Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Congestion Pricing Debate

I doubt many people in Pittsburgh have been following the progress of the congestion pricing idea, which is basically a plan to reduce traffic in peak hours usually by using a sophisticated electronic toll system. London has been doing this since 2003 and now it looks like New York and or San Francisco will be giving the idea a try.

"The federal government says it will give New York City $354 million to implement a system of traffic control called congestion pricing.During weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., cars will be charged $8 and trucks $10 to enter Manhattan below 86th Street, the area that contains most of the places there people want to go. For vehicles already in the congestion zone, the tariff will be $4 a day for cars and $5.50 for trucks.

Critics say that congestion pricing will hurt businesses and jobs, but a leading New York business group says excess traffic and the accompanying long delays already cost the regional economy more than $13 billion and 50,000 jobs a year.

The New York Times reports: "Public opinion polls suggest that most Manhattan residents support the proposal but that residents of the other boroughs - Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx - do not." Coming from the people who would be paying the congestion tax, that's hardly a surprise." Of course, the looters in New Jersey, who don't even pay New York City taxes don't like the idea very much.

Given Pittsburgh's history as a city on the cutting edge of nothing, we can expect the idea to turn up here in about 30 years.


Chris Rywalt said...

I think congestion pricing is absolutely asinine, and not just because I'm a New Jersey looter. I grew up in New York City.

The trouble is the people this is meant to discourage from using their cars -- tourists, people like me who go in to drop off panels during their art residency or review galleries, employees driving to work, and so on -- aren't the ones causing the congestion. The traffic in and around New York City consists almost entirely of commercial trucking and taxis. I remember a few years back when there was a taxi strike and the Manhattan streets were empty at rush hour. Congestion pricing will simply cut into profits for businesses -- the trucks and taxis will still be there.

Further, the public transportation currently available simply cannot support more people. It's not so easy to tell everyone to take the subway -- the subways are already so crowded. Not too long ago I was on a train and the doors opened up and I was pushed out -- and I couldn't get back in again. Speaking as someone who's been riding the subways for well over twenty years, I can say this is a new experience.

Which doesn't say anything about trying to use public transportation from New Jersey to New York. That's a whole nother issue. The bus is terribly convenient if you want to go to somewhere very close to 42nd and Eighth, but if you need to get to, say, the Citibank building over on Third, it can take an hour and a half from my house. Considering I can see the Citibank building from my house, it's pretty absurd.

I think the only real solution here is to raze the entire city and the surrounding area and start over from scratch. Who's with me?

John Morris said...

Hi Chris,

First of all, as you acknowledge-- it's likely that NY will always have significant backups and traffic just from cabs, busses, and delivery vehicles during peak hours. That is why every extra private car in the city is causing so much trouble.

Lets deal with the major issues involved one by one.

A, the charge is for using the streets during peak hours and if high enough is likely to cause some delivery and maintanance stuff to be done in off hours.

B) Cabs are much more efficient urban vehicles-- they are not parked and they carry many passengers in a day, replacing many private cars. They would in fact carry more passengers if they were not backed up so often empty in traffic behind private cars.

They are also fleet vehicles that would be easier to convert to more environmentally efficient fuel etc...

C) Busses which have to share the same streets are deprived of their vale because opf private car traffic.

D)The "free infrastructure" for cars is one of the main reasons that so little is available for mass transit.

Yes, New Jersey and many parts of the New York area do not have decent mass transit access. But, continuing the same situation is not going to solve the problem.

Chris Rywalt said...

The bottom line is it's virtually impossible to make it any harder to drive in Manhattan than it already is. Adding this tax is only going to make it harder for more casual users while doing essentially nothing for the people who absolutely have no choice.

Think about this: There's no street parking in most of Manhattan during the day. It's about $35 to park in a lot. If you park on the street anyway, it's anywhere from $65 to the incredible cost and inconvenience of getting towed.

