NEW YORK’S congestion is among the worst in the world, according to an advisory panel’s report published in January last year. Crossing midtown by car is soul-destroying. In 2016 the average speed was 4.7 miles per hour, not much quicker than a brisk stroll. But relief is in sight. On April 1st (no, really), state lawmakers agreed to implement congestion-pricing, making New York the first big American city to do so. By 2021 vehicles will have to pay to enter Manhattan south of 60th street.
Similar proposals go back 50 years but have always stalled. The Regional Plan Association proposed road-pricing in 1996. Michael Bloomberg’s 2007 plan was not even debated on the state legislature floor. This time, with Andrew Cuomo, the state governor, at the wheel and Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, riding shotgun, it looks as if this time is different.
Much of the detail, including how much drivers will have to pay, how they will pay and how often they will pay, have yet to be decided. A “traffic mobility review board” will be set up to work all this out. New Yorkers living in the fee zone who make less than $60,000 a year will be exempt. Other drivers, including motorcyclists, the city’s civil servants, disabled drivers, the trucking industry, New Jersey’s governor and commuters, all want discounts, credits or exemptions, too, which bodes ill.
If done right, congestion-pricing could be expanded beyond Manhattan. New York can learn from other cities. Singapore, for instance, which has had pricing for decades, adjusts prices regularly. It can also learn from mistakes. London, which rolled out its pricing in 2003, bizarrely is only starting to charge on-demand car hires like Uber. Stockholm exempted too many vehicles, which caused a drop in fee revenue.
Other car-clogged cities considering tolls, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, are watching New York. A mayor-appointed task force in Boston recommended a $5 fee, but so far Marty Walsh, the mayor, is pumping the breaks. “We really have to be a good example,” says Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think-tank. Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, said the plan is a “credit positive” for the city, the state and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The only possible roadblock to the scheme is New Yorkers themselves—54% oppose fees.