DMI Blog

Ethan Heitner

Liveblog! Marketplace of Ideas: Combating Global Warming through Congestion Pricing

UPDATE: Blog and Press Coverage of DMI's Marketplace of Ideas on Congestion Pricing

"Making a Case for Congestion Pricing," by Sewell Chan. The Empire Zone Blog, the New York Times.

Mayor Pushes Pedal On Traffic Plan, by Matthew Schuerman. The New York Observer.

"The Joy of Congestion Pricing," by Matthew Schuerman. The Real Estate, blog of the New York Observer.

"Blogging Congestion Pricing." The Wonkster, Gotham Gazette.

"Nicky Gavron and Eric Gioia," by Lindsay Beyerstein. Majikthise blog.

"DMI On Congestion Pricing," by Daniel Millstone. The Daily Gotham.

"Deputy Mayor of London advises NYC on congestion pricing" This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow's Blog but by Lindsay Beyerstein)


Hi, my name is Ethan (formerly of and I'll be your host and liveblogger for this morning's installment of DMI's "Marketplace of Ideas." Join me, Deputy Mayor of London Nicky Gavron, New York City Councilmember Eric Gioia of Long Island City and Sunnyside, Central Labor Council executive director Ed Ott and John Liu, chair of the New York City Council Transportation Committee representing Flushing, as we dissect the most controversial, or at least most-discussed, part of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's recently revealed plan for a greener New York: an $8 congestion fee for driving your car to downtown Manhattan during a weekday.

In the interest of full disclosure, and as we wait for the room on the tenth floor of NYU's Kimmel Student Center to fill up (which it looks like it will) I feel I should mention that my preferred option for commuting from Kensington, just south of Greenwood Cemetery, into Manhattan every morning is my bike, even in terrible weather like this morning's cold bluster. Flatbush Avenue, the main artery for South Brooklyn to get to the Manhattan or Brooklyn bridges, is always a parking lot during rush hour from 4th Avenue north. But I'm also very excited about Mayor Mike's proposal to finally complete the 1,296 miles of projected and proposed bike lanes in NYC by...uh....2030 (to date only 420 miles have been built, either of separated bike paths or striped bike lanes on shared roads).

Letting Critical Mass ride unmolested would be a good start also.

Kathy Wylde of Partnership for New York kicks off the intro by mentioning that this week NYC hosted a global meeting of 40 heads of cities, the Large Cities Climate Summit, to discuss the power and ability of cities to fight climate change with or without the help of federal and national governments--an initiative started by today's speaker, Deputy Mayor of London Nicky Gavron.

"We have a little bit of a competitive spirit" with London, says Kathy, so it's time to play catch-up with how far ahead London is of us on climate change.

Nicky Gavron mentions that the Climate Summit was even mentioned on David Letterman--climate change has arrived! And more on competition:
170 languages are spoken in NYC--but 300 languages are spoken in London, the most international cities in the world. NYC may be the "world's second home" but London is the "world in one place." What does diversity have to do with climate change? She'll explain later.

Infrastructure and the accumulated wealth of centuries is at risk with sea level rise. We're seeing now the effect of greenhouse gases emitted in the 50s--and we now push much more into the atmosphere. Therefore we only have 10 years to prevent "runaway" climate change.

"Acceleration is what it's all about-- we have to leapfrog. We must provide attractive alternatives to car use."


"We would never have gotten anywhere without the courage of Ken Livingstone, to press ahead in the face of insane and hysterical press opposition" says Nicky of London's first directly elected executive mayor in 40 years. So hopefully Mayor Bloomberg will take courage from his socialist counterpart.

Nicky: "Thatcher said, if you're seen on a bus after the age of 30, you're a loser in life." Thatcher allowed public infrastructure and investment to decay. By 1997 the average London city speed in downtown was 9 mph-- the same as in New York, and the same as a horse-drawn carriage.

London was "the dirty old man of Europe," with some of the worst air quality in Europe.


The area chosen for the initial congestion fee plan was only 8 square miles--same as in Manhattan--where 25% of all the jobs were, especially finance and media. But Manhattan has four times the population and an even greater percentage of the jobs. Yet it's also the area best served by public transportation in both cities.

