The Unbearable Hassle of Carpooling From Eastern Queens

We all pay for the status quo of free car access to the most crowded parts of the city.
We all pay for the status quo of free car access to the most crowded parts of the city.

On Sunday, Assembly Member David Weprin and other assorted Queens elected officials stood near the perpetual traffic jam at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge and swore oaths to the sanctity of free driving privileges in New York City.

Weprin and his cohort stage variations on the same ritual press conference any time a rational tolling arrangement for city streets gets in the news. This time, for a change, Governor Cuomo provided the impetus for the presser, but the talking points basically remain the same from year to year. The central tenet is that there is an unwritten but inviolable right to drive for free within the city.

Borough President Melinda Katz expressed it best on this occasion. “You should be able to travel, even if it’s a little more burdensome, for free somehow from borough to borough,” she said.

This is always good for a bitter laugh from anyone who travels by transit — most New Yorkers, in other words. How can Weprin and Katz say this stuff with a straight face when millions of people have little choice but to pay fares to travel from borough to borough every day?

A few more factors compound the ridiculousness.

New Yorkers who have to pay for each trip make less than New Yorkers who can drive for free. We mention this a lot on Streetsblog but it bears repeating. Citywide, households with cars tend to earn double the typical income of households without cars. This is just as true in Queens, where the median income of car-owning households is $85,400, and the median income of car-free households in $42,500.

Most car commuters into the Manhattan core have a viable transit option. The vast majority of people who drive to work in Manhattan below 60th Street — 90 percent — “commute from home to work zone pairs in which a majority of commuters use other modes,” according to Bruce Schaller’s 2006 report, Necessity or Choice. Put another way, we know that most Manhattan core car commuters could take transit instead because that’s how most other people making similar commute trips get to work.

Carpooling makes the cost of tolls equal to or less than a subway fare. Let’s say you really have no other choice — you are one of the few New Yorkers for whom driving is the only reasonable way to reach the most transit-accessible part of the city. How much of a burden would it be to pay for these car trips? Under the Move NY proposal, all you would have to do is find one carpool buddy, and the price per person would equal $2.77 — almost the same as a single-ride subway fare. One more carpooler knocks the price down to $1.85.

New Yorkers aren’t strangers to carpooling. For months after the September 11th attacks, only high-occupancy vehicles were allowed over the East River crossings during rush hour. Traffic fell substantially.

There is no right to drive for free within New York City limits. What we do have is a transportation system where the poorest have to pay more per trip than the richest, and where people forgo reasonable transit options and the slight inconvenience of carpooling so they can clog streets with their polluting single-occupancy vehicles.

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