Fewer Cars More Mass Transit

Well it looks like NYC is finally going to get congestion pricing, a technique used successfully in a number of cities around the world to reduce the number of cars on the road and increase the investment in mass transit.

The concept is simple. Tax cars coming into the center of a city and use those tax revenues to invest in other ways of moving people in and out of the city.

I have been a supporter of this idea going back to the Bloomberg era in NYC when it looked like we were going to get congestion pricing and then it fell apart due to political opposition.

I wrote about congestion pricing late last year when a report came out from the Governor’s committee on metro area transportation which recommended congestion pricing and increased investment in the MTA.

I think this is the right policy. We need to create financial disincentives to drive in NYC (with the proper exemptions like people with disabilities) and we need to invest more in mass transit.

This will be good for the tech sector in NYC, where employees largely use mass transit to get around. Julie Samuels, Exec Director of Tech:NYC, explains why in more detail in this op-ed.

I do have concerns about giving billions of new tax revenues to the MTA which has not been great at using the billions we have already given them to deliver better mass transit. I mention those concerns in my post late last year.

But we should not let perfect be the enemy of the good. NYC needs congestion pricing and we need it now. It will reduce traffic in lower and midtown manhattan and it will provide the resources we need to modernize and improve our mass transit options.

If we could couple congestion pricing with structural reforms of the MTA, then we would be really cooking with gas.


Comments (Archived):

  1. David C. Baker

    Does this fuel greater inequality, where the cost of driving a car in a city like NYC isn’t even a rounding error to a moneyed individual, but more prohibitive to a lower middle class driver who needs the ability to have a car for, say, tools used by a craftsman? Not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know.

    1. fredwilson

      yes. there will likely be exemptions or subsidies for the poor and lower income to make this politically viable. but yes.

      1. Guy Lepage

        Do you feel that poorer and lower income individuals drive more or take mass transit more than other income levels. I feel as though poorer and lower income individuals drive less. But I could be wrong.

        1. Collin

          The poor definitely use mass transit more. The simple fact is that if you’re poor, you can’t afford to drive into the middle of Manhattan. It’s a ton of money to park.While many low income people do live in public transit deserts, that doesn’t mean they drive into the city as an alternative. Most likely, they take multiple forms of public transit and walk.

        2. curtissumpter

          I don’t know if any of you are right. Is there any data supporting that only the upper middle class and such drive? I’m not sure this is true at all. I listen to WNYC all day at work and I haven’t heard this at all. Is there any data?

        3. ShanaC

          Factually, they take more Mass Transit. You’re more likely to own a car if you own a house (or a coop) . However, more poor people are driving due to the suburbanization of povertyhttps://www.governing.com/t…

      2. F G

        The system doesn’t work and doesn’t generate enough income if you allow more than minimal exemptions. Manhattan will even more rapidly become affordable only to the uber-wealthy.The city has encouraged this traffic disaster by allowing ever-increasing construction density in the core rather than distributing it outward. Its knowing under-investment in mass transit through the years sealed the deal.

  2. JamesHRH

    It is a completely elitist idea, unless the last sentence happens.And, government run transit has to be the most irredeemable, weakest performing industry sector on the planet.So, it is a totally elitist thing to do.

    1. fredwilson

      not sure i agree, but regardless it is the right thing to do

      1. JamesHRH

        You have credibility points here as you are a fairly notoriously non-driver.I think it is the right thing to do (but I would also privatize the MTA to make it fair), but it should be metered. You should be able to come to Manhattan once just to see it. You should be able to come to Manhattan once a month without paying. You want to come 5 days a week from Newark, then fees make sense.

        1. scottythebody

          how does privatising MTA make it fair? Fair to whom?

          1. JamesHRH

            I am a fan of P3s.The key is incenting for service levels / economic performance levels.A privatized MTA would have a profit motive and an increase service level motive.The current MTA has no motive.