"The first thing we did," says Nicky, "was to invest in the bus. It's the most cost-effective thing to invest in, and much quicker than the big rail projects." This was after 40 years of no investment. "More buses, more routes, dedicated lanes. ... We started a draconian regime of enforcement" for those dedicated lanes. "40,000 extra seats" on buses to and from the zone.

Initial operation of London scheme: 7am to 6 in the evening, a flat rate charge of 8 pounds, no charge on weekends, robust camera enforcement based on license plate recognition technology, including mobile cameras on vans to monitor movement in the zone. Members close to the boundary of the zone were "extremely concerned about their neighborhoods becoming parking lots and rat runs"-- Londonish for nabes were you try to escape traffic by running through like a rat in a maze.

But parking laws only allowed for residents of the nabes, which solved that problem.

Exemptions: taxis, bikes, alt-fuel vehicles, emergency and breakdown and repair vehicles, health patients, military vehicles.

"By the way, your U.S. embassy still hasn't paid the congestion fee--and it doesn't count that they've got the first fuel-cell in London, because they're on foreign soil."

Payment is made very easy, over the internet and txt messaging even!

So let's discuss the impact, says Nicky:

Traffic: the number of cars entering the zone is down by a 3rd, and traffic overall is down by 21%, congestion is down by 26%, and there is NO CHANGE in the amount of people coming into the zone.

Bus reliability has improved, journey times have been reduced. All of the buses were so far ahead of schedules immediately they had to change the timetables.

"Pinstripe suits come up and say, 'Deputy Mayor, I would never not use the bus now,' they say to me--the bus now is classless, even though you don't talk about class here," says Nicky.

Other figures on the money impact I will put in later--on gross income and expenses, but money goes into school districts, and into freight and distribution centers.

The Economic Impact:
Before the scheme, the predictions were for meltdown. "London wouldn't survive, shops would close, theaters would be dark." The reality is different: the headline is that the impact has been broadly neutral. No impact on employment, etc.:

Critics quote Autumn of 2003 as sign of a downturn in London, but this was during a cyclical downturn, and a lack of international tourism and the closure of the central line of the Underground. There was another downturn in retail in July of 2005--after the London bombings.

Retail is now growing at 7 percent in Central London, compared to 2 percent in the rest of the UK.

More stats on environmental impact, surveys on theater goers and shoppers show that people on the streets feel that the feel of the streets is better, nicer, pleasanter. Before the scheme went into effect, more people were opposed in London, and now 2/3 support it-- "it's more popular after people started paying than before."


"Political leadership, commitment and courage are essential. It can be a bumpy ride. You must do the research, establish before-and-after studies on impact. Consultation with businesses and populations. Bring in improvement to traffic systems in advance."

"Inevitably there are some business that will lose--every transport change will have this effect. But they are by and large a niche business, and have moved elsewhere. But by and large the scheme has had a neutral effect on businesses."

"The main loser is the small number of people who have been forced out of their cars for their commute"--90 to 95 percent commuted to central London before the scheme, much like NYC. Pedestrians, cyclists, tourists, and public transportation riders are all benefited, and everyone benefits from higher air quality and lower C02 emissions.

In November 2006 the mayor introduced the idea of emissions charges; "the differential charging regime will accelerate the market for low-carbon vehicles" and the infrastructure to support them. The goal is reducing the 21% of London's carbon emissions that are produced by surface traffic-- the same ratio as NYC.

"No two cities have more to learn from each other than London and NYC," says Nicky. "We did the basic research on the London committee, but we wouldn't have done it without Singapore" and other cities, like Stockholm. "We pledged to lead the world in tackling climate change," and congestion fees do that while funding public transportation. London is only a small part of the UK's emissions-- 2% of the world's emissions. The U.S. emits 25% of the world's C02.

"The world's citizens are watching. Please, we are willing to collaborate in any way possible. We haven't a moment to lose."


