Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 2

Rohit Aggarwala models the latest in Long-Term Planning & Sustainability chic: Gray flannel, subway token cuff links, Columbia U. class ring and a global warming mug: Pour a hot drink and coast lines disappear.

This is the second segment of a four-part interview with New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Rohit Aggarwala. We’re talking about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for a three-year congestion pricing pilot project in New York City. Part 1 of our interview can be found here.

Aaron Naparstek: Why does the mayor’s congestion pricing plan designate 86th Street as the northern boundary rather than 60th Street, which is traditionally considered the top of the Central Business District?

Rohit Aggarwala: There are a couple of problems with 60th Street as a boundary for congestion pricing. The CBD traditionally ends at 60th Street, but on the west side up in the 60s you’ve got Lincoln Center, ABC TV, and other big office buildings. On the east side, you’ve got the hospitals, the buildings to the north of Bloomingdale’s and the museums. There are lots of non-residential destinations for drivers well above 60th Street. That’s the first issue.

Second, if you look at traffic patterns, it’s not as if the traffic immediately dissipates as you cross 60th Street going northbound. Depending on the time of day, depending on which avenue you’re looking at, the traffic really changes in the quality of the congestion and delay somewhere between 72nd and 110th Street. And so while that doesn’t dictate 86th as exactly the right line, it suggests that the boundary should be somewhere north of 60th Street.

Finally, some people have argued that people are going to drive in and park in Greenpoint or park on 87th Street and take the subway the rest of the way in and, frankly, we don’t see that as being a big risk. Compared to a round trip subway ride, you’re only saving $4 and you’re adding a lot of time to your trip, both because the parking itself is scarce and because the subway trip will add time. So, it’s unclear to us why anybody really would do that.

But if somebody is going to Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, certainly, if you charge $8 to drive south of 60th Street they’re going to park on 61st and walk. And if somebody is going to Columbus Circle or Carnegie Hall, or any of the many businesses and offices in the 50s, you are more likely to have that parking problem.

So, those three reasons combined suggested to us that the boundary ought to be somewhere between 72nd and 110th Street. We picked 86th Street as a place that we thought made sense but as the mayor has said many times, we’re open to conversation about that.

AN: Wouldn’t it be far less expensive and nearly just as effective simply to toll the East River bridges?

RA: Not really. The largest vector through which cars enter the Central Business District is not the East River, it’s 60th Street. More cars are coming south from upper Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester than are crossing the East River. So, you would get some of the benefit by only tolling the bridges but you wouldn’t get all of it.

Furthermore, we believe that it’s very important to toll traffic inside the zone. You would never want to have the situation where you’re charging people who are driving in from places that have lesser transit access while inadvertently encouraging Manhattan residents to buy cars and drive around Manhattan for free. That would be a complete mistake.

AN: Won’t the current plan send a lot of excess traffic congestion onto Manhattan’s East and West side highways since there will be no charge to drive on them?

RA: I don’t think so. Frankly, with the congestion you have on the Manhattan street grid, it would be a bit of an irrational if your destination is Harlem or the George Washington Bridge and you come across the Brooklyn Bridge, why would you drive up Broadway rather then just getting on one of those highways? What we don’t want to do is charge to drive on the East and West side highways and wind up pushing the traffic that’s currently on the FDR Drive onto the BQE. That doesn’t necessarily benefit anybody.

AN: If New Jersey commuters are only paying an additional $3 atop the tolls they already pay to cross the Hudson, is that really enough of a price increase to prevent them from driving?

RA: It’s going to have an impact. It might have a lesser impact because it’s a lesser increase in the costs that they are currently paying. One of the reasons that we went with the credit and made every crossing the same price is to make sure that you reduce the instance of, say, people driving down Flatbush Avenue to cross a less expensive Manhattan Bridge when the more direct ride takes them through the Battery Tunnel.

Keep in mind, the credit doesn’t only apply to New Jersey commuters. It’s the same thing with people who
currently drive in through the Battery Tunnel and the Midtown Tunnel.
They will have a lesser price increase under the mayor’s proposal. The
fact is they are already paying something. They’re making the decision
that driving is worth the cost. And that’s all we want to do is make
people make that decision.

The goal here is not to force people out of their cars, the goal is to encourage people who have good transit options to take transit and to reduce the perverse incentive we’ve currently got, which is that for some people it may actually be cheaper to drive than to take transit.

AN: Why not feather the fees at the start and the end of the charging periods as was done in Stockholm so, say, driving in at 6:00 am is cheaper than driving in at 8:00 am during the absolute rush hour peak?

RA: It’s a concept we’re open to. As with so many things, the issue is creating a balance between precision and simplicity. The most precise thing you could do would be to have variable fees that depend on the actual level of traffic at a given time. The challenge here is that a price signal only works if people understand it. So, you need some level of simplicity. We went with a very simple approach that’s just kind of binary but I think we’re open to the idea of feathering or any other variation that might make it work better as long as we’re all convinced, and eventually the commission itself will have to be convinced, that people will be able to understand it.