Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Congestion Pricing

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is the latest to get behind "congestion pricing," where, in an ostensible bid to lessen traffic, new fees are assessed for driving on popular roads at peak hours. Or, as the case may be, anytime. In Manhattan, where traffic can sometimes be an issue, the idea is gaining traction. This is worrisome for a number of reasons.

1. Effectiveness. In his State of the Borough speech, Stringer said, "London imposed congestion pricing on its economic center and added more bus service. Traffic plummeted. Mass transit use increased, and the city's business district was reborn."

From today's London Telegraph:

In the last two years the congestion endured by drivers in central London has actually got worse, according to Transport for London figures.

The amount of traffic entering the zone during charging hours has been cut by around 20 per cent since the charge was introduced in 2003, but this has been largely offset by a reduction in the capacity of the capital's roads, due to road works and the introduction of bus lanes.

Congestion fell by 30 per cent in the first year of the charging scheme but is now only 8 per cent below precharging levels.

The weswtward extension of the charging zone next week is expected to increase congestion in central London, as motorists living in Kensington and Chelsea will be entitled to discounted access to the existing zone.

Elsewhere, specifically the otherwise intelligent Manhattan Institute, it's argued congestion pricing is an easy revenue raiser, certain to ease financing infrastructure rehab elsewhere. Not quite.

From yesterday's Telegraph:

Motorists in London have paid more than £677 million since the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003 — but only a fraction of this has been invested in other transport projects.

And with Ken Livingstone, the capital's mayor, planning to extend the zone west into Kensington and Chelsea, opposition politicians claim much of the revenue has been swallowed up in the cost of running the scheme.

According to the Greater London Authority's own figures, the bill for the congestion charge is rising above the rate of inflation, from £120.8 million two years ago to £143.5 million last year. ...

The London experience will in crease public doubts concerning road pricing. To add to the controversy it has emerged that a large slice of the income made by Transport for London comes not from motorists who pay the charge, but from fines on those who don't.

2. Fairness. Congestion pricing is also plainly elitist, making public roadways available only to those who can afford them. Were the city to adopt congestion pricing, traffic in Midtown would lessen, certainly. But at the cost of pricing out low-income New Yorkers -- outer borough residents especially. Many small-business owners rely on their own transportation to move supplies, deliver finished products, etc. Congestion pricing would therefore become a tax on an economic constituency that can little afford it.

And for what? So the affluent needn't be bothered with such headaches as a traffic jam? Congestion pricing is as anti-democratic as it is anti-economic opportunity.

3. Taxes. New York City is already the most expensive place to drive in America. Parking your car for an hour costs upward of $20 if you use a garage, $2 if you somehow manage to find a spot on the streets. Crossing the Verrazano, George Washington and many other bridges costs around $10. Gas is generally 20-50 cents more per gallon than surrounding areas in New Jersey and Connecticut. Lastly, there's ... traffic, which also serves as a kind of tax.

Point being, there are already countless disincentives to driving in Manhattan. The people who use cars to get about the city either have to, or choose to. Adding yet more disincentives will likely make little difference besides pricing out the less wealthy.

So, what to do about traffic? First, a few things to remember. Like it or not, traffic will always be around. And, as noted above, the worse it becomes, the greater the disincentive becomes to driving. In that way, it's almost self-regulating.

But if the city is inclined to do something!, here are a few ideas:

1) More parking. Being a driver myself, I know only too well how frustrating it is to spend ten minutes driving somewhere, only to end up circling around the destination for two hours looking for a place to park. Not only is this annoying, it clogs up the roads with slow cars.

So why not free up thousands of potential parking spots by allowing cars to park in front of fire hydrants? Sounds crazy perhaps, but not for any real good reason. Firefighters could do one of two things: hang signs alerting drivers that if they park in front of a hydrant, they're agreeing to the risk of having their hoods scratched up in the unlikely event the hydrant is put to use. Or, they could simply make hydrants taller -- six feet? -- so that hoses don't even need to touch cars parked in front of them.

Almost nobody knows this, but cars are actually prohibited from parking anywhere within 16-feet of a hydrant. Sixteen feet! That's approximately four parking spaces needlessly wasted per hydrant, with roughly six hydrants per block. Citywide, that's a lot of unused parking spots. In Manhattan, it should be noted, the rule seems to only be enforced for approximately 10 feet, or the length of just one car. Still, it stands to reason that if we can park a car on the moon, shouldn't we be able to park one in front of a hydrant without putting anyone at risk?

2) Less construction. Currently three major bridges are being refurbished: the Manhattan Bridge's lower level is out of service for the year, the Verrazano is under construction for at least a year, and a Bronx-Harlem bridge is also out of service for 12 months-plus. (For nondrivers: One year is a really long time for such major thruways to be completely off line.) After the Golden Gate was seriously damaged in a 1989 earthquake, the whole thing was repaired in a few months. Watching the workers on the Manhattan Bridge every morning, I'm always struck by how little they're actually doing. Generally one guy experiments with a jackhammer, while the other 10 look on, sipping coffee. Why not put the workers from all three of these jobs onto just one at a time, with three shifts, so that, by working around the clock, each can be wrapped up in a matter of weeks?

3) Better mass transit. More people will use mass transit if mass transit becomes more appealing. Subway service needs to be more regular and less unpredictable. The city needs to issue more taxi medallions and reduce taxes so that fares are less expensive.

4) Better stoplights. I'm convinced that the current system, which hasn't changed much at all since the debut of the combustible engine, is wasting everyone's time. Certainly, if some geeks at MIT put their minds to it, a fully-automated, computerized system that's responsive to actual traffic patterns shouldn't be too difficult. If you're stopped at a red light and there are no cars driving perpendicularly to you, you're witnessing government inefficiency in action.

Related: The Washington Post asks for congestion pricing in D.C., also citing London as an example.

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