Saturday 21 April 2018

New York's latest interest in congestion pricing

Some might say it took long enough, but for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo it might just be in the nick of time as he is reported in the New York Times as saying that "Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come".

Well I'd say its time had come years ago, after all the technology to do it has been proven since the 1990s, and the actual results of implementing it have been seen in Singapore, London, Stockholm and Gothenburg (although London's success has not been sustained for multiple reasons and Gothenburg's scheme is too big and was focused on revenue collection).

Few need to be reminded of the severity of New York's congestion, and also the enormous funding problem for the city's road and public transport networks.  Although much could be written on how it could improve its planning, contracting and management of its road network, in terms of maintenance (i.e. apply world class asset manegement systems, introduce predictive maintenance and fund it on an asset lifecycle), let alone its public transport system, and why it appears to cost more than anywhere else.  

It remains that there is a huge backlog in renewals for both the roads and the subway network. 

Previous plans

I've written before about the two past attempts to introduce either congestion charging or toll reforms that would have had some of the same effects.

New York has been here before, with the first attempt to introduce congestion charging seen by Mayor Bloomberg.  It failed because the state legislature was uninterested in granting him the powers to charge on state highways.  In 2012, a different proposal was floated by former senior NYC DOT official Sam Schwartz, essentially introducing tolls on untolled East River crossings, but reducing tolls on outer New York tolled routes, which would generate new revenue and be more equitable.

However, the whole idea of charging fell dead in 2013, with Mayoral candidates uninterested.

In 2014, the Sam Schwartz plan became known as the Move NY proposal, as a group of interested organisations backed it.   However, it didn't seem to get traction, as Mayor Bill de Blasio was lukewarm and at the time, state politicians were similarly so.

Indeed, they are all summarised well in the report discussed below, as seen here:

Previous New York congestion pricing proposals


In January 2018, another plan was released from the Fix NYC Advisory Panel, set up by the Governor.   Full report here (PDF).  See the bottom of this post for some thoughts on some of the "information" contained within it.

Proposed New York congestion pricing area

It recommends a series of measures in three phases. 

Phase One - prepare for pricing

Phase One is what it calls "develop a foundation", which means:
  • Identify public transport improvements needed to accommodate trip diversion.
  • Better enforce existing traffic laws, such as "blocking the box" at intersections, illegal parking and illegal use of bus lanes.  
  • Overhaul the parking placard system, which gives vehicles the right to park in certain locations.  It is rife with abuse, fraud and misuse.
  • Review parking and operating regulations for buses and coaches (because of the scarcity of locations for such vehicles to park or stop).
  • Reform Taxi and Limousine Commission to reflect the industry as it now is.
  • Commence the two years of planning work needed to install charging infrastructure (in short, recognising that the planning system is a brake on actually implementing charging).
Phase One is wise, as it is only reasonable to strictly enforce existing laws designed to minimise congestion before introducing charging.  If charging is introduced, those paying will expect the roads to be managed efficiently so traffic flows as well as it should.   Quite simply, it should all happen anyway as there should be little public opposition to reforming existing measures. 

Phase Two - Charge taxis/Uber et al

Phase Two (from 2019) is a little unusual.  It is basically to introduce congestion pricing on all taxi and equivalent "for hire" transport operators crossing or travelling within the charging zone.  It is proposed that it operate from 0600-2200 weekdays and 1200-2200 in weekends, and be a surcharge on all trips that cross the cordon boundary or start within it.  Surcharges are proposed to be between $2 and $5, but are largely flat, which would encourage some modal shift to public transport or walking/cycling.  It is characterised as a surcharge for trips, rather than a charge on vehicles, so it appears not to charge for such vehicles circulating for business.

It is easy to see why this is the next phase, because the growth in taxis/for-hire traffic is clearly a key element in increasing congestion in New York. It also avoids confronting private motorists and commercial road users.  Yet it is possibly the worst of both worlds.  The surcharge is blunt, and would be somewhat effective, but nobody paying it will benefit from what it is paying for.  Conditions may improve, but that will be a benefit to all road users, and traffic may increase from private motorists and other road users, and those paying will not enjoy travel time savings commensurate to the surcharge.   It would be easy indeed to stop at Phase Two and say "that's enough", but it isn't.  That's without taking into account how the taxi/for-hire industry would respond.

