More than five decades after a transportation expert first proposed it, more than two decades after London enacted it, and more than five years after then-governor Andrew Cuomo signed it into law, New York City, sometime in mid-2024—if all goes to plan—will finally get congestion pricing. Car drivers will pay somewhere between $4.50 (overnight) and $23 (peak times), and truck drivers lots more, to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, or to drive within this area. Congestion pricing is a sound traffic-management principle, and it works in cities from Stockholm to Singapore. When something of value—in this case, roads—is scarce, charging for it controls demand. The Manhattan fees are expected to cut vehicle volumes in the targeted area by 15 percent to 20 percent and reduce miles traveled by those vehicles by up to 9 percent.
Congestion pricing must succeed in New York, as elsewhere, not as an abstract theory, but in its practical details. Over the next few months, New York governor Kathy Hochul, through the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages the program, will need to get the basic stuff right: how much to charge drivers, and at what times. The MTA also must get complex issues right, such as how to charge taxi and Uber vehicles that pick up and drop off several passengers daily in the congestion zone. Finally, the MTA must enforce its policies in a state and city where, over the past half-decade, obeying the law on everything from selling narcotics to riding illegal mopeds has become optional.
A well-executed congestion-pricing system will improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, whether they drive to work or take the train, or whether they live in Manhattan or on Long Island. A badly executed program will be nothing more than another tax, deterring people from spending time and money in already-fragile post-pandemic Manhattan.
New York congestion-pricing advocates have pushed the idea since the 1960s, hoping to reduce dense Manhattan traffic and use the money raised to subsidize public transit. In 1969, Mayor John Lindsay asked Theodore Kheel, a transportation expert, to find ways to avoid a subway-price hike. Kheel suggested tolling free bridges into Manhattan, such as the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges. (Since several bridges and tunnels into Manhattan already levied a toll, tolling the remainder would effectively cut off Manhattan from outer-borough and suburban drivers unless they paid a fee.) In 1973, Lindsay agreed that the city would impose tolls on the free bridges, part of its pledge to cut pollution under the federal Clean Air Act. Fourteen years later, in 1987, Mayor Ed Koch suggested a $10 fee to enter core Manhattan. Starting 15 years later, in 2002 and again in 2007 and 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed his own scheme, a charge on vehicles entering Manhattan on weekdays between 6 AM and 6 PM.
None of these plans saw the light of day. Each time, a combination of outer-borough and suburban drivers, Manhattan business owners worried about losing customers or paying more for deliveries, and Manhattan garage owners persuaded key federal or state officials—people with greater power than the mayor—to thwart the initiative. In 1977, the United States Congress, at the behest of Brooklyn Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, amended the Clean Air Act to ban bridge tolls, ending the implementation of Lindsay’s plan (he was out of office by then). In 2007 and 2008, New York’s state legislature, which must authorize the city to levy new charges on just about anything, refused to hold a vote.
Yet the idea of congestion pricing persisted, thanks to two factors. First, the MTA’s chronic inability to control costs, whether in its operating budget, now $19.3 billion annually, or in its infrastructure-investment budget, now $11 billion annually, means that both budgets have grown far faster than inflation. Absent the political will to constrain spending, which has been nonexistent, the MTA’s deficits—even before Covid-19 decimated ridership—have required the agency to find a new revenue source every few years to keep the trains running and to repair, replace, and expand its system.
The second factor: the work of never-give-up advocates, particularly Sam Schwartz, former city traffic commissioner under Mayor Koch, who has studied city gridlock and its solutions since the Lindsay days. After Bloomberg’s failure, Schwartz teamed up with economist Charles Komanoff and environmentalist Alex Matthiessen to devise a compromise arrangement. The trio devised their plan, called Move NY, by talking to opponents and incorporating their concerns. Even “ardent opponents” were “grateful” that “we reached out,” recalls Schwartz.
Released in 2015, Move NY was a master document of policy pragmatism. It had one guiding principle: toll drivers where nearby transit was plentiful, and use the money raised to alleviate both driving costs and transit scarcity in places where transit wasn’t plentiful. Not all the money would fund transit; the state would use some revenues to reduce tolls on bridge crossings within the city but far away from mass transit, thus offering a benefit for drivers who didn’t need to go into clogged Manhattan. Nearly one-third of the money would go to maintaining and improving roadways, further helping drivers. Money for transit, the bulk of the $1.5 billion, would pay for specific improvements, such as new bus services, to improve things for people without easy subway or commuter-rail access into Manhattan.
In 2019, Cuomo, then a third-term governor at the height of his political powers, cajoled the state legislature into approving congestion pricing. The plan would raise $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually. The MTA, in turn, would borrow against this new income, generating $15 billion for infrastructure investment over five years.