Okay, time for the panel discussion. Andrea asks Councilmember John Liu:
"How can we address global warming through congestion pricing? Is there an expectation that addressing climate change is relevant to New York City transportation planning policy"

John: In recent years, we see a lot more concern from New Yorkers on the environment, not just on traffic planning, but also on green construction. A few months ago there was a report on how not just traffic contributes to emissions but also buildings contribute. I support congestion pricing, not just for environmental reasons, but the loss of 13 billion a year due to congestion, the loss of jobs from congestion. Those are the immediate calls for action.

Andrea: [New York Central Labor Council executive director] Ed [Ott], there's been a lot of discussion on the impact of congestion pricing on the middle class, some say its a tax on the middle class, some say its the other way around. What's your perspective as a labor head?

Ed: I was glad to hear the press came out of the box in the same way in London-- focusing on this only as a single issue. We need to have this discussion in the context of the problems with mass transit in this city, where some areas have no access. In labor, some are openly hostile, some are skeptical. I won't name names. If all that congestion pricing leads to is a regressive fee on people going to work. That's the beginning of the discussion. But the majority of the working class in this city are on the subway at 6am. The reality of a mass transit scheme means that we need a pricing scheme.

"We have an asinine system of tolls of now that creates that rat running through nabes in Brooklyn." Buses must be bought before the pricing scheme is imposed. Light rail options need to be explored.

Nicky: The bus took up 2% of road space in London. Over half the households didn't have access to a car. What about equity for the people that don't have a choice? We're investing as fast as we can in more and more transport.

Andrea: [Council Member] Erik [Gioia], Nicky mentioned an extensive consultation process. What do the residents of Long Island City, a potential "rat run" say?

Eric: Thanks to Nicky for adding "rat run" to our lexicon. I don't want to be a knee jerk opposition. Congestion pricing itself is not the goal, though-- its a tool to get cleaner air, etc. But thanks to the mayor for bringing this to the forefront. In my neighborhood, kids walking to school have pockets bulging with asthma inhalers. But this has to be a whole dialogue about improving infrastructure. There's this perception, that working folk, if they just had knowledge of their options, they'd do it better. I just got off living off of food stamps for a week, and I'm a pretty smart guy, but I was buying the worst stuff. The idea that working folk drive to work because they don't know about the train or the bus is wrong. They're making rational choices.

There's no faster way to kill this than to go on Queens Blvd and tell the folk that oppose this plan they're "parochial whiners." If you do, bring Commish Kelly with you. People who oppose this have real concerns and need to be brought into the conversation.

Nicky: We've been introducing free fares for children--now everyone under 18 and in school and all over 60 go free on the bus. We're looking at people on benefits going free. It's about redistribution. When we put in the congestion charge, we knew that kids who lived on main roads were being damaged. University of South California came up with a dynamite study: children living up to 500 meters from trafficky lungs have damaged lungs. Asthma is not just exacerbated, it's caused by fumes.

Andrea: There's a concern that small businesses would be impacted...the broad impact was neutral, but what about retail?

Eric: My dad owns a flower shop in Queens. My dad used to deliver in a truck to Manhattan--it's no longer profitable thanks to the "time tax"-- it takes too long, the gas is too expensive. There are business owners in the outer ring who are making the decision every day about getting into Manhattan, and the congestion fee is just putting a number on that. London is booming now. For a New Yorker to say that streets are busy and crowded, you know it's true.

Nicky: Deliveries are actually improving under the scheme. Businesses that aren't doing well: niches where people came a long way to get to them, some of them have moved, not to out of London, but to other parts of London. Like antique stores. Passing trade, some of the small news agents, have been hit, but they've been outdone by the gains.

John: The mayor has to do a better job of including small business owners. I've met with a number of groups in the past three weeks, mom-and-pop and mostly immigrant shops. To ask them to pay 21 dollars a day to conduct their business is not an idea to them of improving the environment. After years of suffering double parking tickets, other tickets, they feel this is another way to get them. Time is money, though, for these business, maybe they could make more money if the streets were less congestion. But they're so skeptical, because they've been left out of the conversations. They need an easier way to load and unload, for example.

Nicky: And fuel-efficient vehicles, clean vehicles are exempt. So it encourages people to make that change.


Andrea: Is this a behavior-changing plan? How does that deal get done?

