New York City is set to become the first major American city to make drivers pay money to get into its most crowded areas. The purpose of the new toll is to reduce traffic, cut pollution and encourage more people to use public transportation.
Several cities around the world have tried a similar plan. It seems to have worked in places like London, Singapore and Stockholm. Each now has a “congestion pricing” system like the one New York City is planning.
After the systems were put in place, each of the cities experienced less traffic and better air quality. At the same time, the cities got more money to support public transportation and building projects.
John Rennie Short is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He said, “New York is a prime example of cities where it tends to work, which is very high density, with relatively good public transportation.”
Experts say there are still important questions to answer about how the plan will work in New York’s busiest area, Manhattan. The officials have not yet decided on many details.
The plan would use a network of license plate readers to charge vehicles money for using surface roads anywhere in Manhattan south of Central Park. That includes the cost of the toll to cross a bridge into the city.
Mitchell Moss is director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. He thinks the plan will not do very much, and that the city will experience only a small reduction in traffic.
That is because people will either accept the cost and keep driving, or instead choose to use ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, he said.
“We’re not going to see people abandon their cars to get into the subway,” Moss said.
This month, New York state lawmakers approved a plan for the tolling system. The new system adds to an existing network of bridge and tunnel tolls that charge $9.50 to $15 for vehicles coming into Manhattan. There are tolls on seven of the 20 bridges and tunnels leading into the island.
That money will help pay for much-needed repairs and updates to the city’s public transportation system. Moss called that a “terrific victory.”
New York could learn how to avoid problems with the tolls by looking at what happened in London. A similar system has operated there since 2003. At first, London charged drivers 5 pounds, or about $6.50, to come into the central part of the city during the work week.
There was a big effect in its first year: congestion dropped 30 percent, buses got six percent faster and emissions went down by 12 percent.
Over time, however, congestion has gotten worse, even though the toll cost rose to 11.5 pounds, about $15, per day. Officials say that was because of ride-sharing vehicles like Uber, which did not have to pay the tolls.
Starting this week, however, London will make ride-sharing vehicles pay, too.
In Stockholm, an experimental program has worked so well that residents voted in 2007 to make it permanent. Singapore’s system has been around since the 1970s.
Researchers say congestion pricing plan with an $11.52 toll could reduce traffic on Manhattan by 13 percent and raise about $1.1 billion a year.
Kate Slevin is senior vice president of state programs and promotion at Regional Plan Association, an organization that supports the congestion toll.
She said, “Even a small reduction in traffic can have a substantial impact on the larger traffic network.”
Some wonder if New York's old transit system could deal with a large increase in passengers. Slevin says transit officials have almost two years to take needed steps, like changing current bus routes.
Lawmakers in San Francisco, California, are also considering a congestion pricing system to help with its traffic problems.