In the world of urban planning, there are few things hairier than transportation hypotheticals. When NYC pedestrianized Broadway in Times Square and Herald Square in May, the transportation commissioner said that traffic speeds would go up — but now it seems that we won’t know until December at the earliest whether that’s actually true.
At the same time, however, a smart model of what exactly would happen if you changed this or charged for that is a prerequisite for making any kind of informed improvements to a snarled-up central business district. And so, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Charles Komanoff‘s absolutely astonishing Balanced Tranportation Analyzer — a 3.5 MB Excel spreadsheet which is the product of many years of research and analysis into the question of New York City traffic.
This thing is so big and so complicated that even with all of the detailed explanations in it, it’s hard to understand — you really need Komanoff himself to walk you through it. But he recently did just that for me, and so I can point you to the “Delays” sheet, for instance, where Komanoff attempts to quantify the externalities imposed by any given car in NYC traffic.
Being a cyclist, I’m acutely aware of the issue of externalities — it generally costs you nothing to blindly step off the sidewalk and into the bike lane, or to open your taxi door without looking behind you, but it can affect me greatly. Komanoff’s a cyclist too, but he’s concentrating in this spreadsheet mainly on vehicular traffic. After crunching the numbers, he calculates that on a weekday, the average car driven into Manhattan south of 60th Street causes a total of 3.26 hours of delays to everybody else. (At weekends, the equivalent number is just over 2 hours.) No one car is likely to suffer excess delays of more than a few seconds, of course, but if you add up all those seconds for the thousands of affected cars and trucks, it comes to a significant amount of time.
Many of those hours are very valuable things, especially when you consider big trucks, staffed with two or three professionals, just idling in traffic. Komanoff calculates (check out the “Value of Time” tab) that the average vehicle has 1.97 people in it, and that the average value of an hour of saved vehicle time south of 60th Street in Manhattan on a weekday is $48.89. Which means, basically, that driving a car into Manhattan on a weekday causes about $160 of negative externalities to everybody else.
Of course there are lots of variables here; for one thing, the externalities associated with driving your car into Manhattan go up with the total amount of traffic in the CBD. If you think there’s 5% less traffic in New York now than there was a year or two ago, for instance, the cost imposed goes down by 14%, from 3.26 hours to 2.79 hours. Or, to put it another way, if you could somehow implement a policy which resulted in 10% fewer vehicles driving into Manhattan, any given vehicle would impose “only” 2.38 hours of externalities — an improvement of about $43 over the base case.
Komanoff, of course, isn’t just analyzing the present, he also has a plan for the future. First of which, necessarily, involves congestion pricing. To drive into Manhattan south of 60th Street, you pay a toll: on weekdays, the toll is $3 at night, then rises to $6 for most of the day, and for peak periods (6am to 10am, and 2pm to 8pm) goes up to $9. At weekends, there’s a similar but smaller toll, at $1/$3/$5 prices.
Then there’s the subway fare: that too changes according to the time of day. At night subways are free; sometimes they’re 50 cents, and most of the time they’re $1. At ultra-peak hours (between 8am and 9am, and between 5pm and 6pm) a subway fare rises to $2, dropping to $1.50 the following hour.
One of the most interesting parts of Komanoff’s plan is the bus fare: always $0, all the time. That speeds up buses considerably, since it basically eliminates long lines at the fare box as people hunt for their MetroCard. In turn that makes buses more attractive, and a lot of people, attracted by the free fare and faster speeds, will start taking the bus rather than driving or taking a taxi or a subway. In-city commuter rail, on Metro-North and the LIRR, also goes free.
Medallion taxis do not pay the congestion charge, but there is a 33% taxi-fare surcharge. One tenth of that (around 3%) goes to the taxi drivers and owners; the rest (30%) goes to the MTA; the taxi surcharge alone raises enough money to make in-city commuter rail free.
Add it all up, and it’s pretty much revenue-neutral, says Komanoff: the biggest line items are that you lose $1.46 billion in transit fares, while gaining $1.31 billion in congestion charges. But total time savings are the biggie: implement this plan and New Yorkers get over $2.5 billion of time back which would otherwise be spent wasted in traffic. Vehicle speeds in general rise about 20%, and as much as 25% between 9am and 10am.
All in all (see the “Cost-Benefit” tab), Komanoff sees $5.3 billion in gains and just $2 billion in losses. Sounds good to me. What’s more, it’s politically more acceptable than the last attempt to introduce congestion pricing into NYC, where the brunt was disproportionately borne by Brooklyn. This plan puts much more of the cost of the plan onto Manhattanites, largely thanks to that taxi surcharge. Here are Komanoff’s charts (from the “Incidence” tab):
Komanoff’s still working on this spreadsheet, but the main message is pretty clear — that smart congestion charging would be great news for New York, and probably for most other dense cities as well. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can even try playing around with the numbers yourself. Enjoy!