New York

Congestion Pricing Is Coming. It Doesn’t Have to Be Painful.

After years of deliberation, congestion pricing, arriving by way of moral and practical necessity, will be implemented in New York City sometime next year. The urgency would seem to require little in the way of extra evidence. On Wednesday, the United Nations announced that the previous three months have been the world’s hottest on record, with the secretary general telling us what we already understand, that “climate breakdown has begun.”

There is a forceful case to be made that the city should be meeting the moment with a car-antagonistic tolling plan that extends beyond the proposed zone of Manhattan south of 60th Street. In London, Stockholm and Singapore, where congestion pricing has been in place for a while, it has resulted in lower carbon emission, fewer collisions and cleaner air. This is to say nothing of the psychic advantages that must come simply from having to endure less traffic, from experiencing fewer occasions in which you are frantically texting your doctor’s office from the back of the cab you regret taking.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates that New Yorkers lose, on average, 117 hours each year on account of congestion, which adds up to roughly $2,000 in lost productivity per person.

Still — and somewhat paradoxically over the course of this quasi-apocalyptic summer — a particular populist argument against congestion pricing has emerged, that bears engagement. The idea essentially is that Manhattan is both a luxury product and democratizing social asset. Charging admission beyond what is demanded by the tolls that already must be paid at bridges and tunnels is an extension of the velvet rope, making the cultural benefits of Manhattan less available to the millions who cannot afford to live there.

As the economist Tyler Cowan put it in a recent Washington Post column, “The composition of the residents matters, and the composition of the visitors matters, too.” We can imagine an alternate history where people like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe looked across the water at Manhattan, from New Jersey and Queens, and decided that making the trip was not worth all the trouble.

Similar if self-serving concern has expressed itself on Broadway. Last month, a piece that ran on the ticketing platform NYTIX maintained that for those accustomed to driving to the theater from the suburbs, the prospect of using public transit late at night to get home is “wholly unsatisfactory.” The platform maintains that those who travel to the theater by car account for 25 percent of all Broadway tickets sold; the fear is that an additional toll to enter the theater district would simply leave them staying home streaming “Yellowstone.” Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit representing business interests, sees this line of complaint as vaguely ludicrous. Broadway tickets are incredibly expensive; eating out and parking have always been part of the calculation.

“If you’re having a night out with the family for $1,000, I don’t think the congestion toll is going to be the decision maker,’’ she said. The fact that fewer people were in the city because of remote work and the unruly state of Times Square, seemed, in her view, to be the larger problem.

Some of the concern around the economic reverberations of congestion pricing stems from the presumption it will cost $23 to come into the designated zone during peak hours. This is a number that has been floated and latched onto in the press but has not been established. It is the job of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a committee of appointed officials from the labor and planning worlds to make recommendations to the M.T.A. about what the pricing — and exemptions from pricing — will be across constituencies. At their second meeting a few weeks ago it was clear how complicated these questions were and how seemingly far from resolution.

How, for example, would tolling apply to overnight workers? In response to the question, Juliette Michaelson, an urban planning executive and adviser to the committee, teed up a series of charts outlining different modeling scenarios. First, within the overnight worker category, there was a lot of variance in terms of shift schedules. Beyond that, the daily toll resets at midnight, which means that people who enter the zone before that hour and leave after would theoretically be charged twice. Over the course of a five-day workweek, they might pay six times. This seemed unfair. As Carl Weisbrod, the chairman of the board, put it, sorting this all out was like “a Rubik’s Cube.”

In addition to its environmental goals, congestion pricing comes with a target of raising a billion dollars a year for the M.T.A., money that would be used to improve the city’s transit system. The biggest challenge to successful orchestration is the inherent Catch-22: The best way to incentivize people to move away from cars and toward public transportation is for the system to be better now rather than later. Addressing the other members of the board John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, spent part of the August meeting pointing out that statistics didn’t necessarily reflect real life outside of Manhattan.

Earlier in the meeting, Ms. Michaelson said that with the exception of Breezy Point in the Rockaways, few New Yorkers actually lived in transit deserts. The assertion did not sit well with Mr. Samuelsen, who argued for quicker action to make mass transit more efficient in places like eastern Queens.

Even if you lived within a half-mile of a subway station of a bus stop or a train station, it was no guarantee that those trains or buses would be reliable. It might take someone coming into Manhattan for work from the fringes of Staten Island two hours, he said, much longer than it would to drive. And what of the added child-care costs that person might incur in service of the environmental good? Not expanding mass transit in the parts of the city where people feel they need a car to get around, he said, “is really a ridiculous way to embrace an exercise that is about decongesting the streets.”

The private sector could also be mobilized more effectively toward the new goals; stores or theaters or restaurants that rely on a suburbanites might offer discounts to those who could show that they came into the city via the Long Island Rail Road, for example. The habit, among suburban consumers of Manhattan culture, might not take immediately, but at some point they might even find peace in arriving at the Shed without having gotten into a fight with a guy who tried to race ahead in the emergency lane of the Long Island Expressway.

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