Congestion Pricing is Good, Actually.

Congestion pricing aims to require drivers to pay for the negative externalities and costs of their driving instead of having residents pay for them.

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Would you like to pay for someone else’s pleasure at the expense of your own health? In our economic model, we’re supposed to pay for what we use. When a cost arises that isn’t accounted for, it’s known as an externality, which can either be positive or negative. A negative externality is a cost that does not include damage to something external, such as a third party through pollution, and a positive externality is the opposite, such as beekeeping improving pollination. Currently, those who choose to drive, especially in the densest cities of the United States, only pay a small fraction of the costs of their trips. According to basic economics, explained in A Country of Cities by Vishaan Chakrabarti, drivers only pay for the cost of fuel, taxes, small fees, maintenance, and occasionally, inadequately priced tolls, but they aren’t paying for the larger societal costs: a negative externality. Those who drive to New York City never face the detrimental effects of their driving and never pay the complete cost of their choices. Congestion pricing aims to charge those who drive into lower Manhattan’s central business district between $9 and $35, which is why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is pursuing congestion pricing.

Some of the negative effects of individuals who drive automobiles, especially New York City metro area residents, are the increased healthcare costs from the air pollutants that all motor vehicles emit, either as a product of the combustion of hydrocarbons or the particulate matter from brakes and tires—yes, electric vehicles still emit this particulate matter, as they still have tires and brakes. The effects are felt at both a local and global scale, as the aforementioned carbon emissions contribute to the global greenhouse effect and a changing climate, thus increasing the chances of natural disasters, heat waves, destructive flooding from sea level rise, and other extreme weather events. 

Automobiles are also incredibly dangerous as a method of transportation, not only to pedestrians and cyclists but also to occupants of the vehicles themselves. From 2000 to 2009, 7.3 passenger deaths occurred in the United States per billion passenger miles, in stark comparison to the number of deaths caused by trains, the subway, and the bus, which had far below 0.5 passenger deaths. The high speeds that automobiles can travel at on our streets, as well as their large size, can severely injure or kill the occupants of the vehicle, pedestrians, and cyclists. Even worse, our streets are purposely designed to be wide to accommodate automobiles at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists.

Another consequence that drivers are oblivious to is the increased traffic congestion that each of their automobiles contributes to, which decreases societal productivity and costs billions of dollars annually. As of today, NYC residents, instead of drivers, are paying these societal costs. Hopefully, when congestion pricing is in place, the burden of paying for these costs will shift to those drivers.

Automobiles are also extremely inefficient at transporting people. A single lane of road can carry around 1,900 vehicles per hour. This can be as few as 1,900 people per hour if every vehicle carries just one person, which most vehicles during rush hour do. Carpooling can increase passenger capacity, but if every car carried four people, this would still be only 7,600 people per hour. In contrast, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane carries 17,500 people per hour by reserving just one lane of the Lincoln Tunnel tube for buses. A subway track takes up a similar volume of space as a vehicle lane but can move far more people with 30 to 40 trains per hour. With most trains being 10 cars long and each car having a capacity of around 200 people, a single subway track can carry as many as 80,000 passengers per hour, or over 40 vehicle lanes of single occupancy vehicles. As a result, automobiles struggle to transport people in cities and instead occupy space that can be used for anything other than two-ton metal death machines, such as recreational spaces or housing.

One would expect those who claim to be pro-environment to, therefore, support congestion pricing. Instead, the reaction of many of these wealthy suburbanites, who seem to have romantic relationships with their automobiles, to congestion pricing has shown the double standard placed upon everybody else. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey announced on July 21 that he, along with the borough government in Staten Island, would be suing the Biden administration and the state of New York over congestion pricing. New Jersey’s lawsuit claims that the 4,000-page environmental impact assessment conducted prior to congestion pricing wasn’t thorough enough and requested additional study that would delay congestion pricing by years. New Jersey politicians are claiming that congestion pricing would be detrimental to the environment and to New Jersey’s transit funding, yet they don’t bat an eye when spending billions on dystopian and gigantic highway projects, which are about as unsustainable as infrastructure can be. Murphy personally promised to “fix New Jersey Transit, if it kills me,” but New Jersey’s bus and transit system is underfunded by nearly a billion dollars while Murphy isn’t hesitating to burn 10 times as much (10.7 billion dollars) on highway expansion projects, such as the widening of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Politicians who oppose congestion pricing are failing to understand that the improvements the MTA will be able to afford because of congestion pricing will help millions of out-of-city commuters as well as millions of New Yorkers. Eighty percent of New Jerseyans, a similarly high percentage of Staten Islanders, and 75 percent of Long Islanders commute to the Central Business District, all of whom will pay the congestion pricing toll. Congestion pricing will even benefit drivers, as after paying their fair share and recovering from any romantic relationships with automobiles that many politicians display, they will enjoy 20 percent less congestion during their commutes, which will be faster, cheaper, and safer for them. As if New Yorkers didn’t need any more reasons to hate New Jersey and Staten Island, the audacity of New Jersey to attempt to delay a project, which would require only a small portion of drivers to pay for their negative externalities, reduce detrimental environmental effects, and improve the lives of millions, only shows how stupid New Jersey and Staten Island’s classic hypocrisy is. 

As mentioned before, many of those who feel entitled to having their car trips paid for by others state that congestion pricing is too radical of a leap for a “woke” city. But in reality, congestion pricing shouldn’t be criticized for being too radical but, rather, not being radical enough. The tolls that drivers will be paying have far too many exemptions: congestion pricing isn’t in effect on the two highways that choke lower Manhattan on either side, and the debut of congestion pricing is certain to face many delays at the hands of lawsuits, though they are certainly doomed in court. Another major fallthrough of congestion pricing is that it will not be an issue for the wealthy because they will simply be able to afford the fixed price. Regardless, congestion pricing will serve to put a cost on the negative externalities of driving, an unheard-of step in the right direction for our economy, which has been lacking in American cities: the British have had congestion pricing for decades in London, and congestion pricing has been implemented in Singapore. Many call congestion pricing a “cash grab” by the city, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sure, congestion pricing will be raising funds, but it will be for the MTA and in the interest of any commuter in New York, including the 70 percent of commuters from New Jersey, Staten Island, and Long Island who already take public transit into our city. The trips by automobile of the remaining 20 to 30 percent of commuters will no longer be subsidized by us city residents, and the transit system that drivers always complain about will receive a much-needed lifeline. In fact, congestion pricing will still prove to be useful if the money earned from it is simply burned, as driving will be de-incentivized once drivers have to pay the true cost. Areas with congestion pricing will see less motor vehicle traffic and, thus, less of the damage and carnage caused by them. The city will also be far more walkable and become a city for the people, not cars. In the future, our subway system, walkable infrastructure, and cycling infrastructure could be expanded further with the funds provided by congestion pricing. Hopefully, congestion pricing will be rolled out to more parts of New York City and implemented in other cities in the United States, not just for privileged Downtown and Midtown Manhattan.