manhattan CBD uses between 1.3 and 1.4
gallons of gas (based on an average 22.6-mile round-trip distance and a stop-and-start
17 miles per gallon). Nationally, gas cost $3.65 this April-May and $3.05 a year earlier, for a year-to-year increase of 60 cents a gallon or just 80 cents per trip. The toll increase was a good deal higher than this, even accounting for trips into town via the free bridges.

Okay, hardly anyone does these calculations before deciding whether or not to drive. And perhaps $4 gas will start to act as a tipping point, making it socially acceptable to drive less and triggering larger defections from cars than the numbers would predict — particularly in transit-rich environments like the New York region.

Could happen. But I wouldn’t count on it. In recent years, the "elasticity" of gasoline consumption, as indicated by changes in usage relative to changes in pump prices, has been fairly constant across a wide range of price fluctuations. (See spreadsheet.) We’ll know more on this score in a few months, when usage data corresponding to the $4 price become available.

The Times quotes traffic guru Sam Schwartz:

If we start eclipsing $5 a gallon, which we might over the summer, I think we might get very close [to the mayor’s goal].

Gridlock Sam may be right. But what the article doesn’t say is, first, whether that 6.3 percent drop in Manhattan traffic (and 1-2 percent citywide) is so momentous; and, second, which tool for cutting traffic is more desirable: a "market-driven" gasoline price rise that enriches the owners of petroleum, or a socially-decided road-pricing policy whose revenues would be available to improve transit.

Relying on punishingly high gas prices to undo a century of motorist-skewed traffic policies is like praying for a hailstorm to cure a drought. Congestion pricing, particularly via game-changing programs such as the Kheel Plan, remains essential for New York. 

Photo: dM.nyc™/Flickr

18 thoughts on High Gas Prices Won’t Cure Gridlock

  1. And high gas prices means more money sent abroad, while congestion pricing means more money for transit. High gas prices, alone, is clearly not an adequate replacement for congestion pricing.

  2. Remember when Bloomberg, before his epiphany, and Iris Weinshall said that traffic congestion was good because it showed there was a booming economy? Now a bad economy reduces traffic congestion. See how easy it was?

  3. FDR’s point is a good one – I think that measures of traffic should be controlled for the business cycle, like VMT/gross state output, since it does affect traffic. Interesting that transit ridership not following the economy down though.

  4. I was actually pretty impressed by the level headedness of the article, despite the onesided headline.
    But what they didn’t mention is that map depicting percentage of income spent on gasoline that’s been hanging around on nytimes.com for some time now. Essentially, drivers around here don’t spend much of their money on gas. The two major reasons are that people who drive in this area are generally well off and that distances in the tristate pail in comparison to those in other parts of the country.

  5. Reading from the other side of the country … just curious, does NY state or city have a gas tax? If so, does it get indexed to gas price or inflation? National gas tax has been fixed at 18¢/gallon since 1993, so inflation has eroded its value – a big reason for failing infrastructure nationally.

  6. The long form of the headline is the only thing I find objectionable: “Cost of Driving May Work Where Politics Failed and Keep Cars Off City Streets.” That setup is false as congestion pricing IS a cost of driving, when implemented. That’s the whole idea. As for the cost of gasoline, the article itself rebuts the idea that it will “work” to achieve the dual goals of congestion pricing: raising money, and regulating traffic in concentrated areas.

    Headlines aside, I think it’s a great article. Even the closing line:
    “Do I like the [lower] traffic?” he said. “Yes. Do I like the cost of gas? Forget about it.”

    The response this calls into the reader’s mind? Sorry, Mr. Lin, but as everyone knows you can not have your cake and eat it too. Apparently cheap driving is inextricably linked to traffic congestion! It’s a simple point, but one that people want to reject so badly it must be presented repeatedly and in different ways (c.p.: theoretical, or in foreign cities. gas prices: here and now). Once it is understood, c.p. “alternatives” (whatever happened to those?) can be summarily dismissed.

