Anyone who’s been to Midtown Manhattan during rush hour — or seen it depicted on TV and in movies — knows it’s nothing short of a nightmare to navigate. As pedestrians clog crosswalks, buses lumber down 42nd Street seemingly in slow motion, plodding along at an average rate of 3.2 miles per hour. Car riders don’t fare much better; at an average pace of 4.7 mph, they might as well be walking.
And things are only getting worse, says traffic expert and engineer Sam Schwartz. “People are starting to cry uncle,” Schwartz says, likening the growing fury over the gridlock to a scene out of the 1970s movie “Network.” “They’re going to start screaming out of their cars, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!’”
As a member of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel, Schwartz was instrumental in the passage of New York’s congestion pricing program — the first in the country — which the city plans to roll out in 2021. Though details of the plan are still being ironed out, like how much to charge motorists and who should qualify for exemptions, Schwartz has high hopes that other U.S. cities will follow its lead.
Once considered too politically untenable to be embraced by car-loving Americans, the idea — which imposes a fee to drive on certain roads during peak times — has been slowly inching closer to the mainstream, as cities from Boston and Philadelphia to San Francisco and Seattle debate congestion pricing plans of their own. While public support of such measures remains mixed, it’s clear that something needs to be done.
Americans are driving more than ever. In 2018, we collectively traversed a record-setting 3.3 trillion miles on our nation’s already shaky network of roads and bridges. We also spent an average of 97 hours sitting in traffic, which cost each of us about $1,348 in wasted time and fuel (for unlucky Bostonians, that figure spikes to $2,291, the most of any U.S. city). On Chicago’s crowded Stevenson Expressway, commuters face a grueling 26-minute delay every workday.
Enter congestion pricing. Though it has a long and successful history in global centers like Singapore, Milan and London, Americans are loathe to pay for the privilege of driving. (Worth noting: When Stockholm announced its congestion pricing plan in 2006, there was little to no public backing. After six months, support skyrocketed as residents in Sweden’s capital began to fully appreciate the thinned-out traffic.)
“We have a tendency not to charge motorists what they cost to society,” says Schwartz. At the same time, several states haven’t raised fuel taxes in years, if not decades, while the federal government hasn’t touched gas tax rates since 1993. Add to that the fact that cars are more fuel-efficient than ever, “and there’s barely any money,” he says.
That leaves major metropolises in a lurch as they work to improve the crumbling infrastructure that so many of their residents rely on. As a measure to strengthen and advance existing transit options, most congestion pricing plans recommend reinvesting the revenue from tolls back into the transportation system. In New York, where motorists could be charged up to $25 for driving in Midtown and lower Manhattan, that translates to an estimated $1 billion per year redirected to the city’s decaying public transit system.
Besides boosting revenue and easing traffic flow, congestion pricing also has proven benefits to public health and the environment. In Stockholm, the tax reduced common air pollutants by up to 15 percent and led to a significant decrease in acute asthma attacks among children. (In the U.S., the heavily trafficked Bronx has the highest levels of childhood asthma.)
Despite these positives, pushback to congestion charging exists, and not only because Americans dislike paying for something they historically haven’t had to pay for. Critics of pricing plans point to an undue burden on the city’s low-income residents, who often don’t live where reliable mass transit options are available and thus are more likely to drive in to dense urban centers.
Still, that’s not a one-size-fits-all argument, says Annie Nam of the Southern California Association of Governments, who spearheaded a recent study on establishing congestion pricing zones in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of misconceptions around who drives where, when and why, she says.
“The predominance of low-income people [in the zones we studied] are actually already using public transit or carpooling. So the question is more, ‘How do we better facilitate the sustainable travel that they’re already taking?’”
In the past, local governments turned to new construction or expanded existing roadways to deal with traffic overflow. But studies have shown that, as the Brookings Institute put it, “more road building in order to try to move vehicles faster often makes traffic worse.” Express or carpool lanes, whose popularity has risen over the past several decades, also don’t necessarily live up to their congestion-reducing hype.
Though they live on opposite coasts in cities with very different traffic patterns, both Schwartz and Nam see congestion pricing as the next logical step in the evolution of designing road systems that operate more efficiently.
“There’s a lot of energy around the idea,” says Schwartz, who points out that even Uber, whose rise has contributed to clogged streets from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, poured millions into lobbying for the adoption of the plan.
With New York moving forward, Nam is betting that a ripple effect will take hold. “The general public becoming more aware of what it is and how it can work [leads to] a sense of normalcy,” she says, “and that there’s an opportunity to do this in the U.S.”