New York City Is About to Screw Up Congestion Pricing

The new toll to drive into Manhattan has been billed as a transformative policy that will reshape the city. But it won’t change much of anything by itself.
Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

If all goes well, in about six months New York City will finally enact the nation’s first congestion pricing plan, which will charge private vehicles some yet-to-be-determined amount of money to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street. 

New York, through the city’s Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the region’s transportation systems, plans to encourage people to get into and around Manhattan other ways by eventually building 150 miles of new bus lanes and 250 miles of new protected bike lanes. The MTA is also building four new commuter rail stops in the east Bronx, making it much easier and quicker for people there to get to Manhattan. And the Second Avenue Subway expansion in east Harlem will also give people outside the congestion pricing zone better transit access to the Manhattan core. 


With all these plans, you could be excused for thinking New York is doing congestion pricinga potentially transformative policy that would be a first in the nation—right by not only charging drivers to access some of the densest, most valuable land in the world, but also giving them alternatives. Unfortunately, New York isn’t doing that, and in fact looks set to completely screw up congestion pricing so badly it may discredit the policy in a way that makes it harder for other cities to adopt it. Rather than approaching it as a lynchpin to a wide-ranging effort to reshape Manhattan’s relationship to the private car, congestion pricing has become solely about money—specifically, paying off enough of the credit-card bill New York has run up with a variety of ill-conceived and poorly-executed projects that it can get more credit cards.  

When the congestion pricing switch gets flipped as soon as April, it will be the only switch. All of the major projects I mentioned above won’t be done any time soon. Penn Access, the four new commuter stops in the Bronx, is scheduled to open in 2027. The Second Avenue Subway has no official completion date but won’t be done before 2030. And those new bus and bike lanes? They’re mandated by city law, but the Eric Adams administration has thus far completed just 6.8 and 10.2 miles, respectively, in a city with more than 6,000 miles of roadway. 


New York is about to screw up congestion pricing, turning what ought to be a cornerstone of a transformative suite of policies that re-imagines what the densest urban area in the country looks and feels like into little more than a glorified toll. I have long supported congestion pricing and continue to think it is a fair way to raise more money for the region’s transit system. But it was supposed to be so much more than that, and has been billed as such by politicians and transit advocacy groups. It is the region’s big, generational swing to transform Manhattan’s streets, and I’m worried it’s about to be a big whiff. Not only would that be bad for New York, but it will also make it harder for any of the other cities toying with the idea—such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle—to pursue it.  

Congestion pricing has been so long in the making—decades of policy proposals and political infighting, a near-miss during the Bloomberg administration, four years since the law was actually passed—and subject to so many different levels of reviews and lawsuits, including an ongoing one from the state of New Jersey to delay it indefinitely, that the focus from those most involved has been simply to get the damned thing done.


But now that it appears quite possible congestion pricing will actually happen in the near future, it’s worth pausing and looking at what is actually going to happen. And the picture is concerning for those who thought congestion pricing would be a transformative change to the city’s transportation landscape.

“Congestion pricing” is a term for a toll that changes in amount depending on the time of day and charges for entering a dense urban area like a downtown. It has been enacted in London, Stockholm, and Singapore, to varying but broadly positive effect. All kinds of benefits are ascribed to congestion pricing, or “central business district tolling” as New York’s version has been named: reduced traffic, better air quality, “promoting equity” by “expanded access to the transit system,” and reduced travel times. 

It is possible some or all of those things will happen in New York, although it’s important not to put too much stock in traffic volume predictions, which are notoriously bad. To take just one local example, New York City’s 2019 mobility study had an entire page asking—but not answering—why traffic into the central business district actually fell from 2015 to 2017 when it had been expected to increase. 


But even if those benefits do materialize, it will be entirely by accident. New York’s congestion pricing law was written with only one goal in mind: money.

