Can Congestion Pricing Ever Be Popular?

Some suggestions for how road tolling can grow more widely-accepted.
By Ethan Finlan | Jan 14, 2019 |
By Ethan Finlan | Jan 14, 2019 |

The debate over congestion pricing in Manhattan will run into the new year, with not much progress made. Governor Andrew Cuomo offers support, while Mayor Bill de Blasio suggests it’s elitist. Even in America’s least auto-oriented city, charging tolls on city streets faces an uphill battle.

Fundamentally, congestion pricing works by limiting how many cars can be on the road at once. Nobody likes paying for something that was once free. Many highways have long charged user fees, but increasing those tolls is contentious too. In Virginia, dynamic pricing on express lanes caused an uproar.  Is the idea of charging for road use doomed to the realm of wonky musing?

The objection is obvious: tolls burden daily commuters, while the rich benefit from faster travel times. When congestion pricing was last proposed for Manhattan, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign found that most of the region’s drivers are higher income. Number-crunching aside, though, it’s still the case that the wealthier you are, the more you can pay to value your time, hence the objection that tolls are regressive taxes. To critics, a tolled road looks like an exclusive luxury good.

But congestion itself is a regressive tax; the costs of automobile ownership add up with increased time spent operating a vehicle. Research from the Federal Highway Administration bears out the a priori suspicion that poorer households are hit harder by transportation expenses, regardless of how they travel, but can travel less than the wealthy.  

This is a real challenge throughout America, where car ownership is a necessity. Yet New York City has a robust mass transit network – its current crisis aside. Politicians critical of tolling can improve mobility through addressing “transit deserts”: the pockets of otherwise transit-reliant cities which lack access. In fact, congestion pricing aids this goal: more riders can be incentivized to use transit, and transit trips to the core by bus will be faster, and operators can use the savings to run buses more frequently.

Not everyone can shift to transit. Driving comes with the territory in many blue-collar occupations, like plumbing and appliance repair. Yet with less time wasted in traffic (and less money wasted on gas), more work opportunities open up, and less time is wasted coming home.

As urban planning academic Michael Manville observes, charging user fees for road use sounds unappealing mostly  because we’re used to free roads, whereas if we weren’t, the pitfalls of not tolling would be obvious: “Congestion would rise, buses would slow, and pollution would increase … [and] without tolls, there would be no revenue to redistribute and compensate the people it fell on.” But hypotheticals don’t answer the main question: how can we make tolling look good?

There isn’t a clear answer, but these points suggest how to do it right.

First, congestion charges should be across-the-board, in contrast with the common option of only tolling select lanes. In theory, selective charging provides the option to accept a slower ride for free. In practice, this scenario is derided as creating “Lexus lanes” for the wealthy. If anything, most lanes should be tolled, while reduced-price lanes are dedicated to carpoolers.

Second, transit should expand (this is a major reason for London’s success). But this should include looser regulation of private transit service. Instead of capping Uber vehicles and taxis, city authorities should let private options develop. New York’s dollar vans already provide cheap and frequent transportation from neighborhoods which otherwise would be transit deserts in the outer boroughs.

Third, congestion charging has to be dynamic. New York’s current proposal mirrors London’s cordon charge model: a flat, consistent fee, 24/7/365. Variable fees let people alter their commute times to avoid taking the hit on heftier fees, which could be zero at some times.

Ultimately, less restrictive zoning will likely have the most impact. The more jobs, necessities, and amenities which can be reached within walking distance, the less need there will be to take long car trips.  

It’s never easy to argue that somebody’s costs should go up. Yet adhering to the status quo isn’t sustainable. If mayors and planners are serious about improving quality of life, tradeoffs need to be acknowledged and defended, not dismissed out of political expediency.