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Feeling Congested? Pricing’s Not the Answer

July 20, 2021 pm31 11:22 pm

If all the major politicians in New York agree on something, it’s either a very good idea or a very bad one. Congestion Pricing is a very bad idea.

It has been played up in The New York Times. Cuomo has signed on. De Blasio is a proponent. Adams wants to hurry it up. All the defeated democratic candidates for Mayor supported it. There is pretty broad consensus among politicians.

New Jersey has an issue. And Sliwa doesn’t like it. Melinda Katz once opposed it – but I’m not sure if she still does. Residents of NYC had a pretty negative view until recently, but I think it’s closer to 50/50.

The idea is to charge drivers for entering Manhattan below 60th Street, with the amount of the charge varying depending on how crowded the Zone is. Result – fewer cars, less pollution, and a shitload of money to be used, at least in part, on mass transit. Let’s take the two big ideas – Reduce Congestion and Raise Revenue separately.

A Familiar Problem

Reduce Congestion

I once worked, perhaps a few of you know, in transportation planning. I got curious when I saw Sam Schwartz speak at Brooklyn Polytech. Average Vehicle Speeds on Manhattan Avenues and Streets. I was immediately hooked. And while my actual work eventually involved mostly private bus lines that no longer exist, I never lost my fascination with traffic. I’ve read a bit more than a normal person should. Actually, more than a bit more than that.

Short version: You can cut down the number of cars entering the Zone. But you cannot cut down how bad the traffic is.

Longer version: People tolerate only so much delay. Make the delay worse, and some people will stop taking their vehicle in, until the delay is restored at the level the community tolerates. Reduce the delay, and more cars will flow in until the delay reaches the level the community tolerates.

Example for those of you annoyed by how counterintuitive this is: Recall when a road was straightened, or had a lane added. Recall how traffic moved better for a bit. And recall how other traffic found your spot, and filled it up. And how the delays returned to what they had always been.

Another example: Lane saturation was studied in England, and was the subject of an intelligence report from The Economist, drawing the same conclusion – add lanes? traffic will find them and congest them to the level that congestion existed before. Here’s a brief paper from Canada about this “rebound effect”.

Corollary: Remove lanes, and traffic will drop until congestion reaches the previous level. Great study from the EU – click here to look it over (other links here are brief – but this one is 50 pages)

Conclusion: To reduce Manhattan traffic, remove lanes. Make more streets pedestrian only. Add consistent bike lanes. Add restaurant/commercial space (created from street space). The cars will still be delayed, but there will be many fewer of them.

Who will be affected? Well, everyone in the Zone will face less direct pollution from cars. Quality of life will be up. More walking. More outside seating, dining, etc, etc. Drivers? Those who most need access to Manhattan will deal with the worse delays. But those whose need is more marginal will opt for public transit, or not to take the trip. If the trip takes a long time, drivers will decide if it is worth their time.

Wrong conclusion: Congestion Pricing. Fewer cars will enter the Zone, it is true. But instead of those who really need access coming in, we will see those who can afford it. In fact, we will see an overall drop, but as part of that, wealthy drivers will replace middle class and working class drivers. Very Bloombergian. Zone residents might see nicer looking cars, but that is not a reasonable public policy goal. Plus, Congestion Pricing requires hardware and monitoring devices. Congestion Pricing draws an arbitrary line in Manhattan, and places an arbitrary boundary between one part of the City and others.

And a simpler and more effective method is available to reduce the number of cars traveling in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Just close some streets, and remove some lanes. Nice story here about traffic “evaporating” when a popular link was removed from the London street system.

One Sort of Solution

Side note, since I mentioned lanes. American lanes are wide. Wider than most other places in the world. Do you know what that means? It makes it easier to stay in your lane. Sounds good, right? Wrong. When lanes are narrower, drivers are forced to focus more on their position. They go SLOWER. Fat American lanes produce FAST American traffic speeds. And that contributes to this country’s horrible vehicle accident record, including a bad pedestrian vs car fatality rate. One of the most significant road safety reforms we could enact would be to narrow lanes. Google this if you want to learn more, or click this link that popped up when I searched.

