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Summer 1998
City Journal Summer 1998.
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Unjamming Traffic
Erin Schiller
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New York City’s drivers waste a staggering $7.9 billion $580 per eligible driver in gas, productivity, and time stuck in traffic around and in the city, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Rush hour is a cruel misnomer in Gotham: 70 percent of commuter traffic goes nowhere fast; only Los Angeles’s traffic moves more slowly. Tangled traffic also worsens air quality: the EPA says vehicle emissions are 250 percent worse when drivers idle, start, and stop frequently, as they commonly do in traffic jams.

New York could ease its traffic woes by extending market mechanisms to transportation through "congestion pricing." With congestion pricing, a tunnel or bridge would cost more to use during rush hour than during off-peak periods, just as it costs more to go to a movie at 8pm than it does to see a matinee. The idea is to give drivers a sharp financial incentive to avoid too-busy routes at peak traffic times. It would take only a small percentage of commuters switching to off-peak hours to unclog key roadways. Congestion pricing has improved traffic flow, cut commuting time up to 40 percent, and proved popular with drivers from San Francisco to Toronto. If congestion pricing works so well, why hasn’t New York City seen any more of it? The main obstacle is fear that the system would punish low-income commuters. A serious charge if true.

But the critics haven’t proven their case. A 1990 feasibility study for congestion pricing on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge found that most peak-hour commuters were far from poor: the average commuter’s yearly income was $68,000; only 3 percent had incomes below 150 percent of the poverty rate. New York City’s commuters, many of whom live in wealthy Westchester County north of the city, would probably have a comparable income breakdown. More important, the California Polytechnic Institute discovered that it’s not just the rich yuppie who will pay the peak fees: an economically representative cross-section of drivers will do so. The key is not how much a commuter makes but how much he values his time. Those who prefer to save money will switch to mass transit or to a carpool, or will drive at a less hectic time of the day. Since congestion pricing smoothes traffic flow, buses, which the poor use disproportionately, will move along at a much faster clip. So on balance, congestion pricing is more likely to benefit than to harm low-income city residents and commuters.

New York City’s bridges and tunnels offer an excellent opportunity for successful congestion pricing. Electronic toll collection, like the E-Z Passes that are already being used throughout the city, would make it a cinch to implement. It’s time to free up Gotham’s traffic.

 

 


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