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Skeptical about congestion pricing

Image by The New York Times

Image by The New York Times

My friend Lee Sobel likes to call me the Missouri "show me" guy because of an inherent skepticism I have. I suppose he's right - my initial reaction is often "I'm not so sure - let's think about that for a minute and see if it will actually work." 

I thought of this recently while reading this piece by Eric Jaffe about a plan to reduce congestion in New York City through a congestion pricing plan. It's a long, detailed look at the ideas behind the plan, how it can be implemented, and where the money will go. Libertarian urbanists and economists for years have been advocated congestion pricing (and other road pricing mechanisms) as a means toward solving traffic issues, budgetary issues and even sprawl. Gail Robinson wrote a piece back in 2006 with even more history of the issue.

In both pieces, New Yorkers are primarily touting the benefits of attacking congestion as a way to help the environment (specifically air pollution), reduce traffic on the streets and provide desperately-needed money for public transportation.

This idea, like a few other long-discussed planning ideas, seems good on paper but extraordinarily difficult to make work in reality. I'd add it to a list that includes land value taxation and transfers of development rights. Maybe they all will work some day in more than just isolated cases, but it seems unlikely today. I fear they all struggle under the weight of the same problems: too much complexity and an American system of planning that is not top-down.

Now, I'm not one to be a complete reductionist and believe that all problems have simple answers. For one, I've never agreed with some of my New Urbanist colleagues that effective modern zoning codes could ever really be a couple of pages. Contemporary life is inherently too complicated than that, even in small towns.

But some really fine ideas in theory go much too far in the other direction. The congestion pricing scheme discussed here seems to fall into that category.

An obvious great element to the plan is fair and clear tolling on the bridges into Manhattan. Though it's run into big political obstacles in the past, it seems like an economic no-brainer, and could do wonders for the amount of vehicles entering the city. And, it's fair: bridges cost money to maintain and provide the only access onto this hyper-dense island.

But the rest of the plan leaves me with many more questions than answers.

Most troublesome to me about the issue is that it still focuses far too much energy on "solving" traffic congestion, as if it's something that frankly needs to be solved. It's the same intellectual starting point for a host of other bad ideas: bigger, wider roads and more infrastructure. My primary question and starting point is: what should be done to improve the daily quality of life for New Yorkers? And, by extension, is the solution worth the cost?

Congestion on the streets themselves is not bad. I know that sounds like heresy to many, but it truly is a sign of economic vitality. In a city with a frequent grid of streets like New York, it actually is a positive. Yes, cars might travel very slowly, but people have many route options and many alternatives to cars.

Congestion on limited-access roadways is, however, the bugaboo of modern American society. Nothing is worse than being stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway, with no alternate routes and no good options to walk/bike/take transit. Limited-access congestion, however, can actually be helped with simple tolling procedures. The technology exists today and works well *because* of the limited-access nature of the roadway.

The pollution New Yorkers experience (and a few other big cities) is indeed a real quality of life problem. But pollution is a byproduct of many factors, with vehicle volume as only one of them. Certainly banning vehicles from an area does work to clear up the air - there's no question about the effectiveness of that solution. But even in New York, banning vehicles is likely to be a solution in only limited circumstances. 

Now, some may say that congestion pricing works well in London and Stockholm. And, that's very likely true. But our system of planning and transportation funding is far different in the US than those countries. It's not so easy in England or Sweden to move businesses or industries as it here. Planning and real estate is driven much more from central control with very limited property rights as compared to the US. 

My question is - what would happen if the city just did nothing (beyond correcting the bridge toll issues) about congestion? What if it continued the good work of recent years to make the streets more livable for pedestrians and bicyclists, and have drivers just deal with the result? Do we presume all of the streets will just continue to fill up until traffic doesn't move at all? Wouldn't it be likely that people would make educated choices to move onto transit?

And, one final note about that transit. I admit to a bias in that I'm perennially skeptical about how we fund and manage transit systems in this country. I can't help but wonder why one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with a hyper-dense island city, need federal assistance for its transit system? Why can't it pencil out? Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to why Hong Kong can do it, but New York cannot.

In what seems like a broken record, New York is the leader and the outlier both. There's nowhere else in the US that has this combination of extreme density and limited access onto an island. Vancouver is close in Canada, and San Francisco a very distant cousin. As always, other cities may see this and get excited, but have little actual means to implement it themselves. And, I'm not sure there's much reason for other cities to do so. There already are so many extra burdens that urban centers have to carry that suburbs do not. Why add another one on top? Yes, infrastructure finance is not fair and yes, suburban development is highly subsidized. But an extra charge for the vast majority of American cities on urban life is something that only will cause people to look elsewhere - it's just too easy to do so. That's my skeptical "show me" attitude rearing its head.

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