Increase Revenue

Revenue? That’s money the government takes from some of us, and uses. If we are lucky, that money gets used for something that benefits society, maybe benefits us personally.

Taxes. We are talking about taxes. And who they come out of, and who they go to, those are very important questions.

it makes sense that taxes from car use go to fixing roads that cars use. Or does it? Maybe taxes from car use should go to making alternate forms of transportation better or more viable. Or maybe, just maybe, our taxes get jumbled together and repurposed as society needs them.

That last one, taxes don’t get used based on how or where they were collected, is the right answer. Taxes on parents do not pay for schools. We do not tax disaster victims to pay for fire service. We do not tax anyone based on how much trash they generate.

And in fact, this discussion (well, my discussion) is not about what taxes get used for. It’s about how they are assessed. And here we have choices.

Wealth taxes and luxury taxes – good. They are coming right from those who can afford them most.

Income taxes, graduated, with higher rates for higher income, and with a bottom below which no tax is assessed – very good. Progressive taxes. Done right, those at the bottom do not pay, those in the middle pay little, and those at the top pay a lot.

Sales taxes – regressive. We all buy “things” and so get taxed pretty equally, even while some people make much more than others.

Use taxes – even more regressive. This Congestion Pricing business might fall into this category.

Sin taxes – also very regressive. The paternalistic idea that cigarette taxes are to benefit people’s health is bs. Those least able to pay are also the least likely to feel the sort of daily control over their lives that would allow them to quit. These are regressive taxes, and bad taxes. Perhaps because of pollution some NY Times readers would categorize Congestion Pricing as a sort of sin tax.

Lottery – jeez – just rob the people least likely to be able to afford, thank you Andrew Cuomo. And some of those payoffs should be illegal.

Conclusion

Want to reduce the number of cars? Take away roads, take away lanes.

Want to increase revenue? Raise wealth taxes, luxury taxes, and marginal income tax rates on top earners.

Want to avoid bad policy? Stop this Congestion Pricing nonsense before it starts. Opt for solutions that work, and for fairness, instead.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2021 pm31 6:32 pm 6:32 pm

    Use taxes on heliports or chartered jets are not regressive, I wouldn’t think. In NYC, taxing car usage has a weird distributive effect (e.g., probably higher car ownership in Queens and Staten Island at any income level than in the other boroughs) but it’s not obvious at all that it’s regressive. (It’s also not clear to me, as a general matter, how to measure regressiveness.) Seems like a good case for a both-and solution.

    • July 21, 2021 pm31 9:42 pm 9:42 pm

      I would look at amount paid and ability to pay. I might want to factor in the general good (so high transit fares = very regressive). But there’s plenty of room for progressive marginal rates on income tax – which in this case would make more sense than a use tax. And helicopters and chartered jets certainly seem like luxuries to me.

      But most interesting is the distribution of drivers… I agree, more Queens and Staten Island. But every gentrifying neighborhood has good transit access.

      I’m thinking it is classic Lindsay or Bloomberg playing rich and poor against the middle.

      Knock out lanes. That’ll reduce the number of cars entering Midtown/Downtown. And tax the rich. Always good policy.

  2. Samuel Noel permalink
    July 25, 2021 pm31 12:41 pm 12:41 pm

    Excellent post as usual. I agree with almost all of your observations and conclusions. The only part I might take exception to is reducing traffic lanes. As NYC (and other locales) have shifted from brick and mortar stores to Amazon, Fresh Direct, Fed-Ex, UPS, etc. to deliver goods, the repurposing of lanes and curb parking has exacerbated congestion everywhere. I’m not sure that the mindset for people to forego the convenience of shopping online is possible to change. Also, the cost of lost productivity in making deliveries and DOT fines for illegal parking will be passed down to consumers (a defacto regressive “tax”).

    I would add one other solution to relieving congestion. Bring back municipal parking lots in certain areas that allow folks who live too far (mostly working class who can’t afford to live closer to the City anymore: Greenpoint, LIC, Astoria, Bushwick, Williamsburg, South Bronx, etc.) to access less expensive parking in areas with good public transit. It was a mistake to close up so many municipal lots to begin with!

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