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Here’s what canceling congestion pricing in New York City means for climate change » Yale Climate Connections

Published Date and Time: 2024-07-08 07:00:00


Last month, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul set off heated discussions about the future of U.S. cities when she unexpectedly halted New York City’s congestion pricing program, which was set to start charging drivers $15 to enter much of Manhattan on June 30, 2024.

Designed to raise money for public transportation while reducing gridlock so severe that Midtown taxis averaged less than five miles per hour in 2018, the program was the first of its kind in the United States, despite having been successfully implemented in cities like London, Singapore, and Stockholm. Supporters hoped that New York’s example could convince other American cities to follow suit.

Gov. Hochul’s abrupt policy reversal has been widely condemned by local and national environmental leaders. I spoke with Zak Accuardi, who leads policy advocacy to support public transit, biking, and walking at the Natural Resources Defense Council, known as NRDC, to learn more about what the “indefinite pause” on congestion pricing in New York means for the climate.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Yale Climate Connections: Can you give an overview of what’s happened with New York’s congestion pricing program and what it means for the city?

Zak Accuardi: The idea of pricing traffic to reduce it in New York goes back many decades — it was discussed as early as the 1970s. It was first seriously considered around 15 years ago by Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, but it ran into a roadblock with the state government. The city wasn’t able to get the state legislature’s authorization to develop and implement the program, and the idea was shelved for almost 10 years.

The conversation picked back up in 2017 when New York City experienced what was known as the “summer of hell” for public transit. There were major breakdowns; it was clear that a lot more investment was needed. There was a big budget gap looming, and advocates in New York very successfully called attention to the state’s leadership of public transit in New York City. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA], which runs public transit, among other things, in New York City, is a creature of the state; the governor appoints the majority of its leadership.

Andrew Cuomo, who was the governor at the time, ultimately proposed congestion pricing as a long-term revenue solution to address this public transit funding crisis while also reducing traffic within the city, and the state legislature passed congestion pricing legislation in 2019.

For the past five years, the city and the state, in partnership with the federal government, have been working to fine-tune the details of the program, which was set to go into effect on June 30. And then a few weeks ago, Gov. Hochul announced the intention to pause the implementation.

This is a real blow to New Yorkers, to transit riders, to drivers, to businesses in the region, and it creates big questions around where the funding that was supposed to come from congestion pricing is going to come from now. Congestion pricing would have generated roughly a billion dollars per year in revenue to be reinvested into public transit and transportation systems. What are the impacts on the MTA investments for the region? Which projects and programs are going to be disrupted?

There are a lot of questions around what the coming months will bring — and not a lot of answers. But it’s clear that there needs to be a solution to fill this revenue gap.

YCC: Let’s zoom out from the New York case and talk about congestion pricing more broadly. From a climate perspective, why should we care about congestion pricing?

Accuardi: Well, in the U.S., the transportation sector is the largest source of climate pollution. And within the transportation sector, around 60% of the climate pollution from transportation is produced by light-duty vehicles: cars, pickup trucks, SUVs — the vehicles that people use for everyday travel.

Within cities — especially the largest cities, like New York — the amount of climate pollution from the transportation system is driven by a few different factors. One is how many vehicles are on the road. The second is how many people are in those vehicles; a bus carrying a lot of people means fewer climate pollutants than a car carrying one person or a big truck carrying goods. A third major consideration is that when there’s a lot of traffic, cars get stuck in the traffic and create more pollution. Fossil-fuel-powered vehicles run more efficiently when they’re going at slightly higher speeds; they’re optimized for highway speeds of 55 to 60 miles an hour, typically. Obviously, we hope that people aren’t driving that fast on city streets, but driving steadily at 20 or 25 miles an hour is going to burn a lot less fuel, and therefore produce less pollution, than being stuck in stop-and-go traffic. That’s true both for climate pollution and air pollution more generally.

So congestion pricing impacts climate in two ways. One is by adding a cost to driving into a particular area of a city, or through an area of a city, or even sometimes within an area of the city. By adding a cost, you’re discouraging people from driving, which means fewer vehicles on the road taking fewer trips.

And two, the vehicles that do travel into or within the congestion pricing zone are traveling more efficiently. They’re idling less, they’re stuck in traffic less, they’re traveling for less time, and their engines are also working more efficiently, again producing less pollution.

YCC: So congestion pricing focuses on reducing car use. When we hear about government policies aimed at cutting emissions from cars, the goal is typically switching to electric vehicles, not getting people to drive less. How do these two goals relate to one another? Do we really need programs to limit driving, or could we just say, “Well, let’s come up with great incentives for everyone in the New York metro region to have an EV, and that’ll take care of the climate pollution?”

Accuardi: Well, first I’ll say that we should incentivize everyone in New York who does operate a vehicle to have a zero-emissions vehicle. It is really critical to our climate goals that we reduce and eliminate emissions from vehicle tailpipes. But it isn’t sufficient to meet our climate goals, which are very ambitious and call for an all-hands-on-deck effort.

When we emit climate pollution really matters in terms of whether we can avert the worst impacts of global warming — if we can avoid pollution next year, that’s much more impactful than avoiding pollution 30 years from now. But the sales mandates for manufacturers to sell more electric vehicles will take at least a decade to ramp up, and during that time we will continue to have old, polluting cars on the road. We have amazing vehicle standards now in place in states across the country, and the federal EPA just implemented new standards that will drive that transition. But it’s going to take time.

