Will the MTA board’s multi-$B congestion-pricing scheme vastly improve NYC air quality?

The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) board apparently felt that traffic congestion in the Big Apple is a big deal — that there is just too much of it. The MTA board approved a $15-per-day fee imposed on drivers making weekday drives into the city’s central business district or CBD (below 60th Street) also known as the Manhattan tolling zone. It will take effect in June. To me, what this amounts to is a congestion fee. Congestion fees or congestion pricing is not something new. Regardless, regarding this particular charge in this particular city at this particular time, this has generated pushback.

And, as to the charges themselves: What will these be used for? The $15 billion to be raised from this is intended for transit improvements. Which, if transit were utilized far more than what is already the case, would invariably lessen considerably the amount of roadway traffic (the number of vehicles) taking up valuable roadway space; space that apparently is in short supply in many major metropolitan regions. Bottom line is this all points to too much dependence on the automobile and on driving.

In case you don’t already know what the weekday drive-into-the-city congestion fee is designed to do, it is utilized for the purpose of dissuading a number from the motoring community from driving into a specific area within the urban setting.

Some, meanwhile, have argued they won’t be able to afford the added fee. Though this may neither be here nor there, I find that a bit hard to believe, especially since this same demographic presumably can afford to own or lease a car, pay for the fuel that enables the vehicle to operate, pay for necessary maintenance and repairs, pay for new tires when needed and pay for the yearly registration and biennial smog certification, not to mention pay the cost to insure the car on an annual basis.

Of course, one means of helping circumvent this is by carpooling. But nationwide, realistically, carpooling is only modestly practiced. We’re talking but 25 percent of the commuting public participate. The other 75 percent drive alone.

If you ask me, the proliferation of the automobile is what’s to blame coupled with intracity roadway capacity that has failed to keep pace with the growth in automobile activity. The reality — though for some it may just be too big a pill to swallow — is congestion has become a common part of the total driving experience, despite the fact you’d never know this by watching your average car commercial on tv.

Traffic congestion is a price we pay for our wanting to drive the way — and as much (an aggregate 3.2 trillion-plus miles per year) as — we do. And in leaving well enough alone, playing devil’s advocate, what harm is there in that?!

I can think of several reasons right off the bat.

1. Currently, only 8 percent of new car sales in America fit the “zero-emissions” description. That means the bulk of all driving is still done in internal-combustion-engine-equipped motor vehicles. By virtue of this, this adds considerable amounts of both toxic pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. But not just this, more driving means more money is spent on fuel. Stop-and-start traffic typically results in more fuel being consumed.

2. Next, there is obviously limited parking capacity which means that presumably there are motorists who are driving around seemingly aimlessly at times looking for places to park. And, parking isn’t alway free. Then there’s that.

3. With more vehicles operating on the road there is increased opportunity for motor vehicle accidents to occur, whether it’s vehicle-to-vehicle; vehicle-to-static object like a wall, fire hydrant, etc.; vehicle-to-pedestrian/bicycle/motorcycle; you get the idea. Any such accident creates the potential for automobile insurance rates to go up and then there are the repair costs that need to be taken into consideration.

4. And, finally, there is the damage done to roadway surfaces and sub-grades caused by more vehicles traveling such thoroughfares and with greater frequency compared to if more people opted to use public transit instead.

Zero-emissions vehicles, incidentally, do nothing to address items 2, 3 and 4 above. Extra driving comes at an added cost.

Another option of course is using a weekday drive-into-the-city congestion fee to build in more roadway capacity. Why won’t something on this order work? Ever heard of induced demand?

When city-based roadways are expanded, for a time, at least, traffic congestion does see some relief. But, after a certain period, the affected roadway with the more free-flowing traffic condition can and typically does once again become bogged down because more people gravitate towards using what was then more unencumbered roadway space. It results on account of a phenomenon known as induced demand. It fits the “build it and they will come” paradigm. Which means congestion-wise, the situation gets right back to where it started from.

From my perspective, instituting a weekday drive-into-the-city congestion-fee strategy can do an affected city good, if it helps cut down on the numbers of vehicles and vehicle miles traveled within the prescribed city congestion-fee zone. At the same time, there must be viable alternatives to driving if one must travel from outlying areas to the urban centers. It will be up to the individual who is impacted to figure out what way works best for them.

Source: “On Instituting a Weekday Drive-Into-The-City Congestion Fee,” an Apr. 1, 2024 The Daily Kos post by Alan Kandel

Corresponding, connected home-page-featured image: Jim henderson

2 thoughts on “Will the MTA board’s multi-$B congestion-pricing scheme vastly improve NYC air quality?”

  1. NYC is an odd case. It seems to be the first city ever to impose congestion pricing before improving mass transit alternatives. It also has a history of using special fees to replace general taxation, thus not really targeting the fees at all. Only between 8 to 12% (studies vary) of all people entering the new congestion zone use cars now. The rest walk, use mass transit, or bike. The NYC congestion district continues to allow taxi cruising and new construction with no off-street loading and unloading zones (forcing trucks to deliver VERY late, very early, or double-park.

    • You mentioned that only 8 to 12 percent “of all people entering the new congestion zone use cars now. The rest walk, use mass transit, or bike.”

      At first blush, 8 to 12 percent seems low. If one assumes the high end, that leaves 88 percent walking in, using mass transit and biking. If one assumes a one third walking/biking to a two-thirds transit split (of that 88 percent), to me that seems really high. But, if you’re correct, this congestion pricing fee scheme seems ill-conceived if the aim is two-fold: 1) to reduce the number of daily vehicles entering the congestion zone, and 2) generating the total $15 billion for the purpose of improving mass transit would take decades to come to fruition.

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