The most sweeping congestion pricing plan proposed for New York City, Move NY, will cut tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by an estimated 950,000 metric tons a year. A little over half of that reduction, 55 percent, results from fewer auto trips from the toll disincentive along with transit improvements funded by toll revenues. The remaining 45 percent comes from smoothed traffic flow, as the lessening in stop-and-go traffic translates into better fuel economy and, thus, lower per-mile emissions. (Figures are from my downloadable BTA spreadsheet model.)
Official city data peg total NYC emissions of CO2 at 50 million metric tons a year, of which 15 million are from “on-road transportation” (motor vehicles). Move NY will shave just 2 percent from the total and 6 percent from the transportation part — reductions somewhere between “modest” and “helpful,” and well short of game-changing.
That outcome neither surprises nor disturbs me. Congestion pricing, whether Move NY’s version or some other form, purposely addresses only one segment of New York City car and truck journeys — those that involve the Manhattan central business district. And rather than doing away with those trips, it seeks to leave most of them intact to be tolled for revenue — “billing, not banning driving,” you could say.
Because of this, Move NY will diminish citywide motor vehicle traffic by around 4 percent. That’s commensurate with the subset of city and area car trips that it targets — those that, as a group, impose the greatest congestion costs, have the most robust transit alternatives, and are so valuable to their takers that most will continue to be made despite the toll, thus creating a hearty new revenue stream for transit.
What congestion pricing does fabulously well, then, isn’t to stop New Yorkers from driving but to make it easier for everyone to get around. I estimate the net time savings that residents and commuters will gain from the Move NY plan at 485,000 hours per day. Not only will traveling in and near the CBD be faster, it’ll be more reliable, less stressful, safer and healthier. An estimated 120,000 more people will come to the Manhattan core each day, as increased transit use, carpooling, cycling and walking more than offset the contraction in car trips from the new tolls.
In short, congestion charging will help New York function better. And therein lies its true climate payoff — in the thousands of households, jobs, and activities that will locate or remain in the city, rather than fleeing our crushing gridlock and dysfunctional subways for the new exurban ring or the Sunbelt or even the inner suburbs, which aren’t “inherently green” like NYC and have carbon footprints many times larger than New Yorkers.
I haven’t tried to quantify that effect (surprise!), but the effect has got to be large. Consider that New York’s per capita CO2 emissions are two-thirds below the national average, according to city figures (6.1 metric tons per year vs. 19, or a difference of nearly 13 tons). If we credit each of those 120,000 additional travelers to the CBD with a CO2 saving of 13 tons compared to living or working in Anytown, USA, we arrive at an annual emission savings of over 1.5 million metric tons — far exceeding the 950,000-ton direct reduction from Move NY’s fewer and cleaner tailpipes.
While that calculation is strictly illustrative, it shows the upside. But the force multiplier from congestion pricing is bigger still. New York may not be the world’s biggest city, our subway system is no longer the largest, and we’re not the safest city despite our precipitous drops in violent crime. But our city remains the most iconic, the one that “inspires better than any other city in the world,” as meteorologist and Grist writer Eric Holthaus tweeted this week.
“What we need right now, more than anything,” Holthaus added, “is inspiration.” We need to show the citizens and leaders of the hundreds of other great cities around the globe how to turn congestion into revenues with which to build a city that’s sustainable, low-carbon, and humane.
With congestion pricing, New York City can fulfill writer-activist Bill McKibben’s vision of being “a capital of the fight against climate change.”
Could Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s declaration in August that congestion pricing for New York City “is an idea whose time has come” bring needed momentum to carbon taxing?
A strong thread connects congestion pricing and carbon taxes. Just as limited street space in New York warrants a congestion fee, the atmosphere’s limited capacity to absorb carbon necessitates a carbon emissions fee.
Congestion pricing levies fees on vehicle travel into or within the core of a city. Singapore, London and Stockholm have deployed such fees for decades to discourage unnecessary traffic and raise revenue to improve transit and road infrastructure.
I’ve been quantifying the benefits of congestion pricing for New York City city and mobilizing public support for well over a decade. The campaign I’m allied with, called Move NY, proposes tolling car and truck traffic into Manhattan’s central business district, surcharging yellow cabs and Ubers circulating within the CBD, and lowering tolls on outlying bridges that have been used as cash cows to fund transit.
The governor controls the city’s mass transit, and political tradition dictates that congestion pricing legislation must run through Albany. Since Cuomo’s “August surprise” — he rebuffed the idea throughout his tenure as governor — I’ve re-directed my advocacy from carbon taxes to congestion pricing.
That’s a shift in venue but not in philosophy. Both types of fees incentivize all of us who would fire up fossil fuels or occupy road space to do so sparingly. They also help bring forth investment and innovation in alternatives: renewables and efficiency in the case of carbon; transit, cycling and density in the case of urban transport.
A congestion charge for New York will establish in America the foundational principle for a carbon tax: safeguarding our climate and other public goods requires that we charge for uses that damage or deplete it.
Cuomo’s announcement also validates conservative luminary Milton Friedman’s dictum about crises and change:
Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
How has the political impossibility of congestion pricing in New York given way to an air of inevitability? As Friedman prescribed, a crisis was required. It came this year, as a twin storm of gridlocked streets and cascading subway delays. But years of concerted advocacy were required to blast through political inertia and lay the crisis at Cuomo’s doorstep.
And true to Friedman’s dictum, NYC advocates for transit and livable streets have developed alternatives: the Move NY plan has dozens of elements that together can unsnarl the streets and modernize transit, as the New York Times reported last month in this profile of the “three amigos” leading the plan: traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, political campaigner (and CTC board chair) Alex Matthiessen, and myself.
We don’t yet know if Cuomo’s congestion proposal, which is expected next month, will be strong medicine or weak tea. But as one long-term advocate said last week, the argument is no longer whether to charge a congestion price, but how much.
The lesson for climate campaigners is clear: our job is to keep building the philosophical and political groundwork for carbon taxing.
That way, when the seeming political impossibility of carbon taxing gives way to the aura of inevitability, the carbon tax that emerges can be robust, comprehensive and fair.
In the meantime, if you live or work in New York City or State, voice your support your city and state rep’s and urge them to support the Move NY congestion pricing plan.
And don’t stop organizing, teaching and advocating for U.S. carbon taxes.