And yet the city is still congested with traffic. How much more expensive and difficult can we make it? Maybe we should start shooting every tenth driver to cross 86th Street.

Congestion pricing doesn't address why people drive into the city and therefore it, too, will fail. And it'll be more money poured down the endlessly hungry gullet of New York City government.

Why do people drive into the city? I don't know all the reasons. Certainly one of them is crappy mass transit. But how much can it be improved? Is it actually even physically possible to run more trains and buses?

I used to take the train in to Hoboken every day. The ride to Hoboken took less than fifteen minutes, followed by anywhere from a half hour to an hour waiting for the tracks in front of us to clear out so we could pull in.

Even if it were physically possible to run more mass transit, even now the system is so carefully balanced that the slightest problem -- one switch breaks down, one station floods, one car gets a flat in the tunnel -- that the whole thing collapses in chaos. Many was the day I'd see the line for my bus snaking all the way back through Port Authority because the delays were so extensive.

Other reasons why people drive are much harder to address. Some people would rather sit in traffic where they control the climate (air conditioning and heating) and music. Some people don't like -- or can't manage -- working on someone else's schedule. Some people -- think of me carrying in 30x40 panels -- can't take mass transit. Some people are handicapped (you should try getting a wheelchair on a train in New Jersey: you have to call ahead).

Until and unless these issues are addressed -- if they even can be -- congestion pricing will accomplish nothing but inconveniencing large numbers of people (many of them lower middle class or poor -- I doubt the people in limos will care) and generating more money for New York to waste.

John Morris said...

Any path to a realistic solution will likely involve making people pay for the actual cost of actual use. Almost nothing on earth is "free" and they should never have been treated that way.

What this debate is showing is that New York can likely get along sort of ok without it's suburbs but the suburbs cannot live without New York. In the case of people using transit or driving in off peak hours the relationship is pretty sybiotic but private car users during peak hours are rarely worth the trouble they cause to the city.

This is something very relevant to Pittsburgh also since so many choose to live outside the city, largely for tax reasons and the city has bent over backwards for them to do it. I think that's a big mistake.

Chris Rywalt said...

Saying that New York can get by without its suburbs is, at this point, like saying the U.S. can get by without illegal workers from Mexico. It's actually a similar dynamic.

And since when is it free to drive into Manhattan? The place already has some of the most massive tolls in the country, if not the world. And what are they doing with all that money?

Just a few weeks ago I drove all the way down 95 from New York to Florida and back. 95 is in fantastic shape along its entire length, except in New York City itself (and a bit north), where it's a total disaster. And yet of that whole length, most of it doesn't sport a single tollbooth -- south of Maryland, I think, all the way to Florida. And the tolls in Delaware and Maryland are pretty small.

You might say that there's a lot of traffic on 95 through New York. And you'd be right. But they're also making a lot more money from that road. Where's it all going?

Congestion pricing, too, does nothing for the vast amounts of traffic blanketing the area outside of downtown Manhattan. Getting through Brooklyn or across Staten Island is at least as hard, if not harder, than driving downtown.

Any path to a realistic solution is going involve many, many changes, across a long time period, and not just charging people more money. Especially charging poorer people more money, who already can't afford to get to work. This is one more system to make the smug people living in Greenwich Village happier about their condos while sticking it to the working people who haul their trash and vacuum their living rooms and raise their children.

I guarantee that the people in favor of this plan don't even own cars.

Chris Rywalt said...

At a drawing session over the weekend talk turned to congestion pricing; one of the artists got really angry because he and his wife commute from New Jersey into Manhattan every day. He informed me that New York has already instituted congestion pricing on tolls on all the crossings from New Jersey and has since 2001, not to mention an EZPass discount, carpool plan, and a commercial overnight hours discount, as you can see on the Official Toll Rate Sheet.

So clearly it makes sense to increase the congestion pricing, since motorists haven't gotten the message.