Unlocking Gridlock in New York

Last week’s press in New York is judging Mayor Bloomberg’s Congestion Pricing proposal (part of PlaNYC) far less harshly that the British press has criticized Mayor Livingstone’s efforts in London. Is this a sign of greater trust of government in the U.S. as compared to the UK, a reflection of the greater social maturity of New Yorkers, or is it due only to the sobering and compounding fears of Global Warming? While I dare hope it is some of the second, I suspect it is mostly the latter.

I usually see little popular press that does not misconstrue one aspect or another of the value or intention of congestion pricing – even when it comes down in favor. Last week was an exception.

From the City Desk of NYT: Unlocking Gridlock understands that congestion pricing is not synonymous with a tax-grab on the working poor.

Opponents of the plan, particularly those in car-dependent Queens, are flat wrong in calling the fee a tax on the working class. With the additional investment in rapid bus routes, ferries and transit links, workers would benefit from more choices.

Full marks.

Another article has the mayor explaining the emissions-asthma connection to a church group. Nice to bring home the message that our cars today are harming our own kids’ health.

Imposing congestion fees, the mayor said, “will encourage people to take mass transit, it will give us the money to build more mass transit, it will clean the air and give our children much better air to breathe — and also for adults, incidentally.”

He didn’t even need to bring up the terrible toll in wasted time and fuel that congestion brings. He did point out, however, that he actually has a moral obligation:

“In my faith … there is a religious obligation … to make the world whole, or to correct error[s] and end injustice. And that responsibility is found among people of good will in every faith.”

Nice touch.

An even bigger surprise is that at least one blog, the Gothamist, attracted a majority of pro-comments. The balance, here, far outstripped anything I have seen in the UK. It may be premature, but New Yorkers in 2007 do not at all look like the grousing Londoners of 2002 (or 2007, for that matter).

Here is an example of New York thoughtful street debate rather than the fist-shaking drivel common to the UK online news commenters:

“I am on the fence on this one, but the "inconvenient truth" about this scheme is that commuters from outside Manhattan will more than likely drive into the boroughs and park there increasing traffic and pollution in the streets of those areas, effectively exporting it from Manhattan. The reason I say this is suburban commuters who have to own a car to survive will not [want to] pay hundreds of bucks a month for a monthly train ticket in addition to their car payments, insurance, etc. They will drive into Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx and then take a subway from there, making transit more crowded for those residents as well, while Manhattan becomes a playground for wealthy folks to zoom around in unencumbered. – [Sammy | April 23, 2007]

Sammy: I realize [I’m] one of the few, but I actually own a car, [make] monthly payments … plus insurance... however, I also pay $250 a month for a monthly train pass, and $76 for the metrocard to get to work every morning. I absolutely abhor driving in traffic every morning to get to work...although its easier to drive, my sanity has been kept in check because I do not have to sit in traffic for hours on end. Also, with gas prices the way they are, plus tolls, the cost of my commute is roughly equal to what I pay for mass transit. – [K. | April 23, 2007]

Not only does K point out that you can’t beat the congestion equation with a car, but Sammy also points out a very important problem: Congestion pricing now only keeps some cars at home, it also shifts some around. Planners need to anticipate and address additional parking requirements at the middle and outer reaches of the transit system in addition to additional transit capacity. People like Sammy need to know this is going to happen.

Intelligent debate beats ranting anytime.

Renews my faith in America, this does.


A Brilliant Insight

I have started a new writing assignment for one of my UK publishers who asked me to prepare 2000 words on “Congestion Pricing in Ontario” just in time for an Intelligent Transport Systems conference. (Yes, Virginia, since Congestion Pricing is part of the arcane field of endeavor called “Intelligent Transportation Systems”, that absolutely does imply that unpriced-roads should be called “Unintelligent Transportation Systems”, which is pretty much what this blog has been saying since its inception.)

In any case, I have a colleague, Justin Peters, who has a far deeper grasp of government (any government) than I do. So, I sent him an email:

The new taxing powers recently granted to Toronto appear (in the press) to allow our mayor to toll roads without further permission. Do I understand that correctly? What else needs to be done (besides the political will and the technical system) to deploy congestion tolling in or around the GTA. (i.e., can the Province promote or stop this? The Feds? If you had to guess, by when do you think some form of congestion pricing would be put in place anywhere in Ontario?