When then-governor Andrew Cuomo resurrected the idea of congestion pricing for Manhattan in 2018, he did so during a time when the city’s subway system was in crisis, its then-president Andy Byford was proposing a $50 billion plan to fix it over the course of a decade or two, and the big question was who was going to pay for it. Congestion pricing answered that question. The board that will set the fees for drivers and determine any exemptions has only one rule by law: It must raise enough money to fund $15 billion for the 2020-2024 capital projects—things like elevators, subway and commuter rail expansion, new stations and subway cars, and so on—equal to an amount of $1 billion a year. Everything else, all the other goals, are simply things the board “shall consider.” In other words, the singular legal objective of congestion pricing is to raise money. 

Even defending congestion pricing merely as a necessary funding source rests on thin ice. The MTA needs money because it has already borrowed too much to pay for bad projects like the $11 billion East Side Access project that built a new train station 16 stories underneath an existing train station without gaining any new riders, or wasted too much money on good but horrendously overpriced projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Now, that debt load is crippling the agency’s finances. Almost 20 percent of each fare goes straight towards paying off MTA debt for these big projects past and present. The annual debt payment alone is now $3.2 billion. When New Yorkers pay $2.90 to ride the subway, about 50 cents is going straight to bond holders.


The best use of congestion pricing revenue would be to pay down the MTA’s crippling debt load, freeing up billions of dollars a year for running more and better service, while simultaneously expanding the agency’s borrowing power to do more long-term expansion. Instead, the MTA is going to use congestion pricing funds solely for the second purpose, to borrow more money—it’s written in the law—continuing this crippling financial practice for the foreseeable future. It is akin to someone knee deep in credit card debt taking a second job only to use the new income to open another credit card account and load it up with more debt. Again, congestion pricing could have been a transformative policy that would have radically improved the MTA’s finances. But it isn’t.

In fact, there is a natural tension between this legal requirement to raise money and the other stated purposes of congestion pricing, like improving air quality and freeing up our streets for better purposes. Consider the hypothetical where the board considers setting a price of $40 to enter the toll zone during peak hours (still well below the $100-plus economic impact of each private car per hour on Manhattan’s streets). Such a toll may well discourage too many drivers, failing to raise the legally mandated $1 billion in annual revenue. For anyone interested in getting as many cars out of Manhattan as possible—a policy goal I wholeheartedly support—a $40 toll would be a huge win. But the board, legally speaking, cannot do it, and the maximum toll being considered is $23 during peak hours.


Likewise, proponents of congestion pricing often argue the money itself is worth the goal, as it will go towards improving the city’s transit system. This is technically true, but practically false. The money collected from congestion pricing tolls cannot, legally speaking, go to anything other than paying for those big, expensive capital projects. In other words, it can’t go towards paying for more frequent service on existing subway, bus, or rail lines. Likewise, it cannot go towards improving pedestrian or bike infrastructure in Manhattan, which is paid for and governed by the city’s department of transportation, not the MTA. 

This may sound like a minor point—money to the MTA is money to the MTA—but there is a world of difference in how that spending impacts New Yorkers. And it will prevent congestion pricing from being what its advocates want it to be. 

In 2019, shortly after congestion pricing passed, the Regional Plan Association, the tri-state area’s independent planning arm, published a report that was, essentially, about how not to screw up congestion pricing. The number one thing was “implement transit and bicycle improvements prior to starting congestion pricing.” New York hasn’t done this. Aside from some barely noticeable improvements announced in May, service is going to look basically the same as it did in 2018. Likewise, there is no plan to boost commuter rail service along with congestion pricing’s rollout. Adding more trains, especially during non-peak hours, is exactly the type of carrot that ought to go along with the congestion pricing stick. But, the way the law is written, it would be counterproductive for the MTA to do so, since the law doesn’t let them use the congestion pricing revenue to pay for that service, and every additional passenger on the train is someone not paying the fee. 


