U.S. cities consider charging for driving downtown

in September 8th, 2021

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While cities look for ways to replenish losses faced due to COVID, New York has been working on a new revenue stream since before the pandemic: Congestion fees for driving on roads south of 60th Street in Manhattan, which includes Times Square and many other famous NYC landmarks. The predicted $1B collected would go to improving the bus system, expanding sidewalks, and adding bike lanes.

London introduced a similar fee for drivers entering its city center in 2003, imposed from 7 am to 6 pm. As a result, the city saw traffic speeds boost ~30%, bus ridership rise 70%, and cycling trips doubled (it’s now their fastest growing mode of transportation). The original fee of $6.88 is $20.56 today. 

New York has not yet determined their fee but is considering exemptions for low-income families. This was not a concern in London, where low-income households don’t typically have a car and instead benefited from the $2 billion in congestion charges allocated to ramping up bus services. San Francisco also has been working on a congestion fee that will account for inequities like income and disabilities. While San Francisco is early in the planning phases, they — alongside Seattle and Los Angeles — are eagerly watching New York, hoping it sets a precedent for the country.

There’s also the benefit of reduced congestion for the environment, which New York is still studying to determine how much drivers should be charged. Economists have been warning about the threat of car exhaust as early as 1920, with more recent research exposing the size and variety of problems related to it. In the U.S...

  • Air pollution from traffic congestion causes at least 2,200 premature deaths annually and $18 billion in healthcare costs.
  • And the economic cost of such congestion was $87 billion in 2018, primarily due to lost productivity.

All that said, 42% of New Yorker voters oppose the plan, with some saying it benefits Manhattan residents at the expense of commuters from other boroughs. This could further delay movement as the city undergoes a leadership change from former Governor Andrew Cuomo to current Governor Kathy Hochul, who is still weighing the political costs of supporting congestion fees. Hochul also comes from an area of New York that relies more on cars than public transit.

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