On congestion pricing, visible costs and many other things

Congestion pricing is a fascinating idea. At its most potent, it promises to reduce traffic, cut down on emissions, promote public transit, benefit low-income residents and potentially, incentivize density. (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Congestion pricing is a fascinating idea. At its most potent, it promises to reduce traffic, cut down on emissions, promote public transit, benefit low-income residents and potentially, incentivize density. (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

In his 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country.” Unfortunately for the president, his beloved capitalist dream-state is already mildly socialist (gasp). America’s fire departments, police forces, public schools, public parks and roads are all socialist mechanisms that redistribute tax money to fund public goods and services. Still, we don’t often view these important public services as socialized.

Roads, in particular, are “free.” Unfortunately, repairs and expansions to our public infrastructure do have to be paid for somehow and by someone. Most states try to obscure the true cost of roads by paying for repairs through a hodgepodge of gas taxes and federal funding. But these methods lack a clear incentive structure. When most people purchase a good, they can draw a direct line between the good and its cost. Assume, for instance, that you pay $1 for an apple. If the apple’s price increased to $10, you might consider buying a banana instead. We already pay for roads, but unlike the apple, they have little-to-no visible cost.

This line of thinking is how urban policy wonks, public transit advocates and concerned city dwellers arrived at a solution for traffic-ridden roads: Congestion pricing. A week ago, in a rare moment of collaboration, Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York agreed to implement a congestion pricing scheme in 2020. Under this plan, any vehicle entering the heart of Manhattan will be charged between $11 and $25. The revenue (at least $15 billion a year) is earmarked for infrastructure upgrades to New York’s crumbling MTA subway system.

The upside? Congestion pricing should, in theory, affect the behavior of commuters and residents. Ideally, these commuters and residents will opt to get rid of their cars (or use them less) and switch to public transit options (which will now be well funded). This behavior change will, in turn, reduce traffic and revitalize New York’s subway system. These outcomes can positively impact local air pollution rates and on a broader scale, help fight climate change. New York’s commitment to earmarking the revenue for public transit is largely the result of decades of political pressure to address the decrepit subway system, but it also signals that New York understands the future of travel is in efficient, lower-carbon options.

Additionally, this program should be kind to New York’s low-income residents who rely on public transit. As the subway has sunk deeper into crisis over the past few years, the MTA has raised fare prices to cover budget shortfalls. These fare increases have burdened low-income residents, who are already dealing with one of the highest costs of living in the nation.

What other potential benefits come with congestion pricing? If it works as intended, density should increase. Dense cities with cheap, accessible and clean public transit are the model low-carbon cities of the future. Congestion pricing incentivizes this way of life, by rewarding residents for ditching their cars, connecting to public transit, and living closer to their work.

When Beijing was considering a congestion pricing scheme a few years ago, they conducted public opinion research to find out who would support the idea. Wealthy men who commuted long distances to work in private cars were vehemently opposed. On the flip side, women who commuted short distances to work on public transit were highly supportive of the proposal. Of course, sustainable density can only be accomplished through a holistic policy agenda — including affordable housing reform — but congestion pricing is potentially part of that policy agenda.

No other American city has implemented a congestion pricing plan as ambitious as New York’s. However, other cities around the globe have tinkered with the idea. Singapore’s scheme has been demonstrably successful. Since it started in the 1970s, congestion has decreased dramatically, carbon emissions have been slashed, public transit use is up and a number of economic benefits have been observed. London has seen similar results from its program.

Congestion pricing is a fascinating idea. At its most potent, it promises to reduce traffic, cut down on emissions, promote public transit, benefit low-income residents and potentially, incentivize density. It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on New York in the coming years. I am sure other heavily congested cities, like Los Angeles, will be looking on earnestly.


Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.