How to Get New York Moving Again

The next time you’re in midtown Manhattan on a weekday afternoon, I encourage you to try a little game: Take a brisk crosstown walk, and look around.

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, New York Times

The next time you’re in midtown Manhattan on a weekday afternoon, I encourage you to try a little game: Take a brisk crosstown walk, and look around.

For starters, it’s a nice way to take in the city while getting some exercise. It will also give you a sense for one of New York’s pressing problems. If you watch the vehicles around you, you will probably notice that you are traveling faster than some of them.

Despite having internal combustion engines — which I’m pretty sure are more powerful than your body — the vehicles will crawl forward at a few mph. Then they will stop and wait for a light to turn green or a gridlocked intersection to clear. Meanwhile, you will keep moving. When I’m walking across Manhattan, I often find that I can outrace a car.

The average vehicle speed in midtown today is just 4.7 mph. That’s 28 percent slower than five years ago. Given that most people can walk up to 4 mph, the human body is sometimes Manhattan’s fastest mode of transportation.

Traffic has become an urban scourge, and not only in New York. Around the world, it is a drag on economic activity and the quality of life. People waste hours in it, all the while sending pollution into the air. No wonder both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are promising a solution.

Unfortunately, there is a good chance they are going to bungle it.

Traffic is a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem. The phrase comes from ecologist Garrett Hardin, based on work by 19th-century economist William Forster Lloyd.

Lloyd described British villagers sharing a plot of land where their cattle could graze. Any individual benefited from using the land as much as possible. But if they all maximized use, they could destroy the grass.

The space on city streets is like the village common. When it’s overused, it becomes less valuable to everyone.

The good news is that modern societies have developed a solution to the tragedy: Charge money to use the commons. Doing so not only discourages overuse, it also raises funds that can solve the larger need — to grow another field where cows can graze, say, or to build a well-functioning subway system. And, yes, I realize that both grazing cows and well-functioning subways sound far-fetched to today’s New Yorkers.

The charge for using clogged roads is known as “congestion pricing,” and it works well where it has been tried, like London, Singapore and Stockholm. In New York, the daily charge to drive below 60th Street might be around $8, with additional charges for vehicles that linger all day.

Ken Livingstone, the London mayor when congestion pricing began in 2003, has said it’s the only thing in his political career that “turned out better than I expected.”

London’s vehicle speeds would be 20 percent to 30 percent lower without the charge to enter central London, urban expert Charles Komanoff has estimated, and a separate study found a significant decline in crashes.

The reason more cities haven’t adopted congestion pricing, Livingstone says, is “political cowardice.” People cling to the idea that driving should be free, even though it imposes big costs on others.

In New York, de Blasio opposes congestion pricing. He instead favors a millionaires’ tax to pay for subway improvements. Higher taxes on the rich are a fine idea, but won’t unclog roads. For that, de Blasio has offered a series of small, complex measures, like banning deliveries during rush hour. Good luck enforcing that one.

Cuomo is more positive about congestion pricing, but has not filled in the details. He may ultimately support a charge only on taxis and companies like Lyft, Uber and Via. That’s a strangely anti-environment compromise, because it encourages people to own their own cars. The New York of the future should have fewer space-clogging cars, not more.

The most serious argument against congestion pricing is that it hurts lower-income workers. That argument also falls apart on inspection, though.

Only 3 percent of poor and near-poor outer-borough workers drive into Manhattan for their jobs, the Community Service Society of New York found. A whopping 61 percent take the subway or bus.

I understand why politicians are afraid to support congestion pricing. We all like the idea of a free lunch — or a free road. But political leadership is supposed to be just that: leadership. It involves making tough decisions for the common good and winning over citizens.

Both de Blasio and Cuomo would like to be national progressive leaders. New York’s packed roads and hobbled subways have given them a great opportunity. They can lead the way toward a pro-environment, pro-worker solution that would be a model for other cities.

I look forward to the day when I can no longer keep up with New York’s cars.

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