Ed: You know, there are people for whom this is not a choice. They are driving to get to public transportation if they can. But we're talking about a major overhaul of city transportation, and there are going to be impacts, but we've got to take a problem-solving attitude. Less than 5% drive into the Central Business District. Small business have to know how this will impact them. We have to give them answers.

John: A lot of people who drive to work do not have the mass transit options. I know that many people say we can't pay for expanding infrastructure until we have the revenue from congestion feeing, but we have a huge surplus now, and can be put into expanding mass transit options that require little capital outlay. We need a commitment to making a 30 minute, a 45 minute commute possible for everyone. The main argument for me, the environment, the quality of life, great, but the main argument is the economic cost of not doing this. We must invest immediately in those transit options.

Eric: We need short-term and long-term plans. The 7 train, try taking that at 8:45am. It was out for a long time on weekends. The infrastructure is maxed out. If you make someone's commute something to look forward to, it changes their day.

Andrea: Many people drive who have access, and many people drive who don't have access. Both truths need to be acknowledged. But more on behavior modification: Can we get NYPD to enforce the 3-minute idling law? What about government plates driving into the city?

Eric: Behavior modification sounds Soviet to me.

Ed: Look, enforcement can be done. Will you invest in enforcement? But behavior modification. It's like asking: what's good sex? It depends on what you do. It depends on what you do up front.

Eric: That's the best answer I've ever heard at DMI.

Andrea: You'll be invited back.


Andrea: In London is there a functional discount for clean gas, alt-fuels?

Nicky: We exempt certain...we're looking at biofuels, because there's a big lobby from the car industry to look at biofuels, but right now we can't tell the proportion of biofuel to petrol. But about people who don't live close to mass transit. We're trying to expand buses, but we're trying to encourage park-and-ride. But I'm concerned about women walking home after riding transport late at night... I want a campaign on "The Last Mile Home" so that women are safe walking home. Maybe something like a cheap people-mover to drop you off at your house.

Andrea: Anyone else on alt fuels? Ed Ott, there's no metaphor that will work on alternative fuels.


Andrea: What's been the impact on real estate?

Nicky: Actually, there's a lot of investment in the West End now because of the congestion scheme, dependent on it.

Eric: And on the waterfront, when I was walking around London, it was booming--like Long Island City could be.


Andrea: If London was an island, would the fees have been put on bridges and tunnels?

Nicky: We envied you. Yes. You've got a natural boundary, we had to create one.

Andrea: To the panel: Do you think this will become policy? What obstacles have to be overcome?

Ed: In the end, the city will engage in the question of transit. Part of that will be a pricing scheme. What the impact is and who pays are important to the labor movement, but it's naive to think that we can do this without a pricing scheme. I'll take hits for saying that.

John: I don't think Ed has to take hits. This will become policy, it'll take some years. The goal is not congestion pricing though, the goal is congestion relief. Improving mass transit can be done immediately. The people who drive no matter what will need behavior modification, that's what the pricing is for.

Eric: I don't know how this will turn out.

Andrea: That's no fun.

Eric: But really, I don't know. But people in Queens and Brooklyn and the boroughs need to be brought in without called parochial. But it is essential that we have this discussion now. My ten-month-old moves faster than traffic on 2nd avenue in the morning. It pollutes our air and makes our city sick, and business will flee. If the dialogue is done right, we will move forward, but if we don't, it won't.

Andrea: Any last advice from the deputy mayor?

Nicky: I don't want to give any advice, but remember the big picture. Remember Nicholas Stern's warning: The costs of inaction are greater, much greater than the costs of action. The costs of inaction are big, economic costs. Why is London doing so well? The congestion charge has helped the economy of London. Quality of life helps the economy of life. Being able to get around helps the economy of London. The congestion charge has helped make the fastest shift out of the car and into public transportation of any city anywhere around the world.

Andrea: And with that, thanks for being part of the conversation.

So, in closing, it sounds like most of the people on this panel agree that congestion pricing is going to happen. It is, it seems, only Mayor Mike's game to lose at this point. If he can't engage in community leaders and business groups and convince them on this, it'll sink. If he comes across as "arrogant" on this, it'll sink.

Ethan Heitner: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:18 AM, May 18, 2007 in Transportation
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