Most importantly, what if charging taxis/for hire vehicles doesn't work in that the reduction in trips is so small that opponents can say "look charging wont work for New York".  It is effectively piloting the concept in the United States, and there is a real risk that if the demand impacts are not realised sufficiently, that it will be stalled or even worse, reversed.

Phase Three - Charge other vehicles

This is meant to start in 2020, but again, mistakenly in my view, it is only to start with a subset of vehicles.  Trucks.  The report says trucks are a "significant" contributor to congestion, although they are 8% of all movements, it says they account for 18% of total emissions (which is not congestion).  It proposes a charge of $25.34, to be consistent with toll rates, between 0600-2000 weekdays at least.  I'm not sure what this will achieve, as a flat rate over a long period, it is unlikely to make much difference to demand (it might encourage some trip consolidation), but again, trucks will be paying for little benefit.  You see one option is to apply this charge on a 24/7 basis, which is NOT congestion pricing.   It would be much better to have charges varying by time of day.

Finally, after charging trucks and surcharges on taxis and for-hire vehicles, cars would be charged.  One reason for introducing it to trucks first is to "ensure it runs smoothly", which is odd given no other scheme anywhere needed to do that.  It's far from leading edge to capture number plates or read EZ-Pass transponders.

This charge would be separate from the surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles (indeed separate systems would be in place for both), and buses would be exempt.   It is estimated that vehicle trips would drop by 13% and average vehicle speeds increase by around 9%.   It also proposes expanding charges to weekends 1100-2100 if congestion justifies it.

Flat or variable charge

The report puts forward two broad options for charging.  One is what is described above, essentially a cordon charge at a flat rate, close to London's area charge. Another is to more closely replicate Stockholm, with charges varying by time of day (but not entry point).  Below is a depiction of such a charge structure.

Proposed New York variable cordon charges
As you can see, it has a much higher rate at 0600-0900 than 0500-0600 or after 0900, but it also has charges for 24 hours. I'd suggest that from 2200-0500 it's a tax, not a charge on congestion.  More could be done with this.  There could be shoulder periods, with charging closer to how Stockholm does it, but it's a start.  It does seem a mild shame for it to be 2018 and New York is somewhere between systems introduced between 2003 and 2007. 

Toll crossing users wont pay twice

Following the Move NY proposal, this means that all those using tolled crossings into lower Manhattan would not pay more than now, effectively equalising charges between all those entering lower Manhattan (and defusing possible opposition from those already paying tolls).  

It's as much about revenue

It's very clear from the report that the revenue that could be raised is as important, if not more important, than the improvements to congestion and the environment.  The surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles is estimated to raise between $155m and $605m per annum (gross), truck only charges are expected to raise $105m-$180m and charging cars is estimated to raise $705m-$970m.
There are proposals for 24 hour charging rather betrays talk about congestion pricing.  There isn't congestion at all times, and if such proposals go anywhere, it is more like a tax on road transport operating in lower Manhattan.  It would have an impact on demand, but that impact would be beyond congested periods of the day.  Even with higher charges at peak times, the presence of charges all night long is a tax.  It's far removed from Singapore's system and even Stockholm's. 


Hopefully, Governor Cuomo is right.  The "time has come" for congestion pricing.  Undoubtedly it could reduce congestion and pollution, improve bus travel times and raise revenue for New York's transport networks.  Lower Manhattan is the logical place to do this, given the natural boundaries, the pre-existence of some tolled entry points and the high density of public transport service (as well as the very limited opportunities to relieve congestion by other means).

However, it needs to be done right and successfully from the start.  It seems strange that surcharges on taxis and for-hire vehicle trips are separated from charging cars and trucks, and for trucks to be charged before cars (to manage the risk of technology and operations) is ridiculously cautious.