    2. Susan Rubinsky

      This is actually incorrect. Some mass transit is highly productive. For example, here in Bridgeport, CT, we move 30 people per hour per bus on fixed route service. This is in Fairfield County, CT, which ranks in the top 10 most congested corridors in the United States. Imagine if only a small number of those people got in cars on I-95 where it takes people two hours to go 20 miles during rush hour. More mass transit does reduce congestion. I don’t know the NYC numbers so am only quoting the numbers I do know.

      1. JamesHRH

        I referenced the sector.In any horribly inefficient sector, there are still high performers.Bus service, streetcars in places like Toronto ( pop TTC into the ole Googlinator and watch what you get back!), the MTA…. the sector norm is widely unionized, ‘zero care about the customer’ staffing led by self serving, disinterested, hard to remove, ‘politicians change but city managers don’t’ leadership.Exceptions prove the norm.

  3. kidmercury

    is traffic congestion resulting from in-city residents, or is it primarily a function of long distance commuters (who cannot afford nyc but have to work there). if it it something akin to the latter, than the MTA may not be a viable alternative, unless it expands its routes substantially, which obviously introduces many other challenges.

    1. kidmercury

      a potential proxy quickly assessing causality of congestion may be to observe congestion distribution over time, i.e. is congestion uniformly a problem (all times of day) or is it just a problem at rush hour. the latter would suggest commuters are the culprit.if commuters are the culprit, especially distance commuters, than congestion may be symptomatic of income inequality/housing affordability. diagnosing the symptom without addressing the cause may yield an outcome far from optimal.

  4. Jordi Carulla

    Fred, are you a frequent user of MT? Are you willing to become one?

    1. Pointsandfigures

      He has Nikes and a bike

  5. Gary Culliss

    Shouldn’t the city start with getting parked cars off the streets? That would increase traffic capacity significantly. They could also work on preventing the double parking that delivery trucks do temporarily.If the city is unwilling to address the parking and double parking issues first, then it seems that they are favoring voters who have parked cars over non-voters that drive into the city, all while dramatically decreasing the efficiency of the traffic grid for those voters that want to park a car for free. Seems like the wrong big-picture policy.

    1. bogorad

      There’s virtually no curbside parking in Barcelona. The downside? No true car-sharing is possible, since you can’t leave your car anywhere but at dedicated underground parking spots. There isn’t a big enough operator (SABA is biggest but not dominant), most of them are small/independent.Take Zipcar (which was called Avancar here) for example. Instead of ‘proper’ car-sharing, they did kinda-speedy rent: you had to book your card in advance, for a specified period of hours/days, and return to the same location. And anyway it didn’t last, Avancar left the market this past February.

    2. ShanaC

      The downtown core is at effectively greater than 100% parking capacity, and that wouldn’t change if they took out or put in more parking. They’ve also been slowly decreasing parking capacity YOY for bike lanesWhat actually might be an interesting experiment – take 2 similar 5 block areas, and give one discrete LA style loading zones every cross street block, and leave the other as control. Check capacity and rate of turnover, and see what happens.

  6. LIAD

    We’ve had this in central London since 2003.Daily charge is £12.50 (~$17). People who live within the charging zone get a 90% discount.We’ve had all the ‘regressive tax’ discourse etc.Congestion has definitely been reduced as you’d expect.Next month the ULEZ (ultra low emission zone) goes live too. Thats another £12.50 per day charge to enter central London (and expanding to greater London shortly) for all cars which don’t meet minimum emission standards – essentially a tax on old cars – aka another regressive tax. It’s just the way it is.All told, can now cost £25 ($33) per day to enter central London – which seems ridiculous – until you remember that a single hour parking in London can cost over £8 ($10).The new ‘dockless’ pay by minute car sharing schemes – currently don’t pay congestion nor parking fees (subject to certain restrictions) – making them very appealing if you need to drive in the city. For everything else, public transport is good and safe. Cycle apps aplenty – scooter ones en route.

    1. curtissumpter

      What’s been the affect on real estate prices in this area? Has the rate of increase risen faster since congestion pricing? Have taxes increased as well?

