Is Congestion Pricing All Pain, No Gain for Motorists?
Expert observers and former transit officials say the MTA and the city are using too many “sticks” and not enough “carrots” in their rollout of the pioneering tolling system set to launch next year.
When New York next year launches the first-in-the-nation plan to charge motorists driving into the core of Manhattan, the hope is that new tolls will help bankroll billions in eventual transit improvements that will lure drivers out of cars and onto mass transit, bicycles and sidewalks.
But as the Central Business District Tolling Program nears its spring launch date, questions are being raised about whether the city and MTA are doing enough to convince motorists driving south of 60th Street and into the so-called congestion zone to ditch cars for other modes of transportation.
Expert observers note while there are many driver penalties and fees associated with congestion pricing, there are few actual improvements to alternatives to driving.
“We should have more carrots [benefits] to go along with the stick [punishments] of congestion pricing,” said Jon Orcutt, a former director of policy for the city Department of Transportation who helped develop Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan that was struck down by Albany lawmakers in 2008.
And Janette Sadik-Khan, who served as the city’s transportation commissioner under Bloomberg, told Curbed earlier this month that New York does “not look ready for congestion pricing” and is potentially looking at “a historic unforced error” if “new amenities” do not accompany the tolls on motorists.
‘More Remains to Be Done’
The MTA is counting on congestion pricing to provide a $15 billion boost to the agency’s more than $50 billion plan for transit upgrades — including modern subway signals, station-accessibility work, new trains and system expansion — while cutting into traffic and vehicle emissions.
Critics have frequently targeted the city’s struggle to create more bus lanes designed to speed service, pointing out how the administration of Mayor Eric Adams is well short of meeting a 2021 NYC Streets Plan mandate to add 50 miles of new bus lanes by the end of this year. The city has installed 6.8 miles of new bus lanes, according to the Riders Alliance Bus Lane Tracker.
“More remains to be done and in particular on the city’s part — the city needs to do more to speed up buses,” said Danny Pearlstein, the advocacy group’s policy director. “The biggest investment anyone can make right now is in the speed of bus service.”
Similarly, the city is falling short of a goal to install 50 miles of protected bike lanes this year, with just 10.7 miles installed so far in 2023, according to the Transportation Alternatives Protected Bike Lane Tracker.
“None of the benefits [of congestion pricing] will be seen if we don’t use this time to plan,” Renae Reynolds, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told THE CITY. “The mayor and the [DOT] need to take this program seriously and coordinate with the MTA on a comprehensive plan for congestion pricing coming to our streets.”
In response to the critics, the Transportation Department noted that almost every Manhattan avenue has been redesigned in recent years, citing how pedestrian space has expanded on the Eighth and Ninth Avenue corridors, while the number of vehicle lanes has been cut in half.
“The Adams administration continues to advance transformative projects to support many modes of travel, improve our public realm, and better manage our streets,” said Vin Barone, a DOT spokesperson.
New York’s long-delayed campaign to toll drivers in a traffic-heavy section of Manhattan — which state lawmakers approved in 2019 — follows the lead of London, England, which implemented congestion pricing in 2003, and Stockholm, Sweden, which followed suit in 2006.
In the months leading up to placing congestion-related tolls on their motorists, both European cities took other measures to both discourage driving and encourage the use of mass transit: London added 300 new buses, new routes, increased bus service frequency and added 8,500 park-and-ride spaces, while Stockholm put nearly 200 new buses into service and added bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
In London, the benefits arrived quickly — a Transport for London spokesperson said that the congestion charge initially limited traffic in the zone by 18% during weekday charging hours, cut into congestion by 30% and boosted bus travel by 33%.
The Congestion Charge “resulted in a significant shift away from people using private cars to more environmentally friendly forms of transport,” Christina Calderato, Transport for London’s director of strategy and policy, said in a statement.
New York transit officials highlight that in July the MTA increased weekend service on the G, J and M lines and last month, increased weekend frequency on 1, 6 and C lines and weekday service on the N and R lines. More subway service adjustments are planned for December and next July, according to the MTA, which carried 8.5 million riders by subway, commuter rail and bus prior to the pandemic and now only moves about 6.4 million daily.
“It’s simple math,” said John McCarthy, the transit agency’s chief of external relations. “MTA ridership is still down by 2 million trips per day and the transit system can easily handle 10 times more riders than the 72,300 to 110,000 people per day projected to switch to transit after congestion pricing takes effect.”
The MTA has also touted the completion of a third track rovide more reliable main line service on the Long Island Rail Road, additional parking at suburban commuter rail stations, and continued working bus network redesigns in each borough — which were planned years before the pandemic — that a spokesperson said are designed to increase efficiency and speed.
But John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union and a member of the six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board that will recommend congestion pricing tolling rates and exemptions to the MTA, told THE CITY that more targeted service — especially on buses — will be needed in order to avoid a rough rollout of plan.
“Nearly all of the service increases they’ve engaged in are based on an analysis of post-pandemic ridership trends and are not at all designed to complement the introduction of congestion pricing,” Samuelsen said.
The labor leader said expanding service and operating hours to MTA express bus service into Manhattan from the boroughs is one area where motorists could be lured onto mass transit.
“The idea here is to transform the way that commuters think about how to get to the central business district,” Samuelsen said. “It’s how to incentivize them.”
And even that might not be enough for some motorists.
“Once you’re in the car, you don’t want to come out,” said Christine Clark, who drives between southern Brooklyn and Manhattan for work. “You don’t feel like going back to public transportation.”
Samuelsen said the opportunity is there to attract new or lapsed users of mass transit.
“This could be an incredible moment where we create a new New York,” Samuelsen said. “This is a moment where New York could shine and lead the way for the rest of the country.”
“If you want people out of their cars, you’ve got to provide more service, that’s what it comes down to,” added Vittorio Bugatti, head of the Express Bus Advocacy Group and a Riverdale resident.