Read: Electric vehicles alone can’t solve transportation’s climate problems

Also, even if we could flip a switch and give everyone a zero-emissions vehicle tomorrow, we’d run into a problem that we’re also working to address nationally, which is developing the fueling and charging infrastructure that’s necessary to support those vehicles. That’s going to take time and require increased investment.

So the things we can do immediately — this year, in the next few years — are create better transportation options, invest in public transit, invest in infrastructure that helps people walk and bike more easily. And this is especially true in a city like New York, where those options are fantastic, generally speaking, and where the land use supports people making those kinds of decisions.

Reducing traffic, reducing the number of people who are on the road, is a critical near-term strategy to reduce pollution. It’s a necessary complement to this long-term electrification strategy. And while we unfortunately do not have a clean vehicle switch to flip, in New York there is now very literally a switch called congestion pricing that the governor could flip immediately and significantly reduce climate pollution in the state.

YCC: You mentioned land use — which essentially just means where things like homes and schools and factories are located and how close together they are. The relationship between land use, transportation, and climate change is critically important, but I think it can seem very abstract to many people. Can you describe what these issues mean for people’s everyday lives and choices?

Accuardi: Sure. Imagine you’re a four-person household living in an American suburb. You maybe have a two-story, 1,500-square-foot home with a big yard and driveway on a cul-de-sac. Anytime you want to go to the grocery store, you have to drive maybe 15 or 20 minutes. If you also want to, say, go get a haircut, maybe that’s another 10-minute drive to a different part of town.

Now say you’re a family of four that lives in Brooklyn in an apartment close to a subway stop. When you’re choosing how to get to the grocery store, maybe you walk, or maybe you go to the grocery that’s near your office, then pick up groceries and take the subway home. And that means that you’re joining almost 6 million other people a day in New York in making one of the lowest-pollution transportation choices that you can make by taking the subway, which is powered by clean electricity, then using your own two feet to get yourself home from the station.

Read: American society wasn’t always so car-centric. Our future doesn’t have to be, either.

Neither of these situations are bad choices — nobody should be vilified for where they choose to live. But we need to give people more options, because right now there’s a scarce supply of walkable communities in the U.S., as evidenced by high — and rising — housing costs in some of the country’s most walkable places. If people are able to live in a walkable area, that can mean they have the ability to own no cars or fewer cars, which means that maybe they’re not making a $100-a-month car payment. They’re not paying $100 a month for car insurance. They’re not paying for gas and fuel. They’re not paying a vehicle registration fee. So they have more money to go about their everyday lives.

A lot of different parts of these issues are connected to land-use decisions and what kinds of housing and development we, as a society, allow and incentivize to be built.

YCC: As we wait to hear what will happen next with congestion pricing in New York, what do you think are the key ideas for climate advocates to keep in mind?

Accuardi: Well, as we’ve already discussed, the transportation sector is the biggest source of climate pollution in the country, and eliminating pollution from transportation has proven to be challenging. We’re not seeing the pace of emissions reductions that we need to meet our climate goals. To get back on track, we need our elected leaders and policymakers to do some real experimentation, to show bold leadership.

Congestion pricing isn’t the only place where we need this kind of experimentation, although it is a really important one. We really need — and we have — fantastic electric vehicle and low-emissions vehicle policies in place in many states. We have new federal standards that are a foundational pillar of eliminating climate pollution from transportation.

We also need local and state governments to work together to try new ways of doing business in the transportation sector, making different kinds of investments. You can keep spending money to try to alleviate traffic by adding new lanes, but we’ve been doing that for a long time, and traffic is now worse than ever. We know that highway expansion, generally speaking, does not achieve its intended purpose.

So we need a new way of approaching these issues. We need this willingness to experiment, and we have a lot of cities and regions around the country who are eager to test out new policies and programs like this, and who will come out of the woodwork when a leading city or region like New York takes a first step and says, as Gov. Cuomo said in 2017, “Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come.”

I find the story of congestion pricing in Stockholm very powerful. Leaders in that city wanted to implement congestion pricing, but they ran into the same kinds of headwinds as many regions that have tried it. People are understandably skeptical around paying a new kind of fee, and as the date of turning it on approaches, they start hearing more about it and getting more anxious: “Oh gosh, I’m going to have to pay more to drive. What is that going to mean for me? What is that going to mean for my city?”

But in Stockholm, the city gave residents the opportunity to experience a trial period. They turned congestion pricing on, and a few months later there was a public vote over whether to extend it. If the city had held that public referendum before turning the program on, it would have been rejected out of hand, but in the months after it was implemented, people in Stockholm got to experience traffic virtually disappearing from their streets, cleaner air, easier business deliveries, more space to walk and bike, more efficient public transit. So when they were asked to vote, they said, “Actually, this is amazing. We want to keep this.”

Read: Want to live in a walkable, bikeable city? Follow these tips.

We have no reason to think that in a city like New York, which has some of the worst traffic in the world, that people won’t also come to the same conclusion. But right now, New Yorkers aren’t being given the chance to experience these benefits. And people in other U.S. cities that are sitting on the fence right now, thinking, “Gosh, that feels a little bit too bold for us,” are missing the opportunity to be able to go to their mayor, to their state leadership, to their regional stakeholders, and say, “New York did this, and look how amazing the impacts have been. Why don’t we explore this more seriously?”


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