My quandary is that I do not understand how this will roll out in Canada. In the US, the feds are putting up money for the states/cities to trial some ideas – it remains to be seen how that will play out, but there are already some cities looking hard and (for example) Vegas is about to rescind its "no-toll" law. There is no sign of that kind of shift here, but there is certainly a congestion problem in Toronto and in Vancouver. Indeed Toronto's Mayor Miller now says "tolling must be regional not 'just Toronto' " whereas before he said "no tolling", period. What does your crystal ball say re Toronto? How will this realistically play out?

His reply:

You are correct with respect to the City's ability to toll with new powers in the City Of Toronto Act. The only place where that power might be limited would be on the 400-series roads which may require Provincial Authority.

Municipalities are 'a creature of the Province' so the Feds would be way out of line and with the Federal Conservatives, off Party-line, to interfere. Conversely, if the Feds wanted to phase out Fed Gas Tax or GST on Gas, then they might sponsor Pay-Per-Use. Also, ECOMobility funds from the federal government are being made available for these types of Transport Demand Management measures. (Similar to USDoT's Urban Partnerships Agreements - constitutionality stretching National Goals.)

However, given the Mayor's position that tolling ought to be a GTA-wide strategy, the GTTA and Provincial governments will be needed to make things happen. But if Mayor Miller endorsed Road User Charging in the GTA and started a campaign to achieve it instead of his silly GST-penny thing, both other players would be forced to act. This would send a dual signal that the City of Toronto is serious about its budgetary problems and about climate change.
[bolding mine]


Where to find Giambrone’s $6B

Toronto Councillor Adam Giambrone intends to rescue Toronto Transit from its long downward slide.

I recently predicted Giambrone would be mayor of Toronto in 12 years. Kelly Patrick’s long homage to him in Saturday’s Post (07.04.07) supports my case. This guy cares (10 points), is smart (20 points), has passion (20 points) and has balls (50 points). Hopefully he is a closet libertarian, too.

Giambrone is looking for $6B over 15 years to fix Toronto’s Transit and there is a very sensible way for him to get every cent of that in a socially fair (Left), fiscally responsible (Right) and environmentally responsible (Green) manner. And he can intelligently address congestion at the same time (Libertarian).

Wait. Did I just hear you think “it’s obvious congestion would be fixed by $6B in new transit”? It’s not obvious. You can’t fix congestion by building transit systems, any more than by building roads. You fix congestion by putting commuters onto transit. If you think those are two ways to say the same thing, then you’re dreaming bigger than me. Recall the old Irish proverb: “…a fool and his car are not easily parted.”

The $6B Giambrone plan is long overdue. Why we boomers had to wait for a 29 year old that looks 19 to explain this, I’ll never fathom. We really should be ashamed of ourselves, since Jane Jacobs, who predates boomers by 40 years, explained all this in 1961 in Chapter 18 of her Urbanist handbook The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In 1961 the oldest boomer on the planet was a pubescent 16. There is no excuse for the Waiting for Giambrone drama that has been playing on Toronto’s municipal transport stage for the past 35 years.

And Giambrone’s plan only addresses pent-up demand – not the hot, gaseous future. Over the 15 years his plan would take to unfold Toronto’s automobile population will increase by 56% (using the standard 3% per year rule-of-thumb). At the same time the number of new or widened roads will increase by a whopping 0%. In fact, the carrying capacity of existing roads will decrease during that time since roads carry fewer cars per lane-hour as they get more congested, even fewer as they will be under repair if Toronto’s mayors ever can find the hundreds of millions needed for infrastructure repair.

[Pop Quiz:

#1: If it now takes you 75 minutes for your round-trip commute each day, and we add 56% more cars to our roads, how long will it take you to make the same commute in 2022? Answer: on the order of 3 or 4 times longer. Once roads are filled past their capacity, the effect of congestion rises much faster than does the growth in the automobile population.

#2: It can be easily proven that the endgame for congestion is a 24 hour commute per day. So when are we going to start addressing it seriously?

#3: Which is farther away: 2022 or 1992? And you thought 2022 is too far away, to worry about, eh?]

By now some of you may be thinking: “Giambrone’s plan will absorb that extra 56%”. And I hope it does absorb that much. But if it did that, we would only land in 2022 in the same congested place we are in 2007 except with far larger potholes and less asphalt between them. Worse we’ll have only tiny cars to navigate those potholes because the SUVs needed for the perilous trek from Oakville to Bay Street will be taxed out of existence by then.