    I’m thrilled that the Times is still writing about c.p., and not even in the usual condescending way for failed political efforts. If articles like this keep circulating we’re likely to have a public that really gets it, and votes on it, sooner than we had expected. Next, please do write a feature on the Kheel plan, NYT! It could really spice up the mayoral election news to have that as an issue. 😉

  7. It’s hard to add to what Charlie Komanoff has already said, but there are a few points worth noting. First, the headline was misleading, and though it was below the “fold” it was still on the front page of the Times. Second, PATH fares and MTA bus, subway and commuter rail fares were raised concurrently with toll hikes. If tolls has been raised more, and fares frozen or reduced, vehicle crossings into the Manhattan Central Business District might have dropped even more. Price was set to serve revenue objectives, not public policy goals. Third, for most motorists using the four toll tunnels that lead to the CBD transit is an option. For the other toll crossings, like the George Washington Bridge, there are far fewer transit options. Little effort has gone into improving non-CBD transit options. Fourth, the article points out the lack of “real time” data about use of the non-tolled motor vehicular gateways to the CBD — a real shortcoming of the NYCDOT. Low cost technology is readily available for continuous monitoring of these crossings, the location for cordon tolls in the Mayor’s congestion pricing proposal. Now is the time to build the traffic database that will permit serious consideration of future pricing proposals. Same is true for transit crossings which are reported annually, a couple of years after measured,in “Hub Bound Travel”, a report prepared by the NY Metropolitan Transportation Council.

  8. Gotta mention parking here. According to Charlie K. the average motoring commuter to the CBD is paying $1.60 more a day to get to and from work. A cheap private garage costs roughly $400/month ($20 work/day.)You can imagine the big reduction in driving if more motorists actually had to pay for parking in the CBD.

  9. JK — a clarification: my 80-cent-per-trip rise for a CBD trip due to costlier gasoline (early spring 2008 vs. early spring 2007) was per round-trip, not one-way. That only underscores your point that parking is a lever begging to be flexed.

  10. “The process of getting the correct map produced in a changing construction schedule has been a challenge we continue to work on,” said Molly Gordy, an assistant commissioner in the Department of Transportation. New York City Transit produces the rider information panels on a high-quality material that requires an eight-week lead time for fabrication. “During that time frame the actual installation locations may change,” she said. “Because of that, there can be a lag from the time the shelter is installed and operational and the customer service information is available.”

    Sounds like the city is really making out on this deal. I wonder how much these “construction schedule changes” are costing us?

  11. Queens Crapper, get a grip. The bus shelters are done thru a city contract with Cemusa, a private company, which is actually PAYING the city to do this – b/c they get advertising revenue. The bus shelters are a huge revenue SOURCE for the city, not the other way around. Yeesh – if you stop hyperventilating long enough to do a bit of research.

  12. The MTA toll increase was a pittance, just 15 cents each way if you use EZ Pass. I doubt that stopped very many people from driving.

  13. You talk about the elasticity of demand for gas. I just blogged that $4/gallon gas does seem to have triggered more behavior chances than previous price increases. Hopefully we have found a baseline sweet spot for incenting real behavioral changes.

    Your point about the major difference between high gas prices and congestion pricing is where the new revenue ends up is critical. Transit improvements (and bike and ped improvements) all require money. While they could be many sources for these (i.e. state and federal governments), congestion pricing was an excellent and rational way to secure the money.

  14. What’s funny is that one of the objections to congestion pricing was that it would unfairly burden the poor while the rich would easily be able to pay the fee. Well, now the poor are stuck at home or driving less while the rich are riding into the city anyway, only the city is not getting the $8 it otherwise would have gotten each time Joe Millionaire drives his kid to school or drives from the Upper East Side to Wall Street in his town car.

    Had Albany enacted congestion pricing, there might be more money for public transportation to help poor people who now must take public transportation to get groceries or get to work. Market forces have helped reduce traffic, but they do little to raise money for related projects.

  15. This goes to show you that the real energy problem is low prices, not high prices. Had the cost of fossil fuels remained at current levels (in real dollars) through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, alternative energy and fuel conservation would have been more advanced, and we wouldn’t be locked into such an energy-intensive land use pattern and capital stock.

    But the generation in charge couldn’t resist the short-term charms of cheap energy, the easy way. Now we are over a barrel.

    If prices stay at this level for the next 30 years, maybe we can get out of it. That’s all public policy has to do.

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