If you want to play, you’ve got to pay. You won’t find this philosophy written in the margins of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, nor carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty, but it permeates most of our post-capitalist-midday-Marxist-pre-apocalypse society.
Congestion pricing applies this principle to driving. Motorists who want to drive in high-density downtown neighbourhoods must pay for the privilege. It was first introduced in Singapore in 1975 and spread to cities including Stockholm and Milan. London introduced congestion pricing in 2003, hoping to reduce pollution and traffic congestion and increase pedestrian and cyclist safety. The city now charges motorists 15 pounds a day to drive in the city centre. Congestion fell 30 per cent.
In North America, there are “priced lanes” (express-toll lanes or high-occupancy toll lanes) and tolls on entire roadways, but there have been no “zone-based” charges.
That is going to change. New York City plans to reduce congestion and increase revenue by tolling drivers who enter the busiest sections of Manhattan. A 2019 state law allows the city to toll drivers south of 60th Street. A six-person Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB) will propose which drivers would be exempted from the toll (which could cost up to $23 for passenger vehicles). The TMRB recently wrapped up six days of public hearings at which 400 people spoke. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) projects a nine per cent reduction of traffic congestion because of the zone-based tolls and an annual revenue of $1-billion, most of which is slated to be spent on public transit. Congestion pricing could be implemented as soon as the end of 2023.
Opposition to New York’s congestion pricing has come from ride-share drivers, taxi drivers, New Jersey politicians, and residents of the Bronx, who believe riders banished from Manhattan will cut along the Cross Bronx Expressway. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy claims congestion pricing is a “double taxation” of his state’s drivers, who already pay tolls to cross the Hudson River. One critic at the hearings said it would “be the death of lower Manhattan.”
Does congestion pricing work? There is no doubt it reduces traffic and pollution. So it works. The question is: Works for who?
It works extremely well for those with lots of money. If you’re a wealthy or high-income driver, congestion pricing is just another item on the credit card bill. Of course, this is true not just for congestion pricing, but for pretty much every aspect of modern life. The wealthy live lives unfettered by parking tickets or tolls and have less interaction with the lower orders than medieval feudal lords did with their serfs.
It doesn’t work well for low-income workers who drive as part of their employment or must commute by car because they are not served by adequate public transit. Housing costs have pushed workers out of city centres and many have no alternative but to drive to work. Just how many low-income car commuters are there in the areas around New York City? Streetblog estimates conservatively that 7,000 low-income workers could be financially stressed. Critics put that number much higher.
Congestion charges pose an ethical consideration. Is it right to put a price on access to a public space? At present, anyone can drive into Manhattan below 60th Street, whether they can afford to pay a toll or not. Is it ethical to create one freedom for well-to-do drivers and another for those with less money? As Nicholas Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote about congestion pricing, “Shouldn’t we every now and then think about whether there are ways to solve problems other than by separating those with more money from those with less?”
In a visit to New York City in spring 2022, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan said, “that those who want to use a vehicle in London, but do not need to, should have to pay for the privilege to do so.” Khan called it a “an issue of social justice…I’m a firm believer in the ‘polluter pays’ principle. If you pollute, you pay.”
So, if you have a lot of money, you can drive around London and pollute as much as you want. You can hire fifteen limousines to drive around the centre of London blaring Charli XCX from their loudspeakers and pay tolls so insignificant that you wouldn’t even notice it. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can save up for the privilege.
That sounds like the “If you can pay, pollute away” principle.
If municipalities such as New York City are going to use congestion pricing, they must make sure that they do not gloss over social equity. If we want to “incentivize” people to use public transportation, why not lower the price? Why can’t government properly fund it? If we are going to burden low-income drivers who live outside the city and don’t have adequate public transportation, why not offer them discounted fares, and increase the frequency of transit service in under-served areas? Why not make public transit free? Why not financially incentivize people to ride bicycles?
Otherwise, even though congestion pricing will reduce traffic and pollution, wealthy drivers will play. Low-income drivers will pay.