After more than a decade of debate, New York City has finally adopted a congestion pricing scheme. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg made the first serious push to impose a toll on cars entering Manhattan’s busiest streets in 2007; the latest plan will have commuters who drive to work paying a fee starting in 2021.
The goal? Unclog the busiest streets where unchecked car use imposes congestion and air pollution, creates safety hazards, and gums up bus service—and on top of that, raise a billion dollars a year for New York’s ailing subway system.
Over the years, leaders from various political backgrounds have raised questions about how congestion pricing could work, not just to reduce traffic but to do so in a fair way. Some have spread myths that it hits the poor harder than the rich. That is simply not the case. We know that people driving into Manhattan at rush hour are overwhelming wealthier. After all, a space in a parking lot can set you back more than $30 a day.
“A very, very small portion of drivers who enter Midtown Manhattan during business hours are economically disadvantaged,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney and New York City environment director at NRDC.
In 2017 the Community Service Society (CSS), the city’s leading anti-poverty organization, completed an analysis of who would be impacted by congestion pricing in the Big Apple. It concluded that only 4 percent of working residents of the city’s outer boroughs (that’s jargon for Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island) commute to jobs in Manhattan by car. In contrast, 56 percent of outer-borough working residents use public transit to get to work and would benefit from the funds generated by congestion pricing.
The CSS study also found that only 2 percent of the city’s working poor would potentially be subject to the congestion fee.
Anyone who has crossed into Manhattan Island by car, say via the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge or the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, knows that it’ll cost you a pretty penny. Driving daily into Manhattan for work is already prohibitively expensive for most residents of the outer boroughs. Census data show that income and car use correlate strongly—especially so in New York. As a result, a new tax on driving downtown would have little downside for low-income New Yorkers, the vast majority of whom use buses, commuter rail, ferries, bicycles, and the subway to get around.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to put all revenues from the congestion scheme into a “lockbox” dedicated to capital improvements to the city’s transit system. While skirmishes have already broken out over the distribution of the money among the subway, bus, and commuter rail systems, any reasonable allocation of the funds would result in gains for low-income New Yorkers.
“Numerous studies have confirmed that poor and working-class New Yorkers will overwhelmingly benefit from subway and bus improvements,” Goldstein says. Adding buses and reducing subway delays would save them time. Many of these workers earn hourly wages, and others have to pay for child care or elder care during their prolonged commutes. Saving time means saving money.
Congestion pricing will benefit New Yorkers in other ways, too. A mountain of research shows that low-income households, and especially low-income households of color, are concentrated near pollution sources like highways. Asthma, in particular, is a disease of poverty. In the first year of London’s congestion pricing program, reduced traffic decreased nitrogen oxide emissions by 13.5 percent and particulate matter by 15.5 percent. Over time, that positive impact on local air quality has so far added 1,888 years to the lives of Londoners. The benefits have been even more dramatic in Stockholm, where congestion pricing cut hospital visits due to childhood asthma nearly in half.
Those three factors together—the unlikelihood that low-income workers will have to pay the fee, improvements in public transit, and health gains—give the lie to criticism that congestion pricing amounts to regressive taxation. New York’s congestion pricing plan is a boon to low-income people living in and around the city.
What’s more, it’ll be a worthy example for the rest of the country to follow. Los Angeles, for instance, is considering a comprehensive system to use congestion pricing “go zones” to speed up commutes and improve public transit in the city’s high-traffic areas. L.A.’s policymakers are considering a variety of factors to ensure their plan is progressive, according to NRDC mobility and climate advocate Carter Rubin.
“People driving alone in cars at rush hour toward busy office districts tend to earn higher incomes,” says Rubin. “People who have shift-based jobs, such as in hotels, restaurants, and retail, are traveling less at rush hour and are using public transit and carpooling more. So you can design a system that has a progressive effect based on when [fees are collected] and who has to pay.”
As in New York, many low-income Angelenos currently spend hour upon nonproductive hour in traffic trying to get to their jobs. So even for those who are traveling during rush hour, paying a fee might be worthwhile if it reduces traffic and gets them to their workplaces faster. The revenue generated from congestion pricing creates the possibility of fee discounts for people with low incomes or for those who carpool.
When someone tells you congestion pricing is regressive, be skeptical. As with so many taxation schemes, the details matter. For too long, Americans have rejected a system that’s good for workers, good for public health, and good for the environment, basing their opinions on vague and poorly researched claims. New York has finally broken through that resistance, perhaps helping to greenlight similar initiatives in other American cities caught in a jam.
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