New York Is Finally Getting Congestion Pricing. Other U.S. Cities Can Learn a Thing or Two.


New York City has just joined a prestigious international club, alongside the likes of London and Stockholm. Following the state's approval of a budget in the wee hours of Sunday morning, March 31st, 2019 (I gather this kind of timing is not atypical for the New York state legislature?), Manhattan will finally get congestion pricing.

Under the plan that was passed, all vehicles traveling below 60th Street on the island of Manhattan will pay a toll to enter the area. Revenues will help fund the city's subway system and other transportation needs. Quartz and Curbed have good reports on some of the details of the proposal.

New York is an outlier among U.S. cities in almost every way. It is certainly so when it comes to transportation patterns, as the only American city where even the rich often do not drive cars. Because of this, it's not uncommon for residents of other places to look at Manhattan and believe that what happens there is irrelevant elsewhere.

But this isn't so. In a sense, when it comes to the costs of accommodating cars in cities, we are all Manhattan. We are all paying those costs, just in very different ways. Only in New York (so far) have the costs become enough of an omnipresent, evident nuisance to result in public support for this kind of congestion toll among, amazingly, pretty much every single demographic. But it's not only in New York that things are way out of whack.

A Geometry Problem: Cars Take Up a Lot of Space

A photo comparison shows the space required for the same number of people to travel by bus, bicycle, or car. Source: Australia Cycling Promotion Fund via Jarrett Walker.

The problem with the ubiquitous use of cars in cities isn't just one of air pollution (though it is that). It isn't just one of greenhouse gas emissions (though it is that). It isn't just one of tragic, avoidable deaths and injuries (though it is that).

There's a more fundamental issue, one which we published a great Jarrett Walker piece about a few years ago—a geometry problem. Cars, quite simply, take up a ton of space.

This is the reason that 36% of the land area in the Phoenix metropolitan region is paved, including 10% for parking alone.

Car-dependent development is the reason that Cleveland and Buffalo more than doubled their urbanized land area in a half century—and concomitant infrastructure obligations—without growing their populations at all.

There's even evidence that in Los Angeles, more square footage per person is devoted to parking than to housing. LA, it’s worth nothing, frequently tops lists of the least affordable housing markets in the U.S. when you account for prevailing local wages.

These are real costs. 70 percent of Phoenix’s streets are in less than “good” condition. Most North American cities face a ticking time bomb of backlogged maintenance obligations that we have absolutely no idea how to pay for. And we've simultaneously kneecapped our cities' ability to generate the revenues to pay for all that pavement, because in city after city, we find the places that are actually generating wealth far in excess of their obligations are the walkable downtown districts.

These maps, created by geoanalytics firm Urban3, use vertical bars to represent the tax value per acre of land in several cities—the higher the bar, the more productive the land use. They make for a nice easy game of “find the downtown.”

These high-value places are pretty much invariably places where we've made compromises to keep cars from totally overrunning the landscape, meaning it might be a little more expensive to drive and park and you might have to walk a few blocks from your car to your destination. Because that's the only way a walkable district works.

Cars take up a lot of space. This results in two manifestations of one problem:

  • In cities that have a lot of space, we can build enough roads to avoid crippling congestion, but by doing so, we're driving ourselves toward bankruptcy.

  • In cities that don't have much space, like New York, the crisis we hit first is the intolerable congestion. 

In either case, the root cause is the same: building a highly productive place, and building a place where it's easy, cheap, and fast to drive everywhere, are mutually incompatible.

New York is an Extreme Case of the Geometry Problem

Atypically among large American cities, New York didn't sacrifice highly concentrated, financially productive development to the automobile. NYC was already a high-rise, hyper-dense city by the advent of mass car ownership, and demolishing buildings en masse for parking lots, as so many other places did in the 1950s, would have been madness in Manhattan.

Photo: jpellgen via Flickr

So instead, the city kept its high-rise development pattern but tried to accommodate cars anyway... which it has always done awkwardly and not very well. NYC actually has a lot of wide, stroad-y streets which can be unpleasant, noisy, and polluting. In the mid-20th century, under Robert Moses’s leadership, the city built freeways like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which are today seen by many New Yorkers as a nuisance.

