If you are from the tri-state area, you have probably heard about a really controversial program (unless you have been living under a rock) happening in New York City: the Central Business District Tolling Program, also known as congestion pricing. For those who do not understand what congestion pricing is, it is a way to harness the power of the market and reduce waste related to traffic congestion.
In this case, the power of the market would be people wanting to drive to the central business district (specifically all of Manhattan at and below 60th Street, with exemptions for the FDR Drive and West Side Highway/Route 9A) and the harnessing would be done by automated tolling. From London to Singapore, congestion pricing has proven itself to be an effective method to reduce congestion due to traffic, incentivize public transit, reduce pollution and get new sources of revenue — all important for the city that never sleeps.
Introduced in 2019, the Tolling Program suffered many setbacks. Fast forward to 2022, though, with New York Gov. Hochul’s (D-N.Y.) support, the program is as strong as ever and is rallying through all the obstacles, probably coming into effect as early as 2023.
Despite all the international models of success, several politicians raise some concerns: How will this affect lower-income individuals? Will it hurt the economy? Yet, when discussing these types of questions, we really need to understand how New York City itself operates.
New York City is like a rare diamond in the U.S. It is by far the only city in the country where cars are not the main mode of transportation. In the U.S., the percentage of commuters traveling via public transit is a shy 5 percent, yet in the Big Apple, that percentage is 58 percent.
By looking at these numbers, they should highly emphasize how important public transit is in the city, it literally mobilizes most of the workforce within the city with the greatest gross domestic product (GDP) in the country.
As impressive as this is, we still need to analyze the case further. We have to take into account the Tolling Program is being implemented in Manhattan, not in the five boroughs, hence why we should focus on it when talking about the Tolling Program. If you thought 58 percent was high, you will be surprised to learn that it is a rookie number when compared to the percentage of commuters using public transit to Manhattan.
Out of the five boroughs, only 21 percent of people choose to drive into Manhattan for work, meaning that 79 percent likely choose to use some form of public transit, instead. This is especially important when we take into account the impact Manhattan has.
The island is the world’s financial powerhouse (housing the largest stocks: the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ) and accounts for 57 percent of the city’s jobs. And to think the Dutch only paid 60 Guilders — valued at $1,000 dollars now — for the island once.
Now we can continue the discussion and answer the previous concerns. Will congestion pricing affect lower-income individuals? Well, it is a matter of who you think is driving into the Tolling Area. Do you think that mostly lower-income individuals are in the 21 percent motorist group or the 79 percent public transit riders? It is no secret most lower-income individuals rely on public transit.
Does this hurt the economy? This could be true if the economy was mostly sustained by the commuter minority, yet this is hardly the case, right? Even if we assumed 100 percent of the people commuting into Manhattan contributed equally to the economy, the bigger contributing share would still be the one taking public transit. Hence a program that has an objective to improve public transit (maybe a program like the Tolling Program), would actually benefit the economy — public transit is the economy.
Now, what about people with disabilities or residents of Manhattan who own cars? Like in other congestion pricing programs, various exceptions are made. Of them, people with disabilities, residents of the congestion charge zone and emergency vehicles are listed. Public transit commuters have a lower median income than commuters who drive to Manhattan — earning approximately $20,000 less than private car commuters per year.
Among other concerns about how unfair this program will be, the truth is that most people who can not afford the congestion charges will not be affected as they will be taking public transit anyway. In fact, in my opinion, most people commuting into Manhattan will benefit from congestion pricing.
Most people riding public transit will notice an improvement — and in some cases, faster travel times — and people who still decide to drive will notice a decrease in congestion, which also means emergency vehicles will be able to do their job better and get to necessary places at a faster rate.
As shown, the benefits of congestion pricing clearly outweigh its cons. The world has used it and enjoyed its benefits, and now it is time for New York City to join the club as well. The program will allow the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to modernize its aging infrastructure and add to it.
This will directly benefit the vast base of commuters, making the program the tool from which New York City can depend as the backbone of the tri-state area — and the nation. Everyone wins with congestion pricing, whether you are commuting to the city or living in the Big Apple itself.
Marcelo Remond is a junior in the School of Engineering majoring in civil engineering and minoring in urban planning and design. His column, "Unironically Utopian," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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