    2. bogorad

      I remember hearing horror stories when this was just introduced. The smallest tweak of the boundaries caused an uproar and mass bankruptcies of local businesses since people avoided the paid zone like the plague. Mortals must have got used to it over the years.

    3. ShanaC

      Do you have data from London if post-congestion pricing bike ridership went up?

  7. Guy Lepage

    I am surprised that Manhattan had not implemented something like this sooner.A great idea for sure. Less cars in congested areas usually results in greener transit as well. ie. bikes, scooters, etc. This will effect the wealthy more than the poor. It’s not like a lot of poor people a) can afford vehicles vs mass transit b) can afford parking in a place like Manhattan.

    1. Salt Shaker

      To fund the MTA initiative, there’s also pending legislation for a $2.50 surcharge added to taxi fares and $2.75 for Uber, Lyft and other for-hire rides below 96th Street. This obv pushes folks to take more mass transit, but it clearly isn’t a plan affecting just the wealthy.

      1. curtissumpter

        The surcharge is all ready implemented. Trust me. My wallet knows.

    2. ShanaC

      Due to the way the NYC charter is written, instituting congestion pricing needed permission from Albany. Which thanks to the previous non-democrat democrats, always failed. Almost all of the non-democrat democrats got voted out (over a totally different set of issues), and it paved the way for Albany to allow the congestion pricing tax

  8. Salt Shaker

    Another tax burden to contribute to nyc’s unaffordability. I’ve read congestion pricing significantly reduced traffic in London, Stockholm and other cities, which is good, but what impact has it had on commerce (and sales tax revenue)? I would have voted for legalizing marijuana and sports betting before further burdening the masses. The MTA needs a re-org and the ying-yang pull between state and local legislators is a big part of the problem.

    1. Collin

      I don’t think this really burdens “the masses.” We unwashed take the subway, which is the real burden because it doesn’t work like it used to. Driving into the city from one of the outer boroughs is going to be slower an infinitely more costly than taking public transit in the vast majority of scenarios.

      1. Salt Shaker

        There’s also a surtax on taxis ($2.50) and ride shares ($2.75) below 96th street. I know a few unwashed friends and family who are frequent users.

    2. awaldstein

      In essence i usually agree with you.I don’t see how making commute by car more expensive as doing that though.Anything that drives down car usage is a step in the right direction.All the shit of the city and state screwing this up aside, this approach feels right to me.

  9. Mac

    Beware Uber, Lyft and all wannabe Ride-Hail companies. This might not be an ‘autonomous’ tax.

  10. William Mougayar

    Interesting, I’m in a NYC cab just now and the main news story on the on-board tv is the voting on congestion pricing.https://uploads.disquscdn.c

    1. jason wright

      Is there no escape?

  11. karan

    Implementation is often more important than concept in policy. And the implementation of congestion pricing is awful in NYC.On top of the problems you mention, the tax affects only for-hire vehicles, which means they subsidize private cars at the moment. In other words, a more public mode of transportation subsidized a more private mode. It’s charged as a flat fee per-ride basis, which means that short rides, where the MTA can’t provide effective service, are paying far higher tax rates than long rides.I recently broke my foot and need these shorter rides. How should I obtain an exemption? Should I show a medical note to my taxi driver, who will then exempt me? Should I keep all my receipts from uber and taxis and, god forbid, submit them to the city government?Parking and double-parking, I suspect, contribute far more to congestion than people realize.Some changes need to be well-implemented and whole rather than piecemeal. Otherwise, the incentives can run in the wrong direction.

  12. Richard

    The city should make an exemption for hospital / medical use and provide one or two use credits for Staten Islanders to make up for the pathetic job it did with what could have been a majestic island

  13. Tom Limongello

    I wonder how on-board Brooklyn is with the whole idea of not catering all the transportation decisions toward getting the most cars from A to B. The current struggle in Brooklyn Heights related to the promenade https://ny.curbed.com/2019/… is a sort of false choice – do we upgrade the BQE to the detriment of the community (promenade closure) or the detriment of the most recent condo development? These choices assume we want to continue Robert Moses’ dream of having BQE access at the waterfront, but what if we just reclaimed some of the best real estate in the best parts of BK and spent $$ instead in favor of transit?There’s a great write up of how a similar decision went down in Oklahoma City in Boom Town https://www.amazon.com/dp/B… where the Stanley Draper highway that connected downtown to I-40 was falling apart and rather than just remove it as those who wanted a revitalized downtown wanted, the highway bridge was just rebuilt because that was seen as the best way to help ease traffic congestion after OKC Thunder games.

