Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 1

Too many unanswered questions.


Among New York State Assembly Democrats, that has been one of the most frequent criticisms of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a three-year congestion pricing pilot project in New York City. Last month, Lower Manhattan Assembly member Deborah Glick said that she and her colleagues were “confronted with a dearth of information regarding the Mayor’s proposal.” Bronx Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz made similar complaints in an editorial to the Riverdale Press a couple of weeks ago.

In an attempt to get answers to some of the more frequently asked questions about congestion pricing, I did what I assume any state legislator could do just as easily, if not more so. I called Rohit Aggarwala and asked him for a meeting to talk about congestion pricing. He agreed.

Aggarwala is New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and the lead author of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030. We met for about 45 minutes on a Monday afternoon in August in a conference room at the Mayor’s Office of Operations. I’ve divided the interview into four parts. Here is the first part:

Aaron Naparstek: How are you enjoying the job? It’s been what? A year?

Rohit Aggarwala: Fourteen crazy months, actually. It was June 12th when I started.

AN: A lot has happened since then.

RA: It’s been amazing. It seems like only yesterday but it’s been a lot of work.

AN: I bet.

RA: Had we just written the plan, that itself would have been a lot of work, but to do so with the input that we got from the advisory board and the town hall meetings — all of the input makes the plan better — but it meant a lot more work too.

AN: Having gone through that public input process, what is your impression of how New Yorkers view transportation issues and the idea of congestion pricing?

RA: New Yorkers are keenly aware of the problem that we have in terms of transportation congestion. Whether it’s on the roads, on your daily subway commute or just walking through Time Square, we all know that mobility is a challenge. Everybody wants to solve the problem. The challenge is that nobody really wants to pay for it. Everybody thinks that the other guy shouldn’t be driving, but I’m driving for all the right reasons. Everybody says, sure, I want more people on transit, but not on my train because I want to get a seat. And, yeah, we need more money for transportation investment, but don’t take it out of my wallet.

But thinking back to the town hall meetings, far more people were in favor of congestion pricing than anybody would have thought just a year ago. If you told a politician a year ago that when asked point blank, “Should we have congestion pricing in Manhattan,” without even being told that the money would go to transit, that nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers would say, “Yes,” nobody would have believed that high a number was possible.

AN: A Wall Street Journal opinion piece was forwarded to me recently that said, “Their goal isn’t easing congestion at all, it’s raising money. The city’s plan foresees only negligible improvements in traffic density and speeds, less than 8 percent, but millions for the city to spend on other priorities.” Is the congestion pricing just about raising money?

RA: If all the mayor had wanted was additional revenue, there would be far easier ways to get it than to engage in the congestion pricing debate. It would have been so much easier for us to find the money in a different way.

That quote that you just read completely misses the fact that this money isn’t going to be for the city to spend. Our proposal was that the revenue goes to the SMART Fund, which the city would have only a 50% voice in. Others have proposed the money goes to the MTA. The bottom line is congestion pricing revenue is not going into the city’s budget, it’s going towards transit.

It’s misleading to say that we’re only doing this for the revenue. The reason that congestion pricing is such a powerful concept, and the reason that the mayor, who was initially skeptical about it, warmed to it and now has obviously embraced it and believes in it quite strongly, is that it solves multiple challenges at once. It reduces traffic while raising money for transit. And it gets people to think more about the personal choices they make.

Just like you get charged every time you decide to take the subway, and that makes you think about whether you want to use this scarce resource that costs money to provide, you also want a price on making the decision to drive into one of the most congested and transit-rich areas in North America. That’s the goal.

I’ve heard time and time again, that the 8 percent increase in vehicle speeds is a negligible difference. But that’s 112,000 cars a day off of the streets. That’s hardly a negligible difference. What people often don’t understand is that a reduction in 6.3 percent of vehicle miles traveled, or an increase in speed of 8 percent — those are averages. Those changes make a big difference because the bulk of that speed improvement isn’t going to come at 5:00 in the morning, or on one of those few streets that you can find during rush hour that isn’t crowded. Those improvements are going to be concentrated on the streets that currently have the worst congestion.

But what really counts to the driver is the reduction in delay — the reduction in the amount of time you’re stuck in traffic. London found that the increase in average speed translates to a reduction of driver delay by at least a factor of two. So, an 8 percent increase in average vehicle speed translates to a 15 to 20 percent reduction in driver delay. That is sizable.

AN: Many say they are concerned that congestion pricing will hurt New York City’s poor, middle class, and small business people. How do you respond to that?

RA: I think its fundamentally not true. If you look at New York City as a whole, if you look at every class of people, however you want to define class, the majority of New Yorkers rely on transit far more than they rely on automobiles. Are the relatively small percentage of New York’s middle class that drives into Manhattan everyday going to be hurt by congestion pricing? Potentially. But in exchange for $8, those who continue to drive are going to get a more reliable drive, a more comfortable drive, a faster drive.

When it comes to transportation, the best thing we can do for New York City’s middle class has nothing to do with what goes on on the roads, it’s what we can do in the subways. That’s why it’s so important to use the proceeds for transit improvements.

As for small businesses, I think it’s exactly the same kind of thing. Even if you assume that small businesses do rely on driving, the efficiency gains from reducing traffic by 6.3 percent translates into greater productivity. So, for a cost of $8, a van delivering flowers can make one or two extra deliveries a day with the same vehicle and the same labor costs. The reduction in traffic congestion has more than made up for the incremental increase in transportation cost. As for bigger trucks, most of them are already paying tolls.

AN: Still, if it costs more for trucks to transport goods, won’t that translate to price increases for all New York City consumers across the board?

RA: London has seen nothing to indicate that that’s the case. Stockholm, in some very detailed analysis of what goes on downtown, has actually seen an increase in customers to local businesses because the pedestrian spaces are that much more attractive with fewer cars clogging the roads. So, Stockholm has actually seen small business directly benefiting from congestion pricing.

Really, how much inflation can you create on an entire truckload of goods by adding $21? There were some outrageous numbers being thrown around about how congestion pricing will cause all groceries to go up by 10 percent or something. When these claims come up, do the math. If a $21 charge on a truckload of milk translates into a 10 percent increase in the cost of a gallon of milk, that means they are using an entire truck to deliver something like 10 gallons of milk per day.

There’s so much misinformation that people are putting out there to scare people.