New York City is moving forward with a ‘congestion pricing’ plan under which people will have to pay a fee to get into Midtown or Midtown Manhattan – virtually anything below 60th street. The aim is to clear traffic and reduce emissions by reducing the number of cars in the heart of the overcrowded city.
It’s a big goal. Midtown Manhattan, in particular, has been a teeming, overcrowded mess my entire life, a sea of taxis, trucks, and honking cars ferrying workers, tourists, and commuters through often congested streets.
Discouraging driving while encouraging the use of public transport is the right thing to do.
But here’s what congestion pricing plans always make me wonder: if you want to reduce driving, is it absolutely necessary to do so by charging for the privilege? The right to drive in the city center has always been a right shared by all – but now the government is proposing to pay it to some people and not others depending on who can pay the fee. Those who can pay: Welcome! Everyone else, turn around and go home.
I’m not dismissing the idea – in fact, there are plenty of strong, rational arguments in favor of it and most transit advocates seem to support it – but, hey, just a thought experiment: shouldn’t Don’t we occasionally think about whether there are other ways to solve problems than by separating those who have more money from those who have less?
Paying up to $23 to enter Manhattan’s central business district during rush hour it’s nothingas evidenced by the fact that 400 people signed to speak at the first of a series of hearings on the subject in late August. (The proposal does not promise tax credits for households earning less than $60,000 per year.)
I know I know. We live in a market-based capitalist society. We regulate our economy based on supply and demand. Our natural reaction when we have to limit a scarce good is to put a price on it, or raise the price if it already has one.
Consider California’s car pool lanes. Where they were once limited to cars with two or more people, we now have expressways on some highways, where those with cash to pay can whiz past traffic jams while driving alone in their SUVs.
Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard, underlined this ten years ago in his book “What money can’t buy“that a lot of things that were never for sale in the past are now. A jail cell upgrade for less than $100 was an example. The right to immigrate to the United States for a few hundred thousand dollars was another.
Some things, he said, just don’t belong in the marketplace.
And that raises questions of fairness, especially when fees are set by the government, which is supposed to work for all of us. Imagine if the Department of Motor Vehicles started letting people who paid a $150 fee waltz to the front of the line while the rest of us had to get up and wait. Would that be fair? Would we support it?
There are alternatives to the market, at least in theory. Scarce goods can also be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Gold by lottery. Or on the basis of a demonstration of need. Or as a reward for good behavior.
In Manhattan’s business district, you could theoretically allow low-emission vehicles and ban heavy polluters. Or ban vehicles altogether in favor of buses, bicycles and pedestrians. Or set limits on taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts. Or require drivers to show a need come downtown for essential business.
But that’s just a thought experiment. New York is going the pay-per-view route, if it goes ahead. As London has already done.
Given this, let’s remember one of the biggest benefits of congestion pricing: it generates revenue. New York City says it would raise $1 billion a year.
So, of course, this money should be used – and will be used – to counteract inequality.
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, has written that it is possible to put a price on driving while maintaining a commitment to economic equity.
“The fact that prices could creating equity issues doesn’t mean it has to. Nor does it mean that, for the sake of fairness, all roads should be free,” I wrote in Transfers magazine. “Few equity programs in other areas of social policy, after all, require that all goods be free. Almost no one, for example, suggests that all food be free because some people are poor. instead, the society identifies the poor and helps them buy food.
New York, to its credit, intends to put most of the money raised towards improve bus and metro service and public transit infrastructure, which is disproportionately used by low-income people.
There are exclusions from charges for vehicles carrying disabled persons. There are tax credits for drivers of families earning less than $60,000 (although those earning more will certainly feel the pinch).
There are also secondary benefits for low-income New Yorkers. Public buses will likely be able to move more freely in the now less crowded areas of downtown and downtown. Air pollution, which disproportionately affects the poorest people, will be reduced.
Most transport experts I’ve spoken to believe that Americans will only be persuaded to drive less if the price goes up and the alternatives become more attractive. If so, congestion pricing may be key to reducing emissions.
So maybe that’s the right solution – or maybe it’s the only viable solution. But I still think we need to think beyond market solutions at least some of the time so that we don’t solve political problems by overwhelming the poor and letting the rich continue their bad behavior.