Urban Decongestant

Traffic congestion is a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons.” Just as a fisherman looking to feed his family will take one more fish even if the pond is overused, so a commuter seeking comfort, convenience and speed will put another car on the road in an already crowded city. The result is all too familiar to the modern urban dweller: smog, noise and hours of gridlock that cripples not only private cars, but much public transit as well.

On March 21st, one Londoner who has found the beginnings of a solution shared his thoughts with a group at the New York Academy of Sciences. Malcolm Murray-Clark, Director of Congestion Charging for the english transit agency Transport for London, told the packed crowd at 7 World Trade Center about London’s experience implementing a daily charge for vehicles entering central London, in order to reduce stifling traffic congestion in the city. The program, which requires motorists to pay roughly 8 british pounds (about $16.60) per day to travel into London’s center and is monitored using security cameras that record license plate numbers, has reduced traffic by about 21 percent since its implementation in 2003 (more info on the program is available here).

The merits of implementing a similar scheme in New York City have been debated for many years, as far back as 1952, when it was advocated by nobel prize winning economist William Vickery. The idea has recently resurfaced in the wake of a December 2006 report by the Partnership for New York City, a business group, which estimated that traffic congestion costs the city more than $13 billion dollars per year. The report recommended investigating the feasibility of congestion pricing as a solution.

Murray-Clark’s most important point, to my mind, is that this approach is not a silver bullet. London has paired its pricing scheme with better traffic management (i.e. manipulation of traffic signals) and a large increase in city buses to accomodate those who get out of their cars. Both of these would be essential elements of any New York plan. The London approach also required a great deal of political courage on the part of Mayor Ken Livingstone, who made it a part of his campaign platform and spearheaded its implementation. In New York City, where such a plan would reqire approval from both the city council and state government, this sort of political panache is unlikely to surface in Bloomberg.

Using London’s success to advocate for a charging scheme in New York is of limited utility for other reasons. Robert Paaswell, director of the University Transporation Center at City College of New York, spoke after Murray-Clark and pointed out that New York and London are cities with fundamentally different densities and transit patterns. For example, the population density in central London in 21,000 per square mile, compared to 53,000 in Manhattan. In London there are 2.05 highways per square mile, and in New York there are 9.4. According to Paaswell, New York is also distinguished by the fact that 75 percent of all regional jobs are outside of Manhattan, meaning many people may simply pass through the city on their way to work. Targeting the core without unfairly charging commuters to other areas will clearly be a challenge, but Paaswell raised an interesting point when he said that congestion charging could be coupled with economic development in the outer boroughs, bringing income levels in those areas closer to Manhattan standards.

Another potential bureaucratic hurdle for an NYC traffic charging scheme that would both reduce traffic and increase non-auto options is the fact that the City of New York controls the streets, while public transit infrastructure is controlled by MTA. In London, Transport for London controlls both of these sectors, which made it easier to insure that when new charges went into effect, alternatives would be there to cushion the blow. Without a previously unseen level of administrative coordination between the NYC government and the MTA, implementing congestion charging in New York may require the creation of a whole new government agency.

If New York does ultimately pursue congestion charging–and deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff has said the idea is “on the table”–it could adopt an exciting new approach that Mayor Livingstone of London hopes to implement in his city soon. Emissions based charging, a system whereby low or zero-emission vehicles were exempt from a congestion charge while dirty ones are taxed more, could both reduce the number of cars on the road and make existing autos cleaner. Given the growing national urge to act on global warming, and New York’s membership in the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, this would be a sensible path for the city to take, if the myriad obstacles to congestion charging can be overcome. Right how, though, it looks like decongestion could be a long way off.


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