SOME OF the most vibrant cities in the world have done it — just none in the United States. In busy places such as London and Singapore, drivers must pay a fee to enter central business districts, a policy designed to discourage unnecessary driving; encourage walking, biking and train-riding; reduce wear on the roads; and cut pollution. New York City officials have toyed with the idea before, only to be rebuffed by the state legislature, which would have to sign off on any congestion pricing scheme in the nation’s largest city. But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) are now in agreement: It should cost something to drive into a swath of Manhattan.
Charging drivers is a hard sell in car-focused America. But the idea is rational. New York should move forward — and other U.S. cities with suffocating traffic should consider it, too.
Any time there is a scarce resource in high demand — such as, say, access to coveted road space in Manhattan — the best way to ensure it is used efficiently is to ask those who use it to pay something for the privilege. Some will find they can make do without driving into Manhattan. Those who find the convenience of road travel too valuable to surrender will pay something for the effects of their behavior. Those economic and health effects stem from congestion, pollution and wear and tear on the roads. Yes, people will resent paying. But if nothing is done, drivers and non-drivers alike will pay dearly; with no change in policy, congestion will cost the city’s economy $100 billion over five years, a state report projected last year.
What about needy New Yorkers? The state report found that the effects on low- and moderate-income residents would be minimal. Only about 4 percent of New Yorkers from the city’s outer boroughs commute into Manhattan in a vehicle. More than half of those are wealthy. It is, in other words, a luxury to cruise into Manhattan — one that needs no further social subsidy in the form of free access to the roads.
What is less than luxurious is the city’s subway and bus system, a far more important consideration for everyday New Yorkers. Though much more extensive than other U.S. public transit systems, New York’s has long been plagued by reliability, accessibility and cleanliness problems. Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio want to direct congestion pricing revenue to the city’s trains and buses, raising perhaps $15 billion for needed improvements. Thus, their plan would simultaneously discourage driving and encourage alternatives that are better for traffic, the air and the planet. As they proceed, New York officials should make sure they make enough improvements to public transit before phasing in their traffic pricing plan.
The state legislature should approve. Then the rest of the country should take lessons from New York’s model.