photo by Matthias Rhomberg
Rahm Emmanuel, White House chief of staff at the time, famously said that a crisis should not be wasted. I haven’t checked to see if he still feels that way, since as mayor of Chicago he has faced crises of street violence, teacher strikes and general urban financial dysfunction.
New York politicians still seem to be believers, however. They created a traffic “crisis” in Manhattan, only to offer to solve it with the perennial left-wing solution of new charges for people who dare to drive their cars into the urban core.
Though they don’t find it easy to play well together on almost anything else, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have teamed up effectively on this one. First, de Blasio cut the speed limit on city streets from 30 mph to 25 mph, and installed revenue-raising speed cameras to enforce it. This was part of his Vision Zero initiative to try to eliminate traffic fatalities in the five boroughs – a worthy, if somewhat utopian, goal. But the collateral effect was that, on the fringes of Manhattan such as the point where upper First Avenue feeds into the bridges leading to Queens and the Bronx, cars move more slowly. This causes backups to ripple southward into the more densely traveled streets in Midtown.
And in Midtown, those streets have also narrowed in order to accommodate bikes and buses. The buses at least aim to move people who are not in cars efficiently. But the acreage devoted to bike lanes carries far fewer people, and of course almost no goods, than was the case when that space was available to motorized traffic.
So of course traffic speeds have fallen throughout Manhattan. They were intended to fall. But now that they have fallen, congestion pricing has been bandied about as the solution. Cuomo’s task force, Fix NYC, endorsed a congestion pricing plan in a January report, following the governor’s remarks last summer in favor of such a solution. While de Blasio has vocally opposed congestion pricing in the past, he seems to have warmed – or at least marginally thawed – toward the idea since the Fix NYC report.
The congestion pricing plan Cuomo favored did not make it into the state budget this year. The governor, however, still seems determined to at least pay the idea lip service. New York’s budget did include a revenue-raising surcharge for Ubers, taxis and other for-hire vehicles operating in Manhattan south of 96th Street; Cuomo and others have attempted to sell this new fee as a first step toward congestion pricing, even though any effect it has on traffic flow is likely to be incidental at best.
This support for congestion pricing is weird on a couple of fronts. One, and the most obvious, is that Manhattan’s subway lines and other rail transit are barely functioning as it is. Cuomo himself described last year’s summer of hell, and there is little reason to believe this summer will be much better. If we price people out of cars, where do we expect them to go?
The second, and even more curious, dimension of this proposal is that many of the same people who love the idea of congestion pricing get very worked up about the alleged pernicious effects of income inequality. So help me to understand how it makes things better to impose charges that wealthy and merely occasional city drivers from suburbs like Scarsdale, Great Neck and Wyckoff will ignore, but which will be life-altering for Uber drivers and office interns who live in Co-op City in the Bronx, or Oakland Gardens in Queens, or anywhere in Staten Island.
I mention these places in particular because they are densely populated neighborhoods (or, in that last case, an entire borough) that have no subway connection to Manhattan at all. The only transit options for people who live there to get to Manhattan are to take city buses to subway terminus points and then endure long and unreliable rides, or to take pricey express buses, or to get themselves to a ferry.
Most people who favor congestion pricing never commute from those neighborhoods. They commute from places in Manhattan and Brooklyn that have subway stops every few blocks. Or they just walk to work and moan about the gridlocked traffic in the streets that have been narrowed for bicycle lanes. Or they use those bike lanes.
Congestion pricing has been pitched as a financial solution to crumbling subways, much as it was in 2008 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Charges imposed on drivers are always pitched as solutions to the region’s mass transit woes, but those woes are seldom solved, and never for long. New Yorkers and those who travel through the region pay outrageous tolls to traverse bridges and tunnels that were built and paid for generations ago. They collectively waste millions of hours sitting in traffic on highways that have seen little improvement since baseball’s Dodgers and Giants were playing home games on the East Coast. They pay some of the highest fuel prices in the country outside California and the Jones Act victims of Alaska and Hawaii. Yet there is no end to the abuse that these drivers, many of whom are not affluent, must suffer at the hands of transit advocates and the politicians who pander to them.
Manhattan may eventually get its congestion pricing. Some people will likely consider that a good use of the congestion crisis that policymakers have worked so diligently to create. I won’t.