    1. ShanaC

      I don’t understand why this is a question. More recent escapades in getting rid of urban highways created better traffic flow because highways create induced demand.https://gizmodo.com/6-freew

      1. Tom Limongello

        Thanks for the link ! I thought I was onto something but I’m obviously just late to the party. Question remains how BK city managers feel about all of this evidence that getting rid of highways near waterfronts has value and seemingly little downside to traffic.

  14. curtissumpter

    “This will be good for the tech sector in NYC, where employees largely use mass transit to get around.”Where do you get this? I’m a developer and I never use the train or the bus. Rarely if ever.And will there be an additional tax on the real estate in the business district that benefits from the less congested streets? They’re going to get quieter safer streets that the citizens of New York have all ready paid for once.The real estate prices will certainly appreciate in this area? Will it be accompanied by increased public benefit?

  15. Kirsten Lambertsen

    That’s the stick. Are there any carrots (aside from a less congested city, heh)? Like, do people get to write off a certain amount of mass transit expenses on their state taxes? Can they write off a % of their Citibike expenses?

    1. ShanaC

      You might be able to already. this is an accountant question

      1. Kirsten Lambertsen

        Ah yes, but how many people have accountants? If this is something that can be done by anyone (not just self-employed or business owners, say), it’d be key to communicate that widely to get it into the cultural conversation.

  16. Scott Reyes

    I always use public transportation when I visit NYC. I couldn’t imaging driving there.

  17. ShanaC

    To me, the big question is how will congestion pricing be passed on in Uber and Lyft, and if we’re seeing a reaction to promising data that both companies increase Vehicular Miles Traveled.If you are not subsidizing LOS for cars, do the group that take Uber and Lyft over mass transit shift back?

  18. awaldstein

    ‘we should not let perfect be the enemy of the good’with good intent, we get there.doing nothing is the enemy as is equally doing the ethically bereft for the concept of good that serves the few.

    1. Pointsandfigures

      Public policy is notoriously hard to change though so treading carefully is the right course. Farm subsidies or defined benefit public pensions are good examples of poorly designed public policy that cannot be changed

  19. jason wright

    Socialism. Bernie for POTUS.

  20. Salt Shaker

    The minute this law is implemented you’ll see a large shift in mass transit ridership. That’s the good news; more subway riders, means more revenue. The bad news is the subway system’s current state of disrepair can’t even handle the current load. Trains are already overcrowded, on time performance is poor, cars are continually out of service and the biggest problem is the antiquated switch technology that is practically turn of the century. Congestion pricing will immediately turn underground travel into an even bigger nightmare cause the current infrastructure is ill equipped to handle the increased load.The City should have initially raised money via Munis to at least fund and install modern-day switch technology, which would vastly improve efficiencies to help absorb a mass increase in ridership. Congestion pricing could then be implemented subsequently and sequentially. The current plan and immediate increase in readership will lead to greater underground havoc, in addition to adding to platform safety concerns.I think this should have been a multi-step process.

    1. sigmaalgebra

      > the biggest problem is the antiquated switch technology that is practically turn of the century.Which century?