Ok, it is true that good transit (i.e., frequent, reasonably safe, comfortable, modestly priced and with a minimal number of transfers) attracts ridership. But the attraction of autonomous travel will always trump transit as long as transit-use and road-use are as mis-priced as they currently are.

Without a proper market pricing mechanism you cannot fairly apportion a scarce good – that would be road space in this column. You can ban cars on King Street (with due respect to Mr. Giambrone, this is a tiny, limited, annoying and unfair idea that I will discuss shortly in Tax, Ban, Tolerate or Price). You can impose a tax on SUVs and provide a rebate on tiny cars (whoa, that one was REALLY dumb: rebate a car purchase? Why not toss in free gas, too?), But, please, there is nothing wrong with owning a car, and there is nothing wrong with driving a car. The problem is when we all drive on King Street at the same time and during the day when 35% of us are circling around looking for a cheap on-street parking spot since on-street parking is waaay-cheap and off-street parking is not so.

Now you can’t effectively toll just King Street. In fact, congestion pricing has to be a wide area thing, not just a small cordon or the DVP-QEW idea, so the problem is how to get from the mis-priced mess we have to a properly priced transport system – and a system where road and transit collaborates instead of competes.

In a few weeks, I will work through a staged plan, available on this blog, to accomplish a market system interconnecting parking, road funding and transit funding. This will be self sustaining, fair and will not require begging for money from the other levels of government (although clearly Toronto has taken it on the chops on this account). The net result will be to produce the $400M Giambrone needs annually and open our roads at the same time. Here is an outline:

Phase 1: Allow parking payment via no-touch, GPS-based parking meters (these completely revolutionize parking management). Start reducing free-parking via legislating parking cash-outs and taxing the non-compliant.
Result: Noticeable increase in transit ridership. You may have to add a few buses. Revenue neutral. Greater convenience for motorists who continue driving.

Phase 2: Reduce parking management costs, increase parking revenue, and improve parking turnover with per-minute parking and accelerated payment structures in lieu of ticketing – i.e. after a fair parking period at a few cents per minute, the rate increases considerably, but no expensive, customer-abusing citations. Handle payments with the hands-free GPS meters in Phase 1.
Result: 50% increase in net parking revenue. Further increase in transit ridership. Add more buses.

Phase 3: Reward motorists who do not move their vehicles during peak hours with parking credits. Further reduce free parking by uniformly and aggressively enforcing ONE-HOUR and THREE-HOUR free parking. Start metering non-resident parking in residential areas. Handle compliant payments with the Phase 1 meters (meter users are citation-proof unlike now). Adjust on-street parking rates to meet Donald Shoup’s 85% occupancy target (The High Price of Free Parking).
Result: an additional 100% increase in parking revenues. Further increase in transit ridership. Add more buses. Shorten subway headways.

Phase 4: Tax monthly parking passes out of existence; allow parking loyalty passes (park nine days and get one free) in lieu of monthly parking (such passes discourage occasional transit use). Handled by the hands-free Phase 1 meters.
Result: Revenue neutral, another increase in transit ridership.

Phase 5: Add a “landing fee” for parking or a departure fee for “unparking” in a congestion zone during peak times. Handled trivially by the Phase 1 hands-free meters.
Result: Increase in revenue neutral, major increase in transit ridership.

[By now there will be a 30% drop in peak-hour traffic, AND we’ll have most of Giambrone’s money.]

Phase 6: Institute a mileage credit exchange to make this fairer to non-motorists.
Result: Motorists directly subsidize transit riders. Non-motorists (read “disadvantaged” or “willing-to-switch-to-transit” as you wish) benefit directly instead of indirectly. The “unfairness-of-road-pricing-to-the-disadvantaged” is further mitigated. Revenue neutral, government kudos.

Phase 7: Institute staged congestion pricing. Handled trivially by the hands-free meters in Phase 1. Don’t even consider pricing the DVP or QEW more than surrounding roads.
Result: All of Giambrone’s money and much more (to fix the roads, of course).

To complete this in detail, I need help from someone who knows Toronto traffic numbers as an advisor and fact-checker. Any volunteers? Should only take a couple of hours. Confidentiality respected. berngrush [at]ieee[dot]org.