Nobody seemed to notice (or care) that the new law wasn’t the carefully crafted Move NY plan. In fact, other than the multibillion-dollar revenue goal, the law left critical details—the price to enter Manhattan, the hours when the charge would apply, how to treat high-volume vehicles such as Ubers, whether to charge firefighters and police officers commuting to work—for the MTA to figure out, via a new advisory body called the traffic-mobility review board. The law exempted emergency vehicles, people with disability license plates, and Manhattanites living within the zone and making less than $60,000 annually.
In May 2023, after years of delay, the Biden administration approved congestion pricing’s environmental review, required under federal law. The hard practical work of the traffic-mobility board—with six appointees representing business, real estate, construction, and labor, and chaired by veteran city planning official Carl Weisbrod—began over the summer.
As the board has started its work, only the most enthusiastic congestion-pricing advocates dismiss the fact that the New York City of 2023—and Manhattan, in particular—is not the pre-Covid-19 New York of 2019. Four years ago, the city pulsed with residents, workers, and visitors. Its population was near a record high, between 8.5 million and 8.8 million. Felonies in the southern half of Manhattan (the business half), at 15,350, were near the record lows that had persisted for a decade. Gotham ended 2019 with nearly 4.2 million private-sector jobs, a record reflecting growth of 12 percent over five years. Every day, nearly 3.9 million people entered core Manhattan, more than three-quarters on mass transit; only about 11 percent of Manhattan commuters regularly drove. (The balance of the 728,000 motor vehicles daily were trucks, or cars driven by less frequent visitors than commuters.)
The New York City of 2023 is an emptier, weaker place. The city has lost close to half a million residents since early 2020, second only to San Francisco in population-percentage loss among American cities. As of August 2023, felonies in core Manhattan, though down slightly from 2022, are nearly one-quarter higher than in 2019—close to two-decade highs. As of July, the city had only just recovered the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost since the pandemic’s onset; job growth over five years was just one-third of 1 percentage point. The main problem remains Manhattan, with its tens of thousands of vaporized retail jobs, as big-spending commuters are slow to return to the office, and as tourism remains below 2019 peaks. Even under optimistic surveys, office workers commute to the city barely three-fifths of the week, relative to 2019. Because of these missing daily commuters, subway and rail ridership rarely exceeds 70 percent of pre-Covid normal.
The numbers indicate, too, an important change in how people get around. Official numbers on travel to Manhattan for 2022 aren’t yet out, but it’s clear that lots of people who once commuted by train or subway now prefer to drive. In the final quarter of 2022, weekday vehicular traffic over regional bridges and tunnels was nearly 94 percent of pre-pandemic normal; transit ridership, by contrast, was just 64 percent of normal. As of May 2023, traffic through the two paid city tunnels directly into Manhattan—the Queens Midtown and the Carey—was 6 percent above 2019 levels, but distributed differently, with fewer people coming in at peak hours. Traffic on the two tolled tunnels from New Jersey (the Lincoln and Holland) had recovered, as well. New Yorkers have resumed nearly every aspect of daily life, except for regularly commuting to Manhattan-centric jobs, or taking transit regularly to Manhattan to shop or see a play or visit a doctor. Congestion pricing may not get these drivers back on transit, as intended; it may deter them from coming to Manhattan altogether, especially if they have the flexibility to work from home.
Though some number of commuters and other visitors have switched from trains to cars, they haven’t overwhelmed Manhattan with new traffic, relative to 2019. New York City hasn’t updated its Manhattan congestion statistics since 2018, meaning that the MTA, in designing congestion pricing, is relying on half-decade-old data, pertaining to a world that no longer exists. Back then, the average core Manhattan travel speed was 7 miles per hour; midtown traffic hovered below 5 mph. Even without updated figures, Manhattan observers can see with their own eyes the difference today. Though main arteries like Sixth and Ninth Avenues clog with traffic for the afternoon rush, and though crosstown streets grind to a halt by midday on weekends, gridlock is rarer than before Covid. Traffic, though far slower than the maximum 25-mph speed limit, mostly flows.
Nevertheless, New York is charging full speed ahead on congestion pricing. The reason: though one emergency—congestion—has receded, the other has not. The MTA still needs money for transit projects, such as updating subway signals and expanding the Second Avenue subway. New York State could have used its Covid-era surpluses, made possible by federal aid that exceeded economic losses, to delay the MTA’s cash crunch until Manhattan had recovered its lost economic activity. Instead, the state spent those funds on more politically popular items, such as education.
