On the heels of the New York City Parks Department’s effort to put a value on its trees comes a massive new sustainability plan out of the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Here’s the mayor’s speech introducing the thing, on Earth Day 2007. In a nutshell:
Our strategies focus on the five key dimensions of the city’s environment: land, air, water, energy, and transportation, so that we can absorb the coming growth – while continuing to strengthen our economy, our public health, and the quality of life in our neighborhoods.
That’s our vision: a city that finds creative solutions to the need for more housing and parks. That has much cleaner air – the cleanest of any large city in the nation that protects the purity of its drinking water – and opens virtually all of our rivers and creeks and coastal waters to recreation.
“Plan” is probably the wrong word, though it’s officially called “Planyc” (“Plan Y-C,” I think it’s pronounced). Despite the acres of text and graphics emitted by Bloomberg’s office, and the sweep of his speech, almost everything in the plan amounts to a promise to do all the things that the city government is supposed to do but doesn’t — or at least doesn’t do very well — because they’re hard and expensive. Consider the bullet points of the subsection of the plan for housing:
- Pursue transit-oriented development
- Reclaim underutilized waterfronts
- Increase transit options to spur development
- Expand co-locations with government agencies [that is, share municipal office space with the state and federal governments]
- Adapt outdated buildings to new uses
- Develop underused areas to knit neighbourhoods together
and so on to 11. You get the idea: all fine principles, with many, many devils slouching around in the details.
So it’s no wonder that the thing everybody’s grabbed hold of is the single most concrete of the dozens of points in Planyc, the plan to charge an $8 congestion fee to enter the southern half of Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. New Yorkers outside the affected area, fearing that there’ll be traffic jams and new demand for parking lots on the edges of “the Zone,” are less than thrilled.
But an important component of the plan is that the congestion charge is to be deducted from the tolls commuters pay to drive the bridges and tunnels onto and off Manhattan, which vary quite a bit but are generally either about $6 one-way onto the island or about $4.50 each way. Commuters taking a toll bridge or tunnel are to pay only the difference between the toll and $8, effectively just raising the tolls to $8 everywhere.
(People who get it in the shorts are those who live north of 86th Street, the northern edge of the Zone, and have driven south for free. Of course, people who do that are in the best position to take transit — the ones who are really screwed are those who live in the Zone and drive out of it for work. Not that there are likely a lot of them; Bloomberg’s supporting documentation says only 4.6 per cent of New Yorkers drive into the Zone for work, and doesn’t even mention that there’s anyone who drives out.)
Despite the objections, a congestion charge is the only policy option that makes sense when you have roads that are absolutely crammed full and no prospect for widening them. (Widening a road is just about always a bad idea, but apparently it takes densities like those in the densest part of New York City to convince people that widening is literally not possible.) Access to a smooth-flowing road is a good not everyone can have, so it’s only fair to restrict it to the people to whom it’s worth the most. The New York City plan contends that delivery drivers, for instance, will spend less time in traffic and will make more than $8 a day in improved business. And the proceeds, which Bloomberg’s office estimates at a stunning $400 million a year, are to be plowed into public transit.
Indeed, if someone could come up with a system for doing it that didn’t collapse under its own complexity, charging for access to any public road would be the fairest way to distribute access. What we have now is a peculiar form of rationing, in which everyone who pays taxes kicks in to build and maintain roads, but access is restricted to those who can afford cars. Doesn’t really make sense. Bloomberg’s congestion fee is just a first gross-scale step in the direction of fairness.
Photo credit: Flickr/Squeaky Marmot.