By Felipe De La Hoz
In New York City, “congestion” isn’t just what happens when you spend too much time in an air-conditioned room or catch a cold. It’s what some officials and urban planners term the traffic that clogs up city streets, whether it’s private vehicles, service vehicles like cop cars and garbage trucks, ride-hail vehicles like cabs and Ubers, transit vehicles like buses, delivery vehicles for the USPS and companies like FedEx and Amazon, food and ice cream trucks, and all the various other machines that zip back and forth.
Every city has traffic, but New York is somewhat unique among large metropolises in having a majority of the population not own a personal vehicle. About 45% of New Yorkers in the five boroughs own one, the lowest percentage of any city in the country and about 15% less than the next city, which is Newark, New Jersey, a city within the broader NYC metropolitan area. Those who do own cars tend to skew wealthier, and a significant portion of the cars that are on the road in Manhattan in particular on any given day do not belong to NYC residents, but to people commuting in from nearby New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester, or even farther afield in Connecticut or Pennsylvania.
Road fatalities and smog
Still, the impact of these vehicles is acutely felt by New Yorkers, who have to contend with dangerous cars at a time when road fatalities are soaring, have miles of space set aside for personal vehicles even as we face a continuous dearth of housing, and are forced to deal with the smog that the vehicles release. This last point is no throwaway; some studies have shown that vehicular emissions cause thousands of excess deaths and can chronically impact health, leading to conditions like asthma.
In an effort to cut down on these issues, NYC officials are now close to implementing a version of an idea that has been percolating for years: congestion pricing. Very basically, the idea is to take a swath of territory that is thought of as attracting the bulk of outside vehicles — in this case, midtown and downtown Manhattan — and make it more expensive to enter those areas through tolling, with the dual impact of discouraging driving into these areas and raising funds for other purposes — in this case, public transit.
State lawmakers approved the program in 2019, but limited collaboration from the federal government under Trump delayed implementation. Then, last month, the MTA finally released an environmental impact assessment that laid out some concrete proposals for how the system might work. The area impacted is static — anything south of 60th Street in Manhattan, with the exception of merely going around the island’s circumference, i.e. the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway — but the choices involve the fee structure and the exceptions. For example, the hours that are considered peak hours, and if there’s a cap on the number of tolls a vehicle like a taxi might pay per day.
A chance to have your voice heard
The proposal is now open to public comments until next Friday, Sept. 23, and New Yorkers should have their voices heard. There is a real breadth of perspectives. To use just one example, there are people making the argument that the plan would hurt small businesses by increasing the cost and limiting the ability to receive delivery of goods, while others who insist that the plan would help small businesses by reducing the traffic around them and making them more accessible to walk-in pedestrians, among other things. While the whole point of the proposal is to reduce traffic in the city and improve the air quality, some people have also noticed that environmental impact statement noted that it could actually redirect traffic to other areas of the city, potentially adding congestion and smog to parts of the Bronx, which already faces issues with air quality.
The point is, it might be easy to think that this is a process you don’t have to pay attention to if you don’t personally own a car, but that’s not the case. However the congestion pricing program shakes out will have an impact for New Yorkers throughout the city, impacting not only the physical environment but our social and economic dynamics. The plan might raise money for public transit, but also make transit more crowded as would-be drivers leave their cars at home.
At a moment where the long-term character of the central business district itself is in question, as many companies accept the reality that white-collar employees in particular have grown accustomed to remote work and have no interest in returning to the office full-time, the addition of the congestion pricing scheme could accelerate this collapse — or, it could accelerate the reimagining of this area of Manhattan as a commercial and public space of a different kind, with conversions of office space to housing and retail and such.