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As New York embraces congestion pricing, will other clogged cities follow?

  • Video courtesy Associated Press

    A congestion toll that would charge drivers entering New York City's central business district is a first for a U.S. city, but proponents point to the positive impact of similar fees in cities around the world.


    Traffic in Midtown Manhattan on Feb. 26. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed the congestion pricing plan to alleviate traffic and to raise money to revive the ailing subway system.

Los Angeles traffic is so bad that buses crawl at speeds of less than 12 mph. In San Francisco, car speeds have fallen to 10 mph. And Seattle’s streets are so choked it needs to find ways to have fewer cars altogether.

Major cities across the United States are facing increasingly clogged roads and have had frustratingly little success in dealing with them. But now that New York has adopted congestion pricing in Manhattan, the rest of the country is far more likely to seriously consider embracing such a policy — even though it was once considered politically toxic, according to municipal officials and transportation analysts.

“New York’s use of congestion pricing could be a game-changer,” said Travis Brouwer, an assistant transportation director in Oregon, which has considered congestion pricing for traffic-jammed Portland.

“If New York City can prove that congestion pricing can work and gain public acceptance, it could give cities like Portland a boost as we look to introduce pricing.”

Philadelphia is now considering congestion pricing for the first time, in part because of New York’s move, “to see how this can help improve equity, safety, sustainability, and mobility,” said Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney.

New York, the country’s largest city, will charge drivers to enter Manhattan’s most congested neighborhoods as a way to raise more money for public transit and to persuade people to abandon their cars.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are already conducting studies to lay the groundwork for congestion pricing, and Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, is leading efforts to have congestion pricing in place by the end of her first term in 2021.

“It really does help to be able to point to some peer city and say ‘They’re doing this and it’s working,’” said Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at The University of California, Los Angeles, who has advised Los Angeles on congestion pricing. “At the very least, it changes the conversation in other cities.”

Not everyone is a fan. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has long opposed congestion pricing because of concerns it could hurt local businesses, but it is re-examining that position as traffic has worsened. In a recent poll of 500 San Francisco voters, sponsored by the chamber, 65 percent said they opposed a $3 to $6 congestion fee to drive downtown.

A handful of cities in Europe and Asia already have congestion pricing in place; it has helped clear roads in London, Stockholm and Singapore. But it has also been assailed by drivers and critics as an unfair tax that hurts the poor.

Fueled by an economic boom, a revival of urban areas, a proliferation of Uber and Lyft cars and an explosive growth in package deliveries propelled by the rise of Amazon, the average speed in urban downtowns fell to 15 mph last year from 18 mph in 2015, according to INRIX, a transportation analytics company.

“I believe the time has finally arrived to explore congestion relief pricing in major cities,” said Phil Washington, the chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “Here in Los Angeles, our congestion challenges are just as bad, if not worse, than Manhattan’s.”

He added, “We cannot sit idly by and watch it get worse.”

In New York, many details of a congestion pricing plan — including how much drivers will be charged — are still being worked out. The plan was the culmination of a campaign that started 18 months ago and drew transit groups as well as prominent business, civic and labor leaders, who saw no other way to tackle gridlock.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo staked his name on it and wielded his political power to push it forward, making it a centerpiece of the $175 billion state budget after past efforts had unraveled. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had been lukewarm about congestion pricing and has had a frosty relationship with the governor, threw his support behind it. They had made the case that it was crucial for raising the money needed to modernize the city’s crumbling subway system.

And transit officials, facing a growing financial crisis, warned repeatedly that the alternative would be huge fare increases.

Congestion pricing’s moment follows decades of failed efforts to unclog roads around the country. Historically, cities responded to congestion by building more roads or widening existing ones — only to find that those, too, became jammed, said Matthew Turner, an economics professor at Brown University.

As a result, America’s roads are carrying more traffic than ever. The number of people driving to work climbed to about 130 million in 2017, up from 121 million in 2012, according to an analysis of census data by Social Explorer, a research company. Of those, more than 116 million drove alone, and only 14 million car-pooled. Just 8 million workers took public transportation.