Since New York State appears hell-bent on enacting congestion pricing, despite the city’s woes, it’s more important than ever to get the details right. The price itself to enter Manhattan remains uncertain, but that’s the easy part. The MTA has said that it will charge between $9 and $23 for daytime hours, and two to eight times that figure for trucks, depending on size. The final price will depend on how many exemptions and discounts for special interests the MTA agrees to confer. Everyone from state judges to public-sector workers to residents of ritzy Manhattan co-ops has made special pleas. The MTA has fielded “122 different categories of requests,” notes Juliette Michaelson, the MTA’s special advisor to the traffic-mobility board. The more exemptions and credits, the higher the price everyone else will pay. “This is like a Rubik’s cube,” Weisbrod said, in launching the traffic-mobility review board’s summer meetings. “It all has to fit together.”
The most straightforward way to keep the base price low is for the MTA to approve zero exemptions for anyone driving private automobiles, which constitute 35 percent of core Manhattan traffic. “Most important” is “the first nickel,” says Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner for planning and traffic at the city’s transportation department. “Everyone should pay, including public employees” driving to work. In fact, car commuting is so prevalent among government workers (they drive at twice the rate of private-sector employees) that the MTA estimated in its environmental assessment that simply reducing the number of government-supplied free-parking permits would achieve the congestion-reduction goals of congestion pricing—without congestion pricing.
It’s not technically hard for the MTA to allow zero exemptions; it just demands political fortitude. The MTA could tell special pleaders that, if lawmakers had meant to exempt them, they would have put that in the law. “No exemptions,” affirms Schwartz. “Say NO.”
The MTA also should hold firm when it comes to government-owned automobiles, such as the city’s 12,271 light-duty government vehicles, many of which ferry civilian staff around. Taxpayers should know how often their city, state, and federal officials feel the need to drive into core Manhattan, and when, even as they counsel everyone else to take trains and buses.
Another decision for the MTA: what times of day to charge people to enter. Here, as with many issues, New York starts with a self-inflicted demerit. Because the congestion-pricing law has set a specific annual revenue target, the MTA will not be able to do what every successful congestion-pricing program in the world does: charge only during daytime hours, but not at night. London charges its fee—$19—between 7 AM and 6 PM weekdays, and noon and 6 PM weekends. That’s because, in London, as in other well-run systems, congestion pricing is a tool to reduce congestion, not to raise vast sums of money. The last full year before Covid-19, London’s fee, after operating costs, brought in less than $200 million. New York, by contrast, plans a 24-hour fee. The MTA promises only that the overnight levy—charged from midnight to 4 AM—will be half the daytime rate, or lower.
The state’s refusal to allow free entrances during non-congested nighttime hours transforms congestion pricing into what its critics have long contended: a tax. Truck drivers in other cities can avoid congestion charges by using off-peak hours; in New York, they will need to pay something, whatever the hour. Further, an overnight fee won’t nudge car drivers to take transit instead of driving, due to the dearth of overnight transit options. Suburban and outer-borough visitors out past midnight lack the option of using frequent, convenient, and safe transit; commuter rail to the northern suburbs shuts down entirely.
The failure to offer free entrance during non-congested hours creates another problem: double charges. The MTA has said that it doesn’t intend to charge car drivers more than once a day for accessing the congestion zone. But the “daily toll resets at midnight,” says Michaelson. As several members of the review board observed at the summer meetings, this rigidity means that a nurse who drives to work, say, at 4 PM and leaves work at 1 AM must pay two charges, across two days, as would a Manhattanite driving to a Westchester party at 6 PM and returning home at 12:30 AM. The MTA’s revenue target notwithstanding, drivers should not have to pay when congestion doesn’t exist and when transit is limited or nonexistent.
And how to treat buses, about 4 percent of core Manhattan traffic? This one, at least, seems easy: whether run by government agencies such as New Jersey Transit or private operators such as FlixBus, commuter and interstate buses, and even tour buses that make several stops within the city, are public transportation and keep cars off the roads. Buses should thus be exempt from the charge, as in London.
A thornier issue is taxis and Ubers, which make up about 53 percent of traffic in the zone. The MTA has said that it won’t charge taxis or Ubers more than once a day to enter Manhattan. This cap makes sense: multiple charges would encourage both taxi and Uber drivers to remain in Manhattan after paying the fee once, thus adding congestion as they look for customers.
But should yellow taxis be treated differently from Uber-like vehicles? Should yellow-cab owners pay the one-time daily congestion charge at all, considering that they already paid a six-figure fee for a taxi medallion? London exempts its black cabs from the entrance fee for this reason. Schwartz agrees, noting not just the medallion fee but an existing $2.50-per-ride core Manhattan surcharge, in effect since 2019.
