By Tyler Stone
Nobody in their right mind enjoys journeying across Midtown Manhattan. The crush of vehicles, construction, tourists and pedestrians makes speedy travel nearly impossible: the average speed of a car traveling south of 60th Street is 4.7 miles per hour, barely faster than walking. In a city with 8.5 million residents and 60 million annual tourists – and many more to come in the years ahead – speeds that slow are not only frustrating but also deeply economically inefficient. Shipments arrive late; important meetings get rescheduled. Workers who could take jobs in the city are discouraged because they live too far away. Much of New York feels like it’s congealing.
Congestion pricing, in the words of Governor Cuomo, “is an idea whose time has come.” He couldn’t be more right. The scheme recently proposed by Fix NYC, a special commission set up by the Governor, creates a “congestion zone” from 60th Street down to the Battery, stretching across the full east-west axis of lower Manhattan. Passenger cars would pay $11.52 to enter the area, trucks would pay $25.34, and for-hire vehicles like taxis and ride-hailing services would pay somewhere between $2 and $5. All told, the proposal could raise around $1.5 billion in annual revenue, money desperately needed for the repair and extension of the city’s public transit system.
New York City should implement this sort of congestion pricing for three reasons. First, it’s proven to work. London imposed a similar congestion pricing plan in 2003: without it, traffic speeds in central London are estimated to have been 20% to 32% slower than they are today. In Singapore, the city’s Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system not only caused average speeds within its congestion pricing zone to increase from 35 kilometers per hour to 45 kilometers per hour, it also cut vehicular traffic by over 24%. Commuters and tourists that ordinarily would have driven into each city’s downtown were incentivized to change their behavior. In the process, London and Singapore raised billions in revenue to fund various transportation initiatives.
Second, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs far more than its current funding to repair and extend its subway service. Joseph Lhota, the MTA’s chairman, argued that merely “modernizing” the subway would cost the city $9 billion; expansion to underserved areas would be even more expensive if the cost of the newly opened Second Avenue line is any indication (roughly $2.7 billion per mile). Congestion pricing won’t solve this funding issue on its own, but it can be the centerpiece of a broader effort that includes ideas such as streamlining the MTA’s bloated procurement process, incrementally raising ticket fares, and reforming the city’s expensive pension plans for retired bureaucrats (and using the savings to invest in infrastructure). $1.5 billion annually goes a long way towards making improvement and expansion possible.
The final and most important reason, however, is all about economics and city vitality. Cities are ultimately labor markets. People move to cities for better jobs and higher pay; businesses locate in those same cities for a larger supply of workers with the requisite skills. Economists (including teams at the World Bank and NYU’s Marron Institute) have repeatedly demonstrated that transportation is an essential element in the productivity and density of cities: the easier and faster it is for workers to get around, and for businesses to ship and receive goods, the more people and businesses flock to a city. Culture flourishes. The opposite is true as well; as transportation becomes slower and more difficult, fewer people migrate to the city, which in turn cuts into its productivity. Culture withers. All the attributes we love about New York – its cosmopolitanism, its dynamism, and its inventiveness – are built on this simple but powerful economic foundation. If we don’t rejuvenate our decaying, antiquated transportation infrastructure, particularly that “great mover of people,” the subway, we risk sabotaging our economy and cultural vibrancy.
Fix NYC’s proposal is not perfect. Its prices are subject to debate, and its local economic effects on consumer prices are unclear. There are also legitimate questions about the equity of the plan and how it would affect lower-income drivers. Nevertheless, public policy is not about perfection; complex policy issues require bold action especially where there is a rare window of opportunity. The Governor and State Legislature should muster the political courage to make congestion pricing a reality. If they don’t, the city may find itself slowly losing the economic power and cultural cachet that made it so popular in the first place. New York could become a shell of its former self. At least the traffic will be much better in Midtown, perhaps, but only because the streets will be deserted.