  21. Pointsandfigures

    You will get peace in the Middle East before you get a bunch of reform at the MTA! But the congestion tax is a good idea for cities like NYC

  22. sigmaalgebra

    I remember way back there when I was in Indiana, some people from NYC were talking about cars: They hated cars. Since then it’s seemed clear enough: In NYC, there is a group of people and a political and social norm to hate cars, bad mouth cars, try to restrict cars, make big noises against cars, etc. That was decades ago. NYC still makes crucial use of cars, has done little to stop the use of cars, and is still bad mouthing cars.I live 70 miles north of Wall Street. The last time I registered my car I had to pay a surtax to the commuter trains I’ve nearly never used. Near 2000. for a while I worked in applied math in southern Manhattan, essentially on Wall Street itself. I found that I could commute faster via my car than via the commuter trains so did. So, then car congestion wasn’t so bad because the cars were faster than the trains. With parking, etc., I suspect that my use of my car was more expensive than use of a train, but I’d still need a car at least at my end of the trip and maybe also at the other end.The politicians don’t really have to do anything: If the traffic really is awful, e.g., and the parking costs too high, then people will avoid using cars.But now I see a pattern, apparently clearly a NYC pattern: Broadly the pattern is that from some norms and politics, much of, strongly, NYC covets, lusts for, dreams of, promotes, praises big government, more taxes and fees, claims of quasi-religious sin of private anything, public, socialistic politics and solutions. The bigger and more socialistic, the better. NYC rarely walks the talk, but it does a LOT of talking.So, we have to throttle evil air conditioning (AC) because of, …, of …, let me think, because of …., okay, AC uses electric power and we know that that is sinful, right? Okay, AC uses working fluids, e.g., Freon and that is a chemical, and we know that chemicals are sinful, right? And, OH YES, the ozone, not the bad ozone from evil cars but the GOOD ozone up above Antarctica!!! And of course the Freon destroys the GOOD ozone and will cause massive skin cancer (to the penguins?), open the disaster of the “ozone hole” (for six months a year, when there is no sunlight, over Antarctica), and again destroy the planet! So, with modern technology just to make sinful people more comfortable we are destroying the planet and need to ban Freon!!!! Presto, bingo, the air conditioning I paid for in two cars was rendered dead. Ah, NYC and quasi religious human sin.Okay, the sin is private cars, private property, low taxes, the bad ozone, air conditioning, and destruction of the good ozone and the planet.But, then the NYC norms and politics got an irresistible chunk of raw bait, like an NYC rat to fresh pizza, the horrible human sin of “GLOBAL WARMING” and, when that didn’t happen, the memo, change that to the horrible sin of “CLIMATE CHANGE” although the climate is always changing and NYC never made at all clear just what climate changes would be counted, how, or why, and from what causes except for HUMAN SIN. And to stop the horrible retribution of the destruction of the planet via climate change from the transgression of sinful humans, we need the redemption (classic trilogy here) of sacrifice, e.g., no more use of evil, polluting, filthy, black, dirty, smoky, toxic, evil, sinful, wasteful, did I mention sinful, evil, finite (what isn’t finite?), fossil fuels and in particular evil, heat trapping CO2 from the evil humans. And the NYC Democrats believe that they are secular???? Psychosis.And the main cheerleader for NYC tribal norms and politics, the formerly revered and highly self-esteemed NYT, created a many years long propaganda narrative against the disaster to the planet of global warming and the sin of humans and CO2. The NYT arguments never made any sense, but the NYT continued with just brilliantly constructed total nonsense propaganda for decades. NYC got daily quasi religious fixes of tribal identity. Gee, we could power NYC by getting rid of salt in restaurant food, 32 ounce soft drinks, uses of fossil fuels, and with wind turbines and solar panels on the tops of Gotham. Mass psychosis.The rational truth about the global warming and CO2 nonsense was beautifully debunked just by one video clip”The Great Global Warming Swindle”https://www.youtube.com/wat…but the NYT and its faithful followers long found that easy to ignore.The NYT was joined in the continuing narrative by the other NYT media sources — ABC, CBS, CNN (NYC branch), MSNBC, and NBC with help from the outside from WaPo, Boston Globe, LAT, etc. All gang up, pile on, join the mob of the tribe, fit in, get stories easy to write with automatic consensus, etc. Otherwise total BS. PBS and Nova were right along with the gang. In places, there were big bucks to be had, e.g., from government subsidies, regulations to throttle competitors, research grants, etc.But with the ground thoroughly plowed and mass psychosis established by the NYT, we got AOC and essentially all the Democrat POTUS candidates behind “The Green New Deal”.Finally the psychosis lake got too big and the dam broke: The US Senate just voted lots to zilch that “The Green New Deal” might have been fun for a while but now is DEAD. Maybe now AOC can calm down, wash the old motor oil out of her hair, get her teeth fixed, and get on some anti-psychotic pills.So, NYC will be off to another one. But, wait, stop, there has been one, another one, going on since early 2016. Remember that one? The NYT and the NYC media REALLY loved that one! Remember, it was RUSSIA, the RUSSIANS did it, the RUSSIANS elected Trump instead of the dream choice of NYT/NYC, a third term for the NYT dream Obama, NY’s own gender dream Hildebeest!!! Except for the RUSSIANS, SHE would have won just as all NYC/NYT tribal norms, beliefs, quasi religious stuff, etc. demanded was 100% right and proper, that is, if she could stay out of jail like the Obama DOJ/FBI tried so hard to arrange.But, then, somehow Mueller chickened out, gave up, and could find nothing, not even zip, zilch, zero about RUSSIA, wrote a report, folded up shop, lost his job, and left town riding west into the sunset.So, NYC needs another socialism, NYC norm, socialism politics fix. So, it’s full circle, back several decades to cars, evil cars, and public instead of private, transportation!!!!!It’s not about cars. It’s just about the pattern that the NYT and NYC need tribal norms. The more psychotic the norms, the more virtuous and dedicated look the more devoted tribal members. That the norms are rational psychosis doesn’t matter.Sorry, I have no taste for psychotic, near suicidal Kool-Aid.So, for NY, NYT, NYC we have some data points: (1) The AOC stuff that got nearly all the Democrat POTUS candidates on board to stop the US wheels from turning, take the US economy back to the 19th century, turn the US into a third world country, kill some tens of millions of US citizens, do more damage to the US than dreamed of by Hitler, Stalin, Tojo, Mao, Saddam, and Kockamamie is okay for a year or so but finally a wack-o too far. (2) An effort at a dirty NSA, CIA, DOJ, FBI, and likely White House paper coup to reverse a fully legal and proper US POTUS election is okay for about three years and then is too far. (3) Screaming nonsense about CO2 and cars can go on for decades. So, psychosis is permitted and encouraged but there are some limits, eventually.

