New York City is moving forward with a “congestion pricing” plan that will require people to pay a fee to drive in midtown or downtown Manhattan — virtually anything below 60th Street. The aim is to relieve traffic and reduce emissions by reducing the number of cars in the heart of the crowded city.
That’s a great goal. Midtown Manhattan in particular has been a teeming, cluttered mess all my life, a sea of honking cabs and trucks and cars hauling workers, tourists, and commuters through often congested streets.
It is right to discourage driving while encouraging the use of public transport.
Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.
But here’s what always puzzles me about congestion tariffs: if you want to reduce driving, is it absolutely necessary to do so by charging for the privilege? The right to drive downtown has always been a shared right – but now the government is proposing to pay it out to some people and not others, depending on who can afford the fee. Who can pay: Welcome! The rest of you turn around and go home.
I’m not opposed to the idea – actually there are plenty of strong, rational arguments for it and most public transport proponents seem to support it – but, hey, just a thought experiment: shouldn’t we think about it every now and then if there are other ways to solve problems than to separate those with more money from those with less?
Paying up to $23 to get into Manhattan’s central business district at rush hour is no small thing, as evidenced by the fact that 400 people signed up for the first in a series of hearings on the subject in late August. (The proposal promises tax credits for households earning less than $60,000 a year.)
I know, I know. We live in a capitalist market society. We regulate our economy based on supply and demand. Our natural response when we need to cut back on a scarce commodity is to set a price for it, or raise the price if it already has one.
Think of the carpool lanes in California. Where they were once limited to cars with two or more people, some highways now have fast lanes that those who have the money to pay can whiz down to avoid traffic jams while driving alone in their SUVs .
Harvard political philosophy professor Michael Sandel pointed out a decade ago in his book What Money Can’t Buy that many things that never existed in the past are now for sale. An example was a jail cell upgrade for less than $100. The right to immigrate to the United States for a few hundred thousand dollars was another.
Some things, he said, just don’t belong on the market.
And it raises questions of fairness, especially when the fees are set by the government, which is supposed to work for all of us. Imagine if the Department of Motor Vehicles started letting people who paid a $150 fee roll to the front of the line while the rest of us had to stand and wait. Would that be fair? Would we put up with that?
At least theoretically, there are alternatives to the market. Scarce goods can also be allocated according to the “first come, first served” principle. Or by lottery. Or due to a notification of need. Or as a reward for good behavior.
In Manhattan’s business district, one could theoretically allow low-emission vehicles and exclude heavy polluters. Or ban vehicles altogether in favor of buses, bicycles and pedestrians. Or set limits for taxis, Ubers and Lyfts. Or require drivers to show a to need to get downtown for important business.
But this is all just a thought experiment. New York goes the pay-your-way route when it comes forward. As London has already done.
With that in mind, let’s remember one of the biggest benefits of congestion charging: it generates revenue. New York City says it would raise $1 billion a year.
So of course this money should be used – and is being used – to right the injustices.
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, has written that it is possible to put a price on motoring while maintaining a commitment to economic fairness.
“The fact that the pricing could Creating justice problems doesn’t mean it has to be. Nor does it mean that all roads should be clear for the sake of justice,” he wrote in Transfers magazine. “After all, few justice agendas in other areas of social policy call for all goods to be free. For example, almost no one suggests that all food is free because some people are poor. Society instead identifies poor people and helps them buy groceries.”
To New York’s credit, it intends to use most of the money raised to improve bus and subway service and transit infrastructure, which are disproportionately used by low-income people.
There are carve-outs from the charges for vehicles carrying disabled people. There’s the tax credit for drivers from families earning under $60,000 (although those earning more will certainly feel the pinch).
There are also fringe benefits for lower-income New Yorkers. Public buses are expected to move more freely through now less crowded Midtown and Downtown areas. Air pollution, which disproportionately affects poorer people, will be reduced.
Most traffic experts I spoke to believe that Americans will only be persuaded to drive less if the price goes up and alternatives become more attractive. If true, congestion charges can be key to reducing emissions.
So maybe it’s the right solution – or maybe the only viable solution. But I still think we need to think beyond market solutions, at least sometimes, lest we solve political problems by burdening the poor and letting the rich continue their bad behavior.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-09-08/new-york-congestion-pricing-market-solutions Nicholas Goldberg: If it costs $23 to enter Manhattan by car, is that fair to lower-income drivers?