Again, it’s worth emphasizing this is the exact opposite of what the RPA recommended based on the experience of the three other cities that did this. London increased bus service 17 percent before it implemented congestion pricing, including with miles of new dedicated lanes and 300 extra buses. Even if the MTA suddenly found the money and desire to do something like that, it is far too late to do it by April.

The city deserves blame as well, since the New York City Department of Transportation runs the streets. The current mayor, Eric Adams, ran on a platform of installing 150 miles of new bus lanes. A city law requires 50 miles to be installed by the end of the year. According to a tracker by the non-profit advocacy group Riders Alliance, only 6.8 miles have actually been painted. Adams will be halfway through his term at the end of the year, meaning he still has 143.2 of those 150 miles to go in just two years. 

Meanwhile, the city’s bike infrastructure has not kept up with changes to how New Yorkers get around. Biking in New York is perhaps even worse than it was in 2018, despite a modest expansion of protected bike lanes, because cyclists now share that space with thousands upon thousands of gas mopeds traveling at triple the speed, resulting in gory crashes


Similar to bus lanes, the city has a legal mandate to install 50 miles of protected bike lanes every year, and 250 miles total by 2026. Ironically, Adams campaigned on a 300-mile protected bike lane promise, upping the ante on the city’s legal mandate, but appears to be on track to miss it by about 50 percent. According to a tracker by the non-profit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, only 10.2 of the 50 miles for 2023 have been built, and 30.2 of the 250 needed by 2026. These are joke numbers for a city that is trying to transform its streets before what is supposed to be the most consequential change to Manhattan’s streets in a generation.

“Creating a more vibrant, more sustainable New York City as we recover from COVID-19 means focusing on transit, walking, and biking, especially in our Central Business District,” a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Transportation told Motherboard in a statement. “Through NYC DOT’s forthcoming curb management plan; ongoing efforts to build out a robust biking and transit network; implementation of the broader New New York plan and the appointment of the city’s first-ever public realm czar, the Adams administration continues to advance transformative projects to support these modes, improve our public realm, and better management of our streetscape.""

And then there are the other street design changes that ought to accompany congestion pricing that will take advantage of the fewer cars on the streets. In a recent interview, former New York City Department of Transportation commissioner Jannette Sadik-Khan floated pedestrianizing the financial district as one such (great) idea. Another is to repurpose car lanes—taking advantage of the fact there will be fewer cars—to create fast-mobility lanes for e-bikes and mopeds so they’re no longer competing for space with cyclists. 

As Sadik-Khan rightly observed, if the space vacated by cars doesn’t get filled with other things, it will get filled by cars. New Yorkers have already experienced this as so many of the pandemic-era Open Streets, demarcated with movable barriers or other temporary infrastructure, slowly eroded as motorists reclaimed the space. What were once all-day or permanent closures to through traffic are now sporadic closures for events or street festivals, welcome but all-too-rare events that mean the roads are still primarily for car use the vast majority of the time. Only a handful of open streets became permanent car-restricted spaces. The rest are, essentially, back to how they were pre-pandemic.

I want to be clear: Congestion pricing is a good policy, a fair way to raise money for public transit while also discouraging the use of private vehicles in a dense urban center. But good policies do not automatically lead to good outcomes. In his history of American mass transportation, Transit historian George Smerk likened laws to golf swings, in that they’re only as good as their follow-throughs. New York’s congestion pricing plan has no follow-through. 

Six months out from the flip switch, my biggest concern is not only that Manhattan’s streets will feel more or less the same. Safe streets and pro-transit advocates have had impressive wins in recent years. The 14th Street busway was one of those transformative policies that changed the way a part of Manhattan feels for the better. The 34th Ave. open street in Jackson Heights turned just another road into a neighborhood treasure. My worry is when similar transformative policies are pitched in the future, or congestion pricing is proposed elsewhere, skeptics will point to the empty promises made in New York, and the only honest reply will be that New York screwed it up. 

Update: This article was updated with comment from NYC DOT.