For Ubers and similar for-hire vehicles, though, Schwartz suggests that they pay not only the once-daily entrance fee but also a new per-ride Manhattan surcharge, in addition to a $2.75 fee levied on them since 2019. The purpose of for-hire vehicles such as Uber—according to Uber itself, back in the early 2010s—is to facilitate trips for those without easy access to Manhattan taxis. Encouraging such vehicles away from short trips within Manhattan comports with that policy. Uber counters that this would simply lead it to dispatch calls for its service to yellow cabs whose drivers have signed up for the service, as such yellow-cab “Uber” rides would be cheaper. But it could not do so beyond the 13,875 yellow cabs licensed by the city, a natural limit on yellow-cab congestion.
Trucks and vans account for just 9 percent of core Manhattan traffic, but they pose one of the trickiest issues for congestion pricing. The MTA estimates that about 8,000 trucks pass through Manhattan each day—that is, they have no origin or destination in the central borough but are avoiding tolls elsewhere. Congestion-pricing supporters have long argued that discouraging truck traffic through Manhattan was a good thing. The problem, which advocates have never previously acknowledged, is that trucks that don’t pass through Manhattan don’t disappear; they just go elsewhere. Indeed, the MTA’s environmental assessment points to an increase of truck traffic—and traffic overall—in the Bronx, including an additional 50 to 704 trucks per day on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, whose nearby residents already suffer pollution, noise, and danger from 28,000 trucks daily.
The MTA has pledged to “mitigate” this outcome for the Bronx. It will run electric buses in the borough, provide air-filtration equipment to schools, and plant “pollution-capturing vegetation” along highway corridors. The city will also encourage truck conversion to electric power, including idle refrigerated units at the Bronx’s food warehouses. Mychal Johnson, a founding member of South Bronx Unite, a community advocacy group, believes that these measures don’t go far enough. If the number of trucks avoiding Manhattan and going around it is higher than expected, says Johnson, “the plan must be revised and adjusted” to alleviate “additional impacts on the South Bronx.” Bronx warehouses “must be required to convert their fleets to electric on an expedited timeline,” he says, “and there must be meaningful financial . . . clawbacks if they do not.”
Beyond such technocratic issues is a more basic challenge: enforcement. For drivers without E-Z Pass, the MTA will charge the fee via license-plate readings. The problem is that, since 2019, the use of fake and obscured license plates has soared. Plates deemed unreadable by existing speed and red-light enforcement cameras have gone from barely 1 percent back then to nearly 5 percent by the end of 2022, Streetsblog reports. New York’s laws are only as good as their enforcement—and this requires police power, something that the city has been more reluctant to deploy in recent years. Police summonses of lawbreaking drivers are down one-third from 2019 levels.
Just as important is policing the freed-up street space that congestion pricing theoretically creates. As New York has painfully relearned since 2020, lawbreaking and disorder fill any vacuum. Absent enforcement, as traffic falls in Manhattan, joyriding drivers, drag racers, and reckless motorbike drivers will occupy the open space. It has already happened over the past three years, as Manhattan traffic eased. Pedestrians and pedal cyclists in the city today must navigate a danger zone of wrong-way motorcycles (many without required license plates), wrong-way mopeds (already illegal), and electric bikes illegally modified to rival cars in speed. From London to Singapore, cities with well-functioning congestion-pricing programs do not allow their streets to be overtaken by reckless lawbreakers on wheels. New York City has been letting this happen for three years now.
The city must also enforce laws against long-term idling. Manhattan congestion, particularly at key midtown intersections, is worsened by ice-cream trucks, food trucks, and construction vehicles that park at key intersections for hours. We cannot overlay the pristine economic theory of congestion pricing onto a chaotic, lawless streetscape.
Finally, New York will need flexibility, something that its transit bureaucracy is lousy at. It’s unlikely that New York will get its fee structure and fee times right on its first try. It thus should not lock itself into a too-high congestion pricing rate that severely dampens Manhattan economic activity, or a too-low rate that deters too little traffic. The MTA needs to be able swiftly to retool its prices, as circumstances demand. Likewise, the MTA should work with the city’s transportation department to charge more money on bad-air-quality days or seasonal gridlock-alert days, such as during United Nations week, or during emergencies such as snowstorms, to deter nondiscretionary driving. As Johnson of South Bronx Unite puts it, “the final plan has to be flexible and allow room for improvement.”
No one would choose this particular moment in time for New York to enact congestion pricing: the city has suffered a slow recovery from Covid-19 lockdowns, and people who have switched from transit to driving, in making their tentative return to midtown a few days a week, have not overwhelmed the business districts with traffic. But now, alas, after more than half a century of stops and starts, is when New York has chosen to enact congestion pricing. The least that the city can do is get it right.
Top Photo: New York City’s congestion-pricing plan, scheduled to take effect in mid-2024, has been a long time in coming—but given the city’s current struggles, no one would argue that now is the optimal time to launch it. (ALEXANDER SPATARI/GETTY IMAGES)