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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cars Defeated New York’s Congestion Pricing


Driving into New York City is a special kind of skill, requiring patience, cutthroat merging, and, sometimes, a willingness to navigate the backstreets of New Jersey. Driving in New York City, and especially in Manhattan, is also a skill, requiring the same patience and cutthroat merging, along with a willingness to pay upwards of $50 a day to park. People do it every day, but of all the places in the United States, Manhattan is perhaps the most hostile to driving. Given that New York City has the most extensive public-transportation system in the country, Manhattan is also the place where driving is the least necessary.

Five years ago, then–New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature approved a system that would reduce traffic and raise money to improve the subway: congestion pricing, which would charge vehicles a fee to enter Manhattan’s central business district. The plan was supposed to recognize that bringing a car or truck into this very dense stretch of city has costs—not just the personal cost of going slowly mad while waiting to enter the Holland Tunnel, but costs in carbon emissions and air pollution. Limiting the time that vehicles spent idling in lines to enter Manhattan and exit Manhattan and turn in Manhattan and park in Manhattan—and coming to Manhattan at all—could have reduced the region’s carbon emissions and air pollution, according to a joint city, state, and federal environmental assessment. (It also would have reduced waiting times for the drivers who did come.)

The system, which would have been America’s first implementation of congestion pricing, would have charged cars up to $15 (and large trucks and buses up to $36) to enter Manhattan, depending on the time of day; it was set to go into effect on June 30. But today, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, announced that the program would be paused indefinitely. Hochul said she worried that New York City’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic was still too fragile, and that congestion pricing would impose a high enough cost on commuters that they’d choose instead to work from home or rethink living and working in New York altogether.

This wasn’t an entirely new argument: Cuomo also made it while walking back his support for the program this year. But the program was now so close to launching that cameras meant to implement it were already in place. As the first reports of Hochul’s decision leaked out, the plan’s skeptics, most particularly politicians representing commuters in other New York counties and in nearby New Jersey communities, celebrated her flip. But housing and transportation advocates, climate experts, and New York City politicians began roaring their objections—that canceling the program was a mistake, and that the loose alternative plan Hochul had proposed for funding much-needed subway improvements, which would involve taxing New York businesses, was far from adequate.

Congestion pricing was always, in some ways, a small and specific goal. If the system worked beautifully—as it has elsewhere in the world, including Stockholm and Singapore—it still would make sense in relatively few cities in America. In New York, commuters, shoppers, showgoers, museum lovers, park strollers, and visitors of all kinds have other options for entering the city; in most places in the U.S., a price on congestion might raise money, but anyone disincentivized from driving would be stuck at home. The car rules America: It’s a key component of everyday life and culture.

Yet even if congestion pricing were only ever implemented in New York City, it would have been a signal that U.S. politicians could shake up the nation’s rigid transportation systems in the service of cutting back emissions. That cars appear to have won out even in New York shows how little room there might be for us to try anything different.

In the U.S., transportation accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s total greenhouse-gas emissions; most of those transportation emissions come from cars and trucks. That picture is improving as car culture transforms in ways that benefit the climate. Sales of electric vehicles are increasing, EVs themselves are getting cheaper, and manufacturers have developed hybrid models that can drive hundreds of miles—and, in one case, more than 1,000—before refueling or recharging. Driving in America in the next decades will be better for the climate, and it will still be fun.

The problem is, if the U.S. is ever to reduce the large chunk of carbon emissions associated with transportation, cars cannot be the only winner. When you crunch the numbers, the giant shift toward electric vehicles would have to happen much faster than its current pace to meet the goals set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stave off devastating global warming. One influential study, for instance, found that meeting those goals would mean that, by the middle of this century, at least two-thirds of all car travel in the United States would need to be electrified and rely on electricity sources with close to zero emissions. This is unlikely to happen, even given the Biden administration’s push to increase electric-vehicle adoption. People buy new cars only every so often; most sold in America are still gas-powered and will be for years. (In 2023, EVs accounted for less than 8 percent of new car sales.) The U.S. energy system is still dominated by relatively carbon-intensive fuel sources, and although clean-energy sources are gaining ground, the country’s energy mix will still be far from zero-emission by 2050.

If EV adoption continues at this pace, the U.S. has two real options for efficiently cutting down on emissions from its cars. The first would be, simply, for people everywhere to drive less. No one believes that this is practical, not least because driving is the most convenient way to get from one place to another in so many areas of this country. Driving less would mean that more people everywhere would have to do as Hochul imagines they will in New York, and stay home. The other option would be more targeted: dramatically reducing driving in the places that don’t depend on it. New York City is clearly one of those places. Cars are one of the least convenient modes of transportation. The city has subway stops blocks apart from each other. It has buses and, in the most congested parts of Manhattan (and in the Lincoln Tunnel), specially designated lanes to speed buses past waiting cars. It has commuter rail going in every direction out of the city.

These systems could certainly be improved—perhaps especially for the commuters whom Hochul says she is prioritizing in her decision to cancel congestion pricing. Many models already exist for doing so: Cities across the world have been experimenting with and succeeding at building better systems for public transit of all kinds. By global standards, our trains and buses are slow; they do not serve every need of every person. (Some disability activists celebrated Hochul’s decision to delay congestion pricing, arguing that the city’s current public-transportation system so fails them, they must rely on cars.)

Even so, in Manhattan, unlike in so many other places in the United States, cars don’t have to dominate. If EVs alone cannot reduce emissions enough, then especially in dense places where it makes the most sense not to drive, we need to be trying to move ourselves around in other ways. New York is throwing away a chance to demonstrate how.

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