What is congestion pricing and its benefits?

A traffic jam on the Queensborough Bridge in Manhattan on July 3, 2018

Stefan Ugljevarevic/Shutterstock

A simple solution that can reduce traffic and air pollution and get us to work faster may seem like a pie from the sky. But it’s out there, and it’s gaining traction in cities around the world. Congestion pricing refers to a charge levied on drivers that aims to convince enough people to avoid jumping into their cars during rush hour. Or, as the US Department of Transportation explains, it’s “a way to harness the power of the market to reduce the waste associated with traffic congestion.” The ultimate goal is to make the transportation system work better for everyone, and clean transportation advocates say it’s most efficient when it reinvests the profits made back into local transit systems and other places. fair ways to get around town.

Congestion pricing in New York

Congestion pricing proposals tend to inspire heated debate. This was certainly true for New York. Decades of rhetoric preceded the Big Apple’s decision to move forward with its plan, which was followed by two years of delays, thanks to the Trump administration. While transportation officials in New York had been advocating similar measures since the 1970s, it was former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who launched a serious campaign to impose a user fee on vehicles entering the busiest streets in Manhattan in 2007; the latest plan will require commuters going to work to pay a fee from the end of 2023.

Despite the obstacles to congestion pricing over the years, transportation leaders persevered because they believed in their mission. The aim was twofold: to relieve congestion on the busiest streets, where uncontrolled car use imposes traffic jams and air pollution, creates safety hazards and disrupts bus service; and raise $1 billion a year for New York’s ailing subway, bus and rail system.

Over the years, some stakeholders have raised questions about how congestion pricing might work, not just to reduce traffic, but to do so fairly. Some questioned whether congestion pricing would hurt the city’s low-income residents. This is simply not the case. We know that the people who travel to Manhattan during rush hour are extremely wealthy. After all, a space in a parking lot can cost you more than $30 a day.

“A very, very small portion of drivers who enter Midtown Manhattan during office hours are economically disadvantaged,” says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York environmental director at the NRDC.

In 2017, the Community Service Society (CSS), the city’s leading anti-poverty organization, conducted an analysis of who would be affected by congestion pricing in the Big Apple. He found that only 4% of working residents in the city’s outlying neighborhoods (this is the lingo of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island) drive to jobs in Manhattan. Conversely, 56% of active residents of outlying boroughs use public transit to get to work and would benefit from the funds generated by congestion pricing. The CSS study also found that only 2% of the city’s working poor would potentially be subject to the congestion charge.

Do you have to pay to enter NYC?

Already, many drivers are paying. For example, anyone driving through Manhattan, say via the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge or the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, knows that it will cost you a pretty penny.

Under the new congestion pricing system, drivers entering the central business district – i.e. Midtown or downtown Manhattan – will also have to pay, equalizing the costs for commuters in vehicles motorized and reducing traffic and pollution from drivers who would drive miles to avoid existing tolls.

But the new costs (which are yet to be determined) will have little downside for low-income New Yorkers. Census data shows that income and car use are strongly correlated, especially in New York. The vast majority of low-income residents use buses, commuter trains, ferries, bicycles and the subway to get around. And they will directly benefit from congestion pricing charges, which will support much of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 2020-2024 capital program to improve services. Funds raised will support additions such as replacing broken signals and obsolete train carriages, among other improvements such as expanding accessibility for riders.

A family taking their morning subway ride in New York

Benefits of congestion pricing

Adding buses and reducing subway delays saves commuters time. Many low-income people earn hourly wages, and other workers have to pay for childcare or elder care during long commutes. Saving time means saving money.

In New York, congestion pricing will also benefit commuters in other ways. A mountain of research shows that low-income households, and especially low-income households of color, are concentrated near sources of pollution like highways. Asthma, in particular, is a disease of poverty. In the first year of London’s congestion pricing scheme, reducing traffic reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by 13.5% and particulate matter by 15.5%. Over time, this positive impact on local air quality has so far added 1,888 years to the lives of Londoners. The benefits were even more dramatic in Stockholm, where congestion pricing nearly halved hospital visits due to childhood asthma.

Other US cities may soon adopt similar plans. Los Angeles, for example, is considering a comprehensive system to use congestion pricing “go zones” to speed up travel and improve transit in high-traffic areas of the city. Los Angeles policymakers are considering a variety of factors to ensure their plan is progressive, according to NRDC mobility and climate advocate Carter Rubin.

“People who drive alone during rush hour to busy office districts tend to earn higher incomes,” says Rubin. “People in shift jobs, such as in hotels, restaurants and retail, travel less during peak hours and use public transport and carpooling more. So you can design a system that has a gradual effect depending on when [fees are collected] and who should pay.

Like in New York, many low-income Angelenos are currently spending unproductive hours and hours in traffic jams on their way to work. So even for those who travel during peak hours, paying a fee may be worth it if it reduces traffic and gets them to their place of work faster. Revenue generated from congestion pricing creates the possibility of fee reductions for low-income people or those who carpool. And if America’s most car-centric city can adopt it, it will no doubt inspire transportation planners nationwide.


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