NYC Has an Old-Timey Plan to Fix Its Traffic Future

New York City is still more than a year away from becoming the first American metropolis to implement a congestion charge , but its plan to ease Manhattan traffic is starting to take shape. The tolling zone will cover the southern part of the island, starting at 60th Street. Vehicles will be charged a flat rate upon entering the area—it’s likely to be between $11 and $14 for cars—but the fee could vary depending on the time of day. Most of the expected $15 billion revenue through 2024 will help finance public transit improvements. It looks like the system will essentially replicate or expand the current E-ZPass toll system that’s already used on New York’s roads, bridges, and tunnels.

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That last point, critics say, is a bad sign. But to understand why, you should first take a lesson from London. In 2003 the British capital introduced a £11.50 flat fee for vehicles entering a 13-square-mile zone in the city center between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The number of cars driving through Central London fell sharply, but began rising again when ride-hailing apps like Uber appeared in 2012. Private-hire vehicles were exempt from the charge, and as their number increased, so did traffic. This slowed the bus system, in turn leading more people to abandon public transit.
London changed its policy to charge Uber and other drivers the fee last April, but it hasn’t always been so flexible. The flat fee, for example, is a blunt tool that “does not discourage long journeys and journeys at peak times,” says Silviya Barrett, a research manager at Centre for London, a think tank focused on the city. And over time, the city has found that congestion isn’t the only thing it wants to regulate. When it decided to curb pollution, it created a new, separate £12.50 charge for vehicles that do not meet emission standards. The Ultra Low Emission Zone covers the same area as the congestion charge and is always in effect.This may be a short-term fix. As low-emission vehicles become more common and transport habits continue to evolve toward shared mobility, transit authorities will have to find new sources of revenue to replace fuel taxes, tolls, and emission charges. London’s income from the congestion charge is already plateauing, and logic says revenue from the emission zone will drop as dirtier cars are phased out. To fulfill its goals of curbing congestion, cleaning the air, and helping finance infrastructure upgrades, then, London will have to keep adjusting how it charges drivers.
So will any city that hopes to make the most of this type of road pricing scheme. They should think about vehicle size, or number of passengers, distance travelled, and what other options are available to those who do drive. “We need to think about dynamic pricing as resolving important mobility issues, and one of those is access,” says Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. “If you earn $15 or $20 an hour, and it takes you an hour and a half to get to work, that's a substantial percentage of your income. Looking at it just as congestion is not comprehensive enough.”
So when the New York state legislature approved Governor Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan earlier this year, many hoped the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would pioneer the kind of innovative technologies that would allow for flexible pricing: not just by time and location, but by other factors. The MTA did ask companies to submit information about which new technologies could be used, including Bluetooth and smartphone-based apps. But then the MTA gave a seven-year, $507 million contract to Nashville-based TransCore. The company, which manages electronic toll systems, will roll out the new charging system using the transponder-based EZ Pass. The system is a known quantity, but it can’t do any more than tell you when a vehicle drives past a given point.