Felix Salmon

Congestion charging and biketopia

By Felix Salmon
May 26, 2010

Matthew DeBord thinks that my Wired article about Charles Komanoff is really all about turning Manhattan into “biketopia”. He couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, Komanoff himself is a big advocate of biking. And yes, at the margin, having less traffic in midtown would help in terms of being able to create more bike lanes. But biking is not a big part of Komanoff’s spreadsheet at all: instead, it’s all about public transit. Buses become free, subways become cheaper, and the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers — the people who get into Manhattan by some means other than private car — become better off.

DeBord thinks that New York is already “transitopia” — but the fact is that its transit system can be improved greatly through the implementation of a congestion charge, which would unsnarl traffic for buses and would provide new money for buses, subways, and local trains.

Debord says that New Yorkers don’t want to get rid of gridlock: “many people have decided that they’d rather live with it than have, for example, Michael Bloomberg tell them when they can and can’t affordably drive into Midtown”, he writes. But check that link: the “many people” in question are, essentially, Shelly Silver and his small band of dysfunctional Albany politicians. It’s worth remembering that it’s already pretty much impossible to affordably drive into Midtown: here, for instance, are the rates posted at my favorite parking garage, across the street from Reuters. All of them are higher than Bloomberg’s proposed congestion charge.


What’s more, there were two big problems with the congestion charge as proposed by Bloomberg. The first was that Manhattanites benefited unduly: since they have many fewer cars, they got all the benefits of faster traffic while bearing only a small proportion of the total fees. Under Komanoff’s plan, Manhattanites — who take the overwhelming majority of yellow-cab journeys — would pay a taxi surcharge, making things more equitable.

The second problem with Bloomberg’s congestion charge is that it didn’t directly benefit most New Yorkers. If they ever drove into Manhattan, they would pay more, but they would never save anything, since the plan didn’t reduce transit fares. Komanoff’s plan of course is very different, and especially benefits residents of Queens and the Bronx who take a lot of buses, which would always be free. (The huge advantage of making buses free is that it eliminates long lines and waits at the farebox.)

DeBord accuses Komanoff, me, and “the other sons of Jane Jacobs” of wanting a “place where we just won’t be able to do the car thing anymore”. That simply isn’t true: Komanoff likes to say that he doesn’t want a car-free New York, he wants a car-fee New York. Yes, we would like to see fewer cars making through-trips through Manhattan without even stopping, and many fewer trucks doing that. Right now, such through trips account for 40% of all car trips in the central business district, which is crazy.

But Komanoff’s plan is most emphatically not about pedestrianizing New York or turning it into some kind of Dutch-style biketopia where cars are all but absent from the city center. It’s just about making life better for all New Yorkers — even the drivers, who no longer need to suffer the frustrations of gridlock, and who can get to their destination in a much more predictable amount of time. There’s a lot of people who would pay good money for that.

4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

If the problem is too much through traffic, why not build a new by-pass expressway around the burg, designed for the benefit of truckers? It’s make work project and will help traffic no?

Posted by CDNrebel | Report as abusive

It is prohibitively expensive to build new expressways through cities. Boston tried that one to the tune of $15B.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Does that 40% statistic include everyone who drives between the Bronx and New Jersey on the GW Bridge? It might be a bit misleading; what’s the statistic for “Manhattan south of 150th” (or any other cutoff between Central Park and I-95)?

As a class, the biggest beneficiaries of the congestion charge are the people who pay it.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

Oh, you did write “central business district”, not Manhattan. So presumably this is people driving from Brooklyn or Queens to the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, respectively, which is more what the statistic sounds like to people.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

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