Highlights of the “Equal Tolls, Unequal Access” Discussion

April Greene reports on Monday’s congestion pricing panel discussion at the New School:

"And now the last of the bald men will speak," said Jeffrey Risom, an urban designer at Gehl Architects of Denmark, as he took the podium at Monday night’s congestion pricing panel at the New School. Indeed, all four panelists did possess this common trait, but the diversity of their backgrounds — in academia, government, non-profits, economics, and private development — set them well apart despite that shall-we-say glaring similarity.

Leading off from the event’s title, Jean-Christophe Agnew, a professor of American Studies at Yale, spoke about congestion pricing’s roots in bridge-crossing and stall-renting tolls in early modern Europe. Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association fast-forwarded to 20th century New York when Columbia professor and Nobel prize winner William Vickery and Mayors Lindsay, Dinkins, and Koch, as well as the RPA itself, all proposed different modes of congestion pricing (none of which came to pass). Zupan also highlighted some points in New York’s troubled transit history, among them the fact that, despite population growth in the millions during the last century, the extent of NYC’s subway system peaked in 1937.

Environmental economist and "re-founder" of Transportation Alternatives Charles Komanoff jumped in next with some of the theories behind the plans. Quoting pedicab luminary George Bliss, Komanoff pointed out that mobility and community should not be in conflict, "they should enhance and serve each other." Jeffrey Risom followed with examples of Copenhagen’s effective methods for reducing traffic congestion while bolstering quality of life: many use incentives for biking and walking rather than "punishments" for driving.

When the floor opened for questions, many in the full-house crowd of about 80 asked about the fairness of congestion pricing — wouldn’t it run poor drivers off the road while providing a smoother commute for the rich? Komanoff asserted that, for one, most people driving into Manhattan’s CBD have higher annual incomes than those who take public transit, so most people paying congestion fees wouldn’t be those who could least afford it. He also said that in existing congestion pricing systems, such as California’s State Route 91, it has been shown that most drivers choose to pay the fee for situational, not habitual, reasons (for example, taking a sick child to the hospital rather than just wanting to get to work faster every day). This tendency leads to less essential car trips as a group, rather than less wealthy drivers as a group, being cut from the equation.

Also discussed was the notion of reforming the car from its growing status as entitled emotional limb back to simply a method of transport. The panel agreed that the proclivity of old habits to die hard is one of congestion pricing’s toughest foes. Zupan iterated that the process will take patience and that people do grow to like new and better systems, but only when they can see them in action.

Talk shifted from the historical and theoretical to the immediate and practical: the what’s and how’s of congestion pricing for New York City. When asked how taking one in ten cars off the road would make any real difference to gridlock, Zupan responded that the relationship between the number of cars on the road and the amount of congestion is not necessarily linear. For example, he said, when there is a 10% reduction in volume of traffic, there can be up to a 30% gain in space for the remaining cars.

Other points raised included the fact that New York, unlike London, already has a way to track almost three-quarters of its drivers — through their E-Z Passes — and that adding a tracking element to the existing technology wouldn’t incur nearly the cost that creating and installing all-new tracking systems in the UK has. Therefore, New York City’s congestion pricing system might not have to start as high or be raised as much as London’s to make equivalent capital gains.

Komanoff outlined his four stopgap measures for the time between the implementation of congestion pricing (and the subsequent swell in numbers of transit riders that might result) and the completion of the Second Avenue subway and East Side Access: 1) drivers can stagger their trips to spread out rush hours, 2) while many subways are currently operating at capacity, MetroNorth and the LIRR are not; they could take more intra-city riders and help relieve subways, 3) there is unused subway track on many lines and being able to use it depends not on politics but on raising money, 4) potential for biking in the city is largely untapped; thinning car traffic would provide a great incentive for more to ride.

Reported by April Greene