And yet the average car travel speed in Midtown is barely faster than walking. Cars simply don't make much sense in the lower half of Manhattan. They're not a practical way to get around when you have that many people occupying that little land. Deliveries still need to happen, sure, but accommodating cheap or free private car travel simply cannot be a priority given its opportunity costs.

It's practically and economically impossible to allocate any more land in Manhattan to cars (which would require demolishing buildings to widen streets and add parking). So instead, we have to ration the number of cars allowed into Manhattan. We can either make people pay in time (which has been the status quo—how much gridlock are you willing to put up with?) or in dollars (congestion pricing). Charging in actual dollars, in that context, makes a ton of sense.

What is most exciting about congestion pricing is the world of opportunities it might open up over time. If the details are right, it makes much more viable proposals like this one to "Amsterdam" Lower Manhattan—pedestrianizing a number of streets and creating additional public plazas. (Madrid is another European example of what this could look like.)

But Isn't This a Tax on the Working Class?

The biggest pushback against congestion pricing has come not from New Yorkers, but from the representatives of exurban commuters. New York has just about the highest cost of living in the country, which has increasingly pushed many middle- and working-class people who work in NYC to the suburban fringe. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, speaking to the New York Times, invoked this class divide head-on in explaining her opposition to the congestion pricing proposal:

I represent Orange and Sullivan Counties. In Sullivan County, we have no mass transit at all. And we have a Short Line bus system that, if you worked in New York City, you have to leave at 4 o’clock in the morning or you’d be late for work.

Orange County is the last county you can live in if you’re on the New York Police Department or the Fire Department of New York. We’re not talking about the richy Wall Street people. We’re not talking about those. There are a lot of folks that are commuting and at crazy hours, but the frequency of the trains aren’t there.

[Congestion pricing] definitely impacts working-class people the most. 

Here's the thing, though. What's actually regressive isn't charging drivers the costs of their driving. It's all the ways we reinforce car-centric development patterns, which ultimately impose far greater costs on those least able to afford them. What hurts the working class most is how we’ve made the ownership of a $10,000+ piece of machinery into an ante that virtually everyone has to pay just to participate productively in society.

The fact that many working-class residents of the NYC suburbs have no good alternative to driving is actually a symptom of the ways we have structured our transportation system to favor driving over other means of getting around. It won't be solved by continuing to favor driving.

One block from a train station. This is the norm, not the exception. Photo: Google Maps

Between Orange County and New York City are plenty of places that look like this, with single-family homes (preserved under glass by zoning codes and other regulations), with excellent rail access to New York for those lucky few able to afford homes in these communities.

A more rational response to the mismatch between jobs in New York City, and housing that people can afford on their New York City wages, would be to allow a lot more homes to sprout up around those places, where driving isn’t the only option.

There are a lot of other things, too, that could be done to support the working class who live in and around New York. Trying to do it by continuing to subsidize driving in a place like Manhattan is a roundabout, backwards way to go about it.

Coming to Grips With the True Cost of Car Dependence

Getting the price right is crucial to unwinding our experiment in redesigning cities around the car. It doesn’t solve all our problems. It’s necessary but far from sufficient.

In most places, getting the price of driving right isn’t likely to mean the kind of congestion-pricing scheme that has just been approved for Manhattan. Partially because it would be politically unpalatable. Partially because congestion isn’t the problem that most cities face—insolvency is.

A little more congestion in Kansas City or Milwaukee or Phoenix would be a good thing. It would mean you’ve got a place that so many people want to be that you have to figure out how to accommodate them. That’s a good problem to have.

What we do need to do in all of North America, not just New York, is reckon with the true costs of our automobile addiction. This means taking stock of all the infrastructure we’ve built that supports driving, and start figuring out how we’re actually going to pay for it, including its maintenance in perpetuity.

If we did that, even in Kansas City or Milwaukee or Phoenix, we’d probably find that the best thing we can do is prioritize walkable, high-returning development patterns. Which might make driving a bit inconvenient in those places. And might eventually, as they grow and prosper, even mean that those cities’ downtowns one day become good candidates for the kind of congestion charge that exists in central London, central Stockholm, and now, central New York City.

(Cover photo via Picryl. Creative Commons License.)