New York May Finally, Finally Charge People Who Want to Drive Through Manhattan

A picture taken on September 18, 2017 shows heavy traffic in the streets of New York the day before the opening of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. / AFP PHOTO / LUDOVIC MARIN        (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavy traffic—at no extra cost!—in New York City in September. Ludovic Marin/Getty Images

Manhattan is home to the most valuable land in the United States. Retail rents on Fifth Avenue can top $4,000 per square foot; the price per square foot for a TriBeCa apartment is over $2,000; Midtown office rents hover in the $80 per square foot range. But to drive your 2-ton, 50-square-foot private vehicle around all day? Miraculously and inexplicably free.

Perhaps not for long. The island—which can be driven to only by 20 metaphorically taxed but largely toll-free bridges and tunnels—has finally reached a state of traffic congestion so bad it prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo last summer to endorse some form of a fee to drive into the central business district. This month, his committee released its report on the subject: a full-throated call to price access to Manhattan south of Central Park. If this becomes law, it would be the first “congestion charge” to take effect in the United States, though similar policies are in place in London, Stockholm, and Milan. Singapore has had a congestion charge for more than four decades.

Supporters argue this will do two things: raise money for the troubled transit system and reduce traffic on Manhattan streets. This in turn would bring about a quieter city, cleaner air, faster trips for buses and emergency vehicles, and encourage carpooling, biking, walking, and transit. Cuomo has said he will carefully review the committee’s recommendations, and all sides—outer-borough politicians, Uber and taxis, straphangers, Manhattan business interests, and AAA—are prepared for a battle over the details.

Opponents say it’s a classist policy that will cement Manhattan’s status as a gated city where even a drive downtown comes with a price. Mayor Bill de Blasio, lukewarm to the idea, has framed congestion pricing as a burden on the outer-borough poor, despite evidence showing that only 4 percent of outer-borough workers commute by car to Manhattan, and fewer than 5,000 of those workers fall below the poverty line. That 5,000 is out of the 1.5 million people entering the borough for work each morning.

The report takes pains to emphasize that the situation on the borough’s streets has deteriorated considerably since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a similar program a decade ago that died in Albany. In just six years, vehicle speed in the central business district (CBD) has fallen from 9.35 mph to 6.8 mph. In the Midtown core, vehicle speed is down from 6.52 mph to 4.7 mph. You might as well walk.

The flow of traffic has congealed despite the fact that in 2015, there were 45,000 fewer vehicles entering the Manhattan CBD than in 2010—the equivalent of removing an entire bridge’s worth of traffic. So what happened? Probably Uber: Taxi trips in the CBD are up by nearly one-quarter since 2013, thanks to ride-hail services. And that underplays the effect on traffic. The number of hours that taxis were on the road with no customers doubled between 2013 and 2017 thanks entirely to ride hail companies. In the long run, shared vehicles are an evident improvement over personal cars, but all that circling has slowed things down considerably.

The city has dropped the ball too. While parking violations are rigorously policed, most moving violations go unpunished. Manhattan drivers are largely free to double-park, drive in bus lanes, and block the box, causing cascading traffic effects. The city hands out 160,000 parking placards as pork for city employees and their friends, which drivers use to park illegally and for free. Bus service has been allowed to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the state-run subway has struggled mightily to provide reliable service.

All of it adds up to a sense that congestion pricing must, in some form, be implemented for the Manhattan core. Even de Blasio appeared to soften his faux-populist opposition last week. Cuomo’s committee laid out a preliminary scheme for the tolls designed to raise more than $1 billion a year:

—$25 for truckers
—$11.50 for drivers
—$2–$5 for taxis

It is a strong first bid, and one that leaves room for the governor to negotiate with pols from Staten Island, Long Island, the Bronx, and Westchester, many of whom want perks like dedicated transit and toll discounts, as well as with the many businesses that operate in or drive through the Manhattan CBD. Lower Manhattan residents will reap quality of life benefits but may pay for it through more expensive goods and services. Then again, with peak-hour pricing, a congestion charge might also encourage off-hour freight deliveries, which (in a recent experiment) cut delivery times from 108 minutes around noon to 25 minutes after 7 p.m.

Two big questions remain unaddressed. First, if this money is going into a transit lockbox—which everyone considers the primary benefit of the fees, though the others are just as important—why should we think the MTA will spend it wisely, given the agency’s predilection for prioritizing suburban commuters and wasting billions on capital improvements? Second, how serious is Cuomo about getting the plan past the Republicans who control the New York statehouse, and what might be sacrificed to make that happen? Many of them continue to consider driving into the nation’s densest city a God-given right, because it’s been that way for decades. But there’s nothing liberating about the city’s permanent traffic jam.

In reality, driving in Manhattan has always been a lousy emblem of the borough’s everyman character, since New Yorkers have never been likely to own cars, and trains (and before them, ferries) have always carried far more people to and from the island. After the recent disappearance of so many old-time shops and rent-regulated apartments, driving down Broadway appears fated to bear some misplaced egalitarian nostalgia. The roads into the city could be free when a million fewer people lived here. No longer. Even Billy Joel took the Greyhound on the Hudson River Line.