  23. John Frankel

    It is highly regressive, and clears the roads for those that can afford to pay the tax that is immaterial to them. That being said it is the future of cities: divided between the haves and the have nots.

  24. jason wright

    https://www.youtube.com/wat…The tragedy of the commons. The ideology of the ‘free market’, that overwhelms the public (road) space, leading to chaos. We do it to ourselves.I don’t agree that rules should be baked in that ‘subsidise’ the wealthy over the masses. Allocation by lottery would be a fairer approach.

  25. Tom Labus

    We were in Florence. There were no cars in the city center. They seemed to be doing fine without them too.

  26. Guy Lepage

    I get that but.. In my eyes, this doesn’t seem elitist at all as they are already priced out. This option provides added tax revenue to, hopefully, subsidize those riding public transit making it a good thing for the poor. Maybe I’m not seeing it.

  27. curtissumpter

    This seems like it will be almost prophetic. I don’t see the MTA actually changing their spending habits and I don’t see people actually leaving their cars. I do see real estate prices increasing. And the city/state using the money as fast as they can spend it. This seems just about right.

  28. ShanaC

    I don’t know why we don’t invest in making buses awesome. It’s a real US oddity

  29. sigmaalgebra

    Not an “oddity” at all: Buses use Diesel engines and those are sinful, evil. All buses remain sinful and evil, even the electric ones, because so many buses used Diesel that all buses are sinful and evil. That’s just NYC tribal norm behavior.

  30. ShanaC

    it isn’t a nyc specific thing. it is an everywhere thing. We associate buses with the poor (as opposed to efficient and modular way to get people around an urban and some suburban environments), which makes them politically meh.