New York City

Congestion relief: Pricing plan could be the remedy for gridlock

Congestion in Manhattan has been a problem since at least the mid-19th century. In 1865, The New York Times lamented, “It is perfectly certain that there is not room on the surface of the city to accommodate the traffic which its business requires.” This sparked the development of grade-separated rail transit systems as early as 1868 with Charles T. Harvey’s “el,” which ran on Greenwich Street from the Battery to Cortlandt Street, and Alfred Ely Beach’s short-lived subway, which opened in 1870 opposite City Hall. So if traffic congestion on the island has proliferated for at least 150 years, why be concerned now? Let me give you my history from the past half-century.

I began my professional transportation career in the late 1960s as a New York City cab driver. After getting my graduate degree in transportation engineering, I joined the city Traffic Department in 1971. The heyday of road building was winding down, Robert Moses had been out of office for two-plus years, and the city had just finished making nearly every avenue on Manhattan a one-way street to accommodate the steady influx of cars.

By the time I joined the Traffic Department, our young Mayor John Lindsay had already taken a policy stand that the city would become more transit-, bike- and pedestrian-friendly, based on a commitment to improve the environment. (I still remember his quip: “I don’t trust air I can’t see.”) We closed Central and Prospect parks to cars on weekends and weekdays in the summer. We reserved a lane of traffic on the Long Island Expressway for an exclusive bus lane and even tried an exclusive bus lane on Queens Boulevard that lasted less than an hour, as yellow taxis “captured” buses to protest their exclusion from the bus lanes.

Lindsay also proposed Broadway Plaza after his Madison Avenue mall was shut down. To fight traffic congestion we planned a “red zone” in Midtown banning cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. When that failed politically we worked on tolling the East and Harlem River bridges and got it passed by the city, state and federal governments. Only an act of Congress could stop it – and that’s just what happened when two of our most progressive elected officials, then-Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and Sen. Daniel Moynihan, effectively blocked the plan.

I was a peon in the Lindsay administration but when Ed Koch took over at City Hall, I was elevated to Traffic Commissioner. I hosted Midtown Circulation meetings, which were open to the public and attracted a Columbia University professor named William Vickrey, who introduced me (and the world) to congestion pricing and in 1996 would receive the Nobel Prize in economics.

In 1980 there was an 11-day transit strike and I was the chief architect of the city’s highly touted transportation plan. Koch and I thought this gave us wide latitude to change traffic dramatically, which we did by installing dual bus lanes on Madison Avenue, physically separating bike lanes on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues, as well as Broadway, and keeping driver-only cars off the free bridges from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. (They would have to pay a toll at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority crossings.) The bike lanes were ripped out after less than two months and our congestion pricing plan died after we were sued by the AAA and Garage Board of Trade and a court ruled that only the state, not the city, had the authority to keep driver-only cars off the East River bridges.

My long history with congestion pricing is why I developed the Move NY Fair Tolling plan. The plan is more important now than ever, with traffic speeds dropping precipitously due to the most dramatic changes we’ve seen in transportation since the advent of the subway more than 100 years ago. Transportation network companies (Uber, Lyft and many more in other cities that are heading our way) are adding vehicle miles traveled to city streets at an alarming rate and, worse, many stay in motion or park in the most congested parts of Manhattan. Move NY is a way to keep us mobile even with the added traffic.

Here’s why it’s fairer: There are 19 subway lines going from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan’s central business district, and 29 “free” car lanes. There are no subways and no free traffic lanes between the Bronx and Queens. So where drivers have good transit options we let them cross bridges for free; where drivers have no good transit options we charge each and every one of them. This is not only unfair, it’s bad policy – we subsidize drivers in the very-congested central business district, but charge an arm and a leg, as a Brooklynite might say, to cross the far less congested areas.

This cockamamie policy also incentivizes drivers to “bridge-shop” in search of a crossing with no tolls, intensifying congestion and all its associated ills (i.e., more pollution and collisions) in places leading up to these crossings, like Downtown Brooklyn, East Midtown and Long Island City.

In contrast, Move NY proposes to set tolls based on a logical formula: higher tolls where transit options are most available and lower tolls where transit is not easily accessible. This “rationalization” of tolls results in pricing all vehicle trips into or out of the Manhattan central business district, but lowers the price of all MTA bridge-linked trips with non-business district origins or destinations. So every MTA-controlled bridge (including the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, Throgs Neck Bridge and Bronx-Whitestone Bridge) would have tolls lowered by up to $5 round-trip, while the tolls at the two MTA tunnels (Hugh L. Carey Tunnel and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel) would remain unchanged. The new tolls would be charged electronically “at speed” via E-ZPass or optical license-plate readers.

It’s critical that the new tolling scheme not penalize commercial drivers, so tolls for registered commercial vehicles would be capped at one round-trip toll per day.

The bottom line: About $1.3 billion could be raised annually, and if bonded, plug the entire MTA funding gap; it would create more than 30,000 new recurring local jobs that cannot be outsourced anywhere, thus keeping income and spending here in New York. Move NY would also play a significant role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero goals: By reducing congestion, especially on Manhattan, the Move NY would result in approximately 6,800 fewer reported vehicle crashes annually, including 1,250 fewer crashes involving injuries.

There is no plan in which everyone perceives themselves as winners, but with Move NY, well over 90 percent of New Yorkers would see benefits, while even the less than 10 percent who might pay new tolls would have a less burdensome commute. About 50 legislators have now signed on to the plan, and we are getting ready for the big stage.


Sam Schwartz is a former New York City traffic commissioner and architect of the Move NY congestion pricing plan. His latest book, “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and The Fall of Cars”comes out Sept. 8.