The increasing traffic has been accompanied by concerns over health, safety and environmental implications. The number of pedestrians killed in traffic in the United States is approaching a three-decade high.

Traffic woes have emerged as the underside of booming cities that attract new residents, businesses and construction. More than two dozen major U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, have more congestion now than a decade ago, according to an annual global traffic scorecard by INRIX.

The most recent scorecard found that congestion left U.S. drivers sitting in traffic an average of 97 hours last year, up from 82 hours in 2015. That, in turn, cost the economy roughly $87 billion in lost productivity last year, up from $74 billion in 2015, according to INRIX.

“It only takes one car that doesn’t get through an intersection to block two lanes of traffic,” said Trevor Reed, an INRIX transportation analyst.

In Seattle, Amazon’s relentless rise has helped turn the city into a major tech hub. Now, major infrastructure and development projects are expected to lead to even more gridlock.

“As we build a city of the future, we must reduce our reliance on cars,” Durkan said. “My goal is to make our downtown core a healthier place for all with fewer cars, a more equitable transportation system and less climate pollution.”

Road pricing has been used on some U.S. highways since the 1990s, with tolled express lanes — or so-called Lexus lanes — built alongside regular lanes, offering a faster alternative to drivers who are willing to pay for it.

Cities are trying to figure out how to make it work on streets. “There’s a critical mass forming where people are saying, ‘enough is enough,’” said Stuart Cohen, the founding director of TransForm, a California-based group that released a recent report on congestion pricing. “They’ve tried everything else and nothing’s working.”

Still, Charles Komanoff, an economist, said the idea of “putting a price on driving” clashes with America’s car-loving culture in which driving wherever the road may lead is often seen as the ultimate freedom. He compared pushing congestion pricing to “shooting a rocket to the moon.” “There’s so much gravity — the forces opposing this are so powerful — it almost seems like defying nature,” he said.

Oregon looked at congestion pricing in 2005, but “our traffic wasn’t that bad, so people weren’t willing to pay a toll to escape it,” Brouwer said. But Portland has been gripped by congestion as Amazon and others have opened offices. State officials are seeking federal approval for what would be the state’s first highway tolls on a 7-mile stretch through Portland.

Congestion pricing has also been seen as a burden on poor drivers, many of whom have been displaced from downtown areas or cities by rising housing costs and now must drive to work because of minimal access to public transit.

“Social equity was the conversation stopper when it came to congestion pricing,” Cohen said. “In West Coast cities, equity is very high on the political agenda.”

But Cohen said gridlock also slows down the bus and transit services many poor people depend on. Congestion fees, he added, can be discounted or subsidized for poor drivers.

In Los Angeles, public buses traveled at an average of 11.8 mph last year, down from 12.2 mph in 2013, according to transit data. Washington said he wants to use the congestion fees to pay for transit improvements and to cover fares so that everyone can ride free.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said he supports looking at congestion pricing “because it has the promise to dramatically reduce traffic and improve quality of life.”

Still, congestion pricing remains a tough sell. After a recent report released by Boston leaders and educators recommended charging $5 to drive in some neighborhoods, Boston’s mayor’s office said the city would not be implementing congestion pricing.

In New York, drivers would be charged for entering Manhattan below 60th Street, where the average speed for vehicles is down to 4.7 mph, from 6.9 mph in 1994.

John Corlett, a lobbyist for AAA in New York, said the new fees could cause gridlock to shift to other parts of the city if drivers drove around the central business district to avoid tolls. “To say this is going to reduce congestion may be a false hope,” he said.

But Sam Schwartz, one of the architects of congestion pricing in New York, said he had received calls from more than a dozen cities who have followed its progress. “If you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere,” he said.

San Francisco is considering congestion pricing after trying other options to combat gridlock, including expanded bus and rail service, installing dedicated transit lanes and expanding bike routes, said Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which is leading the city’s congestion pricing effort.

“Everyone agrees there’s a problem,” Chang said. “There are multiple views of the solution. But frankly, we’ve tried a lot of them and they’re not enough.”

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