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Driving Change

Congestion pricing clears path to reduce traffic, fund transit

New York City’s congestion pricing plan could curtail pollution and pay for lower-carbon modes of transportation.

Traffic on 3rd Ave. in Manhattan

The congestion pricing plan is projected to reduce the number of vehicles entering Manhattan's Central Business District by 15-20 percent — about 110,000 to 143,000 fewer vehicles per day. Image via Shutterstock/Ryan DeBerardinis

New York City’s congestion pricing plan passed a major federal hurdle in late June, clearing the way for less traffic, less pollution and more public transit. The Federal Highway Administration approved of the environmental study conducted by the city and state sponsors of the program. 

This is good news, as congestion pricing is a major win for mitigating climate change, because it disincentivizes driving while funding lower-carbon modes of transportation. If the plan reaches final approval, tolling could begin as soon as April.

What is it?

Congestion pricing is a toll paid by drivers who enter or remain in New York City’s Central Business District (CBD), otherwise known as the most congested neighborhoods in the country. The area is south of 60th Street, although the plan excludes tolling on the highways that run along the rivers. While tolling is as old as America itself, this particular kind of tolling in a central business district represents a national first.

What does it solve?

According to a helpful summary of the environmental assessment in the Tribeca Citizen:

  • 7,665,000 people enter and exit the Manhattan CBD on an average weekday

  • 1,856,000 of them (24 percent) enter and exit by vehicle every day

  • At the peak hour, 6 a.m., 45,000 cars enter the district every day

The plan estimates a 15-20 percent reduction in the number of vehicles entering this area. That’s roughly 110,000 to 143,000 fewer vehicles daily. The remaining vehicles will be charged a yet-to-be-determined fee. According to the International Association of Transportation Regulators, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is mulling fees that depend on the time of day, ranging from $5 during low-demand hours to $23 during rush hour. 

A 2008 study conducted by K.T. Analytics for the U.S. Department of Transportation, found that "(w)ithout exception, areawide pricing strategies implemented abroad have met their principal objective of reducing congestion and sustaining the relief over long periods." The study also found a persistent 10 to 30 percent reduction in traffic in London, Singapore and Stockholm. This is in line with the predictions made for the New York City plan.

Among the most obvious benefits to reducing congestion will be less traffic, but the secondary effects from that reduction will include:

  • Faster response times for emergency vehicles such as ambulances, fire engines and public safety vehicles

  • Reduced air pollution for communities that have borne the brunt of some of the nation’s most polluted air

  • Faster, more reliable bus service

  • $15 billion in funding for desperately needed repairs for the subway and upgrades to the city’s bus services.

This last point is critical, as the MTA faces a $2.5 billion deficit this year. Tolls collected from the program must help pay for infrastructure upgrades, including making the subway accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

An almost perfect trade

Solving climate change will ultimately require less driving. Currently SUVs, light pickups, minivans and passenger cars account for almost 60 percent of the U.S. transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. New York’s congestion pricing plan is both projected to reduce vehicle miles traveled by polluting sources and fund lower-carbon forms of transportation infrastructure. This kind of trade that captures the externalized cost of driving and funnels it into a less-polluting, climate-friendly alternative is exactly what cities and suburban areas need to consider doing.

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