According to a report commissioned by the Partnership for New York City, the city’s central business district, all of Manhattan below 60th Street, takes in 3.6 million people each business day, 2 million of them commuters, and 44,000 trucks. Forty percent of the vehicles seen on the streets have only one occupant, and it takes 54 percent more time to get anywhere below 60th Street on a weekday than during off-peak traffic.
Traffic congestion costs New York City some 52,000 jobs and $13 billion every year. When the 810,000 vehicles that come into Manhattan every day get caught in gridlock, restaurants lose about $213.5 million a year, various healthcare businesses $405 million and manufacturing a whopping $2 billion. The problem shows no sign of diminishing any time soon. The population of New York City is expected to grow by another 1 million people in the course of the next 25 years, and logic dictates that the local economy, the environment and the quality of life in general, all of which are impacted by traffic congestion, will suffer in direct proportion. The traffic congestion even renders existing solutions useless. New York City has one of the best mass transit systems in the world, but surface traffic gridlock affects it, too. “It’s faster to walk than to take a bus in New York,” Partnership for New York City Chief Executive Officer Kathleen Wylde said.
To address this problem, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed charging drivers a fee to enter Manhattan and drive below 60th Street. The practice, known as congestion pricing, has already been instituted in several major cities around the world, London being a prime example. Drivers are charged the equivalent of $16 a day to enter the central business district of the capital of Great Britain. According to reports, congestion pricing has reduced traffic in London by 15 percent. Mass transit options, such as buses, move faster and represent a practical alternative to driving.
That may very well be the case, and we’re happy for London that a solution has been found to its traffic problems. It should be readily apparent, however, that congestion pricing is not the answer for New York City.
Bloomberg has said he would exempt New Yorkers from paying a fee to enter the central city. Who, exactly, does he define as a “New Yorker”? According to statistics, 16.6 percent of the drivers entering Manhattan on any given weekday are from Queens. We would hope that these drivers, as residents of the city of New York, are to be exempted from paying the fee that Bloomberg wants to charge. If not, as former City Councilmember Walter McCaffrey, who now heads a group opposed to congestion pricing, points out, large areas of Queens are vastly underserved by mass transit. Many residents of these areas have no choice but to drive wherever they need to go, especially into Manhattan. Asking them to pay more just to get to or cross Manhattan is patently unfair. “This will hurt a lot of people who are just trying to make ends meet,” McCaffrey has been quoted as saying. We agree.
If drivers are to be exempted, how will the exemption be accomplished? Putting something like the EZ-Pass lanes now in operation on toll bridges and tunnels on currently toll-free entry points will do nothing to alleviate the congestion that already exists and will certainly add to it. The same is true for checking off license plates as cars pass through a portal to Manhattan. Some poor soul who has just taken title to a car and for whatever reason has not had the time or opportunity to register new plates with whatever agency will keep track of exempted vehicles will inevitably be the cause of a traffic jam at least equal to the ones that currently afflict the city. McCaffrey’s Coalition to Keep NYC Congestion-Tax Free speaks eminent good sense and anyone seeking a solution to the city’s traffic congestion problems would do well to listen.
We also agree with Councilmember John Liu, head of the council Transportation Committee, who holds that the city should look for other ways, such as more express bus service, to address the problem. A “disincentive program”, as Liu refers to congestion pricing, should be the last resort for solving New York City’s traffic woes, not the first. We should be encouraging people to come into the five boroughs of New York City, not give them reasons to stay away.