Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Move People, Not Cars

The New York Times' "Freakonomics" blog posted a piece about congestion pricing yesterday, and a torrent of comments ensued. I jumped into the fray, intending to be brief; but as they say, I didn't have time to write a short piece. Here it is, with some typos removed:

The success of any pricing plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion is determined by a) the effectiveness of other options (e.g., public transit and bicycling) and b) what the revenues would be spent on.

To my first point, in New York City, the idea of internalizing external costs is a no-brainer. And while the faux-populist arguments about the regressiveness of a pricing plan are appealing, they are easy to swat away with New York’s considerable transit system. Poor people in New York use transit. This is not true, of course, in cities that don’t have public transit, but many cities do, in one form or another, and poor people use it. You also see people riding bicycles or walking on dangerously fast roads. (How is that good for poor people? If you don’t own a car in most cities, you’re worthless – that’s not regressive?)

Still, public transit in New York could use a lot of improvement. For instance, have you taken a bus in New York recently? On some routes, you’re better off walking. It’s unconscionable that New York isn’t a world leader in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT); segregated lanes should be devoted to low-floor buses that passengers board after paying fares to facilitate shorter stops. Yes, lanes should be taken from personally owned vehicles in New York and devoted to transit.

New York also suffers from a dearth of quality bicycling infrastructure, despite the valiant efforts of our new DOT Commissioner. And the bicycle is not a child’s toy – it can be an incredibly effective transportation tool in many cities. Just as another commenter wrote “mo-tor-cycle,” and with good reason, bicycles are an incredibly efficient use of space. The only reason bicycling isn't viable in so many places is that it is downright dangerous to ride a bicycle in most places (sadly, even in New York City). But a real network of separated bike lanes throughout New York – something like what Copenhagen and Amsterdam have – would encourage many New Yorkers to ride. “Oh, but Denmark is Denmark, and America is America” – yes, and Denmark, nearly 40 years ago, was a lot more like America. Bicycling was not widely accepted in Copenhagen until citizens pushed for better infrastructure; now, 40% of Copenhagen residents commute by bike. (Copenhagen is much smaller than New York City, so I am under no delusion that we can reach such numbers – but Washington, DC, can. So can a lot of other American cities.)

A pricing plan would be a great revenue generator. This is where my second point comes in: such revenues have to be devoted to moving people effectively in large numbers – not cars. A hundred years ago, the Brooklyn Bridge moved twice as many people as it does today because it accommodated trolleys rather than cars. The automobile is simply not an effective way to move large numbers of people, and we can’t build our way out of congestion with more roads in New York. Some people responded to this posting to suggest that we simply build more roads: come to New York, and tell us where these new roads should go, and then tell us where the displaced thousands of residents should move to make way for these roads. (You’d have a hard time selling this idea in most other cities in the United States, too – not just New York.)

We simply can’t just move cars more effectively in New York. So if we are to move people more effectively, we have a way to create a relatively cheap, efficient system. And there is no silver bullet; the answer is probably a combination of cars, subways, commuter rail, bicycles, and buses (and again, in my opinion, BRT should be a major component).

This system has to be great. And people will recognize a great system when they see it. But right now, New Yorkers won’t fall for a pricing mechanism because they don’t believe they’ll get anything for it. So the revenues generated from a pricing plan aimed at automobiles have to be devoted 100% to an integrated transportation system.

As for the type of pricing plan, I am dubious about a congestion plan. It requires a lot of infrastructure, and I tend to be wary of technological solutions – not because I’m a Luddite, but because I think an over-reliance on technology sometimes steers us away from other ideas that might be just as good or better. Instead, I would prefer to see New York eliminate off-street parking requirements (yes, New York City has off-street parking minimums, while other major cities in the United States are getting rid of them; and while there are limits in one part of Manhattan, those limits are easy for developers to get around). Also, New York should tax the heck out of off-street parking spaces. Parking spaces are destinations for cars – there’s an “if you build it, they will come” dynamic there – and regulating them more tightly would be very easy to do from a technological perspective.

As for the politics… Well, as with all of these ideas, that’s where the rubber hits the road.

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