Phase One should certainly proceed, but Phase Two and Three should be combined, ideally into a scheme that is initially simple (start with a flat rate charge during the day), but flexible to have peak and off-peak charges at a later date.  Consideration might be given to replicating how Singapore links its charging scheme to taxi services, so passengers pay charges when and where applicable.  

Taxis and for-hire vehicles should pay too, but give them the option to pay by distance instead of just a flat charge for each crossing of the cordon, so that this covers circulation within the cordon.  That could correspond with lower charges at at the cordon, and could eventually be extended to all vehicles.  Yes it would mean those that drive all day will pay a lot, but it would be a small charge per mile (in the order of cents) which would vary by time of day.   After all, when the world's most sophisticated system (Singapore) is transitioning towards GNSS based charging after 2020 (which will allow distance charging), why shouldn't New York think further ahead?

So while I support the plan in principle, I recommend New York implement charging on all vehicles at the same time.  If anyone is to pay to cross the cordon, they should receive the benefits of reduced congestion.  Just charging a minority of those vehicles generates few benefits, and certainly less than what they will receive from paying, and it undermines the narrative about charging being a success.  Other cities can do it all at once, there is no good reason why New York can't.

Finally, it is important to talk about the use of revenue.  The primary use of proposed revenues is to fund capital on the subway system.  However, it is critical that those paying see at least part of the money collected spent on them, which means fixing Manhattan streets.  Well sealed roads are not just good for cars and trucks, but also bus passengers and especially cyclists and pedestrians.  They improve safety and also help reduce emissions (smoother surfaces and less erratic braking).  As important, it would demonstrate that those paying are getting direct value.

The big challenge is whether the enabling legislation can pass through the State Legislature.   The Mayor's ("five point") strategy on congestion doesn't include charging, but does include parts of Phase One.  He has shown little interest in pricing to date, indeed was reported last year saying he "doesn't believe" in it, apparently because he thinks the "wealthiest aren't paying their fair share".  This isn't a criticism of the effectiveness of charging to reduce congestion and improve the environment, it's a view on how to raise more revenue, and a very blinkered conservative view of transport policy.  Hopefully the Mayor will rethink his views, as it seems bizarre to oppose a policy that would appear to be relatively easy to implement, which would benefit all types of road users and residents in Manhattan.

Footnote on international experience

I wouldn't read the Fix NYC report for its insights into congestion pricing internationally, because it's woeful on that.  It mischaracterises the Singapore system (no it doesn't operate 0700-1900 and charge $2 per crossing), which has different operating times for over 80 charging points with different prices at different times of day.  It is highly sophisticated and prices are adjusted every three months based on the level of service (speed) at each charging point.  It's easily the world's most efficient and precise (and successful) pricing system, so why ignore it, unless it is simple ignorance?

On London it is similarly misleading.  It fails to note London is an AREA scheme, so it charges vehicles moving within the cordon as well as crossing it.  It fails to note that the extension to the London scheme was removed in 2009.  The claim that it is more expensive to operate and maintain than a transponder system is highly debatable, given the need to duplicate the Automatic Number Plate Recognition infrastructure and to distribute and manage an inventory of transponders.  It claims that extra buses were put on to take the car trips, but it is far from clear that the suppression of car trips was a diversion onto buses (more likely the buses took people from the underground).  Furthermore, the claim it allowed for bus and cycle lanes to be created without increasing congestion is contrary to the evidence from the London Assembly report, which isn't cited given it says the London system is no longer "fit for purpose".  

On Stockholm and Milan it's reasonably fair (if not completely accurate), but oddly it doesn't discuss Gothenburg (barring one reference), nor mention how Dubai got it wrong, or why charging didn't proceed before in New York. I'd sincerely hope that if New York proceeds it gets advice that understands why many other attempts at congestion pricing failed in other cities, like Copenhagen, Manchester (UK), Helsinki, Budapest and Edinburgh.   It is at some risk of repeating some of those mistakes.

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