The city's public transit system needs billions of dollars of repairs and improvements. Photo: Asael Peña on Unsplash

This week, the MTA announced that the myriad lawsuits against the city’s congestion pricing plan could imperil billions of dollars’ worth of transit improvements that have been planned out years in advance.

The plan, which has been in discussions for years and slated to finally go into effect this summer, would charge most drivers $15 to enter the so-called congestion zone that stretches from the southern tip of Manhattan up to 60th Street, with some targeted partial exemptions, for example, taxis and ride-hail vehicles. There are a series of public hearings starting today, during which people can provide comments to the MTA board ahead of a final vote later this spring.

Nonetheless, the whole project is now under a cloud of litigation, filed from groups as disparate as a teacher’s union and lawmakers from nearby New Jersey. All of this threatens an effort that has already been delicately laid out to balance various interests. At the same time, the city’s Department of Transportation mixed in some good news about additional pedestrian space and other initiatives along with the revelation that it undershot its annual targets for protected bike lanes and significantly undershot its target for new protected bus lanes, hitting 72% and 19% of the objectives, respectively. This puts the Adams administration out of compliance with local law, and caps a bittersweet moment for advocates for transit alternatives: their priorities are moving forward, but slowly and stunted by entrenched opposition.

One thing that some of the pro-transit and pro-bike advocates have been working to bring into the public consciousness over the past few years is that this issue goes beyond transit or even public land use. There’s a strong safety component involved in getting cars off the streets. Up until they were surpassed by firearms starting in 2020, cars were the leading cause of death for children, accounting for around 15% of all deaths for the 1-18 age bracket. Pedestrian fatalities in general are rising sharply as cars get bigger and heavier, and their exhaust is a leading cause of both climate change and respiratory illness in children especially. Congestion pricing is intended not just to cut down on the actual congestion of cars on the road, but air pollution.

The city’s congestion pricing plan would charge most drivers $15 to enter the so-called congestion zone that stretches from the southern tip of Manhattan up to 60th Street, with some partial exemptions Photo: Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

What the congestion pricing wrangling is really about, at its core, is the uncomfortable reality that it’s very difficult to make public policy at this scale that doesn’t have some negative eventualities for some groups of people. This is the basis for the socio-political ideology of utilitarianism, the maximization of some concept of net good even when some are being hurt to produce it. Taken to the extreme, this deposits us at contemporary techno-utopian concepts like longtermism and AI-related offshoots like effective accelerationism, which posit that practically any short-term economic or material harms are worth it if they create some sort of future utopia, which can be measured in millennia.

This extremist vision and even many more moderate iterations are generally and rightly rejected by most people who aren’t tech billionaires or otherwise already powerful, but that sensical reaction can end up landing in the other extreme — the idea that you can design a policy in such a way where absolutely no one faces any adverse consequences. You could argue pretty convincingly that there are certain interventions where practically everyone is much better off in the short term, but you are always going to be able to find people to raise specific and often valid objections.

You see this with everything: more open and pedestrian spaces reduce the parking and navigation of vehicles, which could hamper the ability of people with certain disabilities to get around. Any change to health insurance or the healthcare system writ large, even if it positively impacts many people, will see some folks having to wait longer, or lose easy access to specialized services. And so on.

This is so with congestion pricing as well. It will almost certainly reduce traffic injuries and fatalities, clean up the air in chunks of the city, generate revenue for public transit, and make Manhattan much more navigable for the bulk of the people who actually live there, who by and large don’t themselves drive. There’s also pretty decent evidence that the plan could route some of the traffic up through the Bronx, which already gets an outsize volume of commercial traffic, impact cabbies’ bottom lines even as they’ve struggled in recent years from the expansion of ride-hail and the devaluation of medallions, and hurt people in other ways.

Does that make it a bad plan? People have made the argument, but I don’t think that’s inherently true. Some of the same ways that the plan benefits people also potentially sets them back. Among the entities that have now sued against the plan is the United Federation of Teachers, with seven teacher plaintiffs claiming, among other things (and rather absurdly), that the congestion toll is a violation of their constitutional rights, impeding the “fundamental right to travel within the United States” and discriminating against interstate commerce. As inane as I find those legal arguments, it’s hard to get down on already put-upon teachers here; yet as transit advocates quickly pointed out, schools and school children could stand to really benefit from the congestion pricing plan.

I want to draw a line here between the reality of being unable to fully mitigate each and every legitimate concern, versus the need to push back on what has been an avalanche of frivolous and pretextual concerns that amount to whining from wealthier populations about losing the ability to come into the city’s densest areas in their cars as opposed to the ample available public transit. It’s farcical that New Jersey lawmakers are suing New York because, basically, New Jersey commuters have to pay up and they don’t get the tax credit that residents within the zone are eligible for.

Similar to the recent small business owner lawsuit and the arguments of some economist types, the New Jersey argument seems to rest mainly on the premise that the new tax is a significant barrier to accessing the city, which itself fundamentally assumes that the default way to access the city is via car. But why would that be the case? The area in question is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most transit-rich hub in the United States. Downtown Manhattan features the convergence of the subway system, which reaches all over the city and out towards Long Island and nearly into Westchester; the Long Island Railroad going out to Nassau and Suffolk; PATH trains that go across northeastern New Jersey, including Jersey City and Newark; New Jersey Transit, which also goes into NJ; Amtrak connections to practically the entire eastern seaboard and across the country; Greyhound and other buses going as far as Canada; and countless other options.

Why, exactly, would adding a fee to car traffic prevent people from coming? Are commuters who aren’t already working from home going to quit their jobs rather than take the PATH? Are wealthy Jerseyites who drive going to skip out on pricey shows and meals in the city just because there’s an extra $15 charge now? Let’s also not forget this isn’t some unprecedented move; plenty of urban areas around the country and indeed around the world have instituted similar plans, and somehow their economies haven’t collapsed. One irony here is of course that this expected surge in public transit usage would strain the existing transit systems, which is precisely why the money is slated to be reinvested in improvement of transit infrastructure that then everyone can benefit from, but which is now being held up by these lawsuits. 

Incidentally, small business protests have also been significant in slowing down or killing bike and bus lanes, given the baffling belief that a lot of small businesses around the city have that their customers are primarily arriving via car – barring a few suburban parts of the outer boroughs, this is laughable on its face. This back and forth will continue until perhaps at some point the culture changes and we become more comfortable with public solutions to public needs, as opposed to our insistence on the individual vehicle as king, even in a city where most people don’t own cars.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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