The cover of the latest Earth Island Journal couldn’t be more timely: a picture of a bunch of cars piled up with the word “Roadkill” across it. (Knowing their audience, I expect angry letters from people who feel this is insensitive to animals.) So I was naturally eager to read the feature story by Adam Federman, and wasn’t disappointed. It was about Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to push through a genuinely smart traffic reduction program called “congestion pricing”. Congestion pricing is a simple concept that’s been implemented successfully in other cities. You charge people to drive their cars into highly congested parts of town (like the business districts in Manhattan that are permanently clogged) and reinvest the money into public transportation. New York City was the perfect city to experiment, too, because most people take the subways anyway, so the alternative travel strategies for people are already there and they already know how to use them. In other cities around the world like Singapore and London have implement the plan with dramatic results—dropping traffic 45% and 25% respectively, and London has seen emissions fall by 20%.
Of course, it failed to pass in New York City. In my various conversations online about the need to get serious about discouraging people from using cars, I’ve seen some shameful liberal dodging, genuine examples of people playing things like the classism card in order to conceal their more right wing urges: You’ll pry the gas pump out of my cold, dead hand! So I wasn’t entirely surprised by what happened in the story: People played the class card to weasel out of paying a tax for the privilege of adding to New York’s traffic problem. It was discrimination, you see, against working class people to charge $8 a day to drive into the business districts of Manhattan.
If you’re paying attention, you can see the flaw in this argument, and it’s a big one: Do working class people in New York generally drive around Manhattan? Or do the vast majority of them take the subway? If the latter, then the excuse is 100% bullshit, because the reality is that a congestion toll—in New York City, remember—would actually be a genuinely progressive tax, taking money from the predominantly upper middle class and wealthy and rerouting towards a service used by working class people. Moreover, by charging the rich to drive, you can help squash inflation on the price of subway tickets. There are a few classes of people in New York who are working class but drive because they have parking—mainly firefighters and police—but I think most of them will survive having to make the switch to the subway. If they really can’t, because of late night shifts or something, then they work for the fucking government and can press upon their unions and the city to get them exceptions. I have a feeling they’ll get those exceptions.
I can feel the disability card about to get played, but again, it’s a weak excuse probably being wielded by people who are just casting around for something to use. The beauty of tolls is that it’s easy enough to classify different people/cars for different pricing fees. In many cities that have congestion pricing plans, they charge lower or no tolls for people with electric cars. If they can do that, then surely they can also lift the price for people with disability plates. Easy-peasy.
None of this is to let Bloomberg off the hook for his role. As Federman notes, Bloomberg failed to see that these objections would rise and build into the plan ways to get around them. The perfect way would be to tie the congestion toll to a tangible benefit for subway riders—free rides, or at least discounts, so that people can see the direct line from the money being charged at the toll to their pocketbook in the subway. Obviously, New York has money problems that might make this a huge pain in the ass, but even if it was just something small but immediately visible, then it would have helped sell it. Now the city is out $854 million that they would have otherwise had, if they’d been able to convince people of the wisdom of the plan.
The article mentions the addiction model when talking about Americans and their feelings about cars, which leads them to this excuse-making. I’m skeptical. We call too many things that are better labeled “bad habits” with the word “addiction”. And in breaking a bad habit, there’s two ways. The bad way is often cold turkey, which just amps the misery of the whole thing. The good way—and the way environmentalists have been proposing forever—is gradual change. Congestion pricing is a great idea from that perspective. I could see charging people a few bucks to enter into downtown Austin, and turning the money over to create bike lanes and actually get us that light rail we’ve been promised forever. It creates a minor irritation that discourages people from driving and, at the same time, offers an alternative to driving. Ideally, over time, the public transportation options would get more attractive as the money collected goes into improvements, and you can start gradually raising the toll price and continuing to improve the public transportation.
But people throw a shit fit at every gradual change, which doesn’t mean that we’ll avoid the problem forever. It just means that when we do have to face it—which will probably be right around when gas hits $5 a gallon—it’s going to be a lot more painful. Because we avoided making the pathways (and bike lanes and train stations) that would ease the transition, and instead we’re just going to have a crisis.