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How to Fix New York City’s Latest Controversial Policy

Congestion pricing will provoke backlash unless New Yorkers get better public transit now—not later.

Image shows bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty Images

A nurse boarded the Bx18A bus, whose route circles between the Morris Heights and Highbridge neighborhoods of the Bronx. Having an anxious moment most New Yorkers will find relatable, she began hunting through her purse to look for her MetroCard to pay for her ride. When the driver pointed to a sign indicating that this was a “fare free” bus—part of an experiment in free public transit created by the state legislature last year—the nurse started dancing.

I’d like to have what she’s having, please. I think we all would. “She cha-cha’d down the bus,” said Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani Thursday, telling the story in a speech on the New York Assembly floor. Mamdani was introducing his “Get Congestion Pricing Right” bill, which he said would “expand that feeling—of joy, of relief” by making 15 more bus routes free, across the city, as well as increasing bus frequency. Over the next couple weeks, the bill will be part of the always-harrowing negotiations with Governor Kathy Hochul and among the state legislators.

Mamdani called his bill “Get Congestion Pricing Right” in part because, right now, New York risks getting it wrong: Few good ideas have been resisted as loudly as New York’s plan to charge a toll to drivers entering Manhattan ($15 for most) and use the money to improve public transit. The policy, set to take effect June 15, has been mocked, attacked, and misrepresented for years. Now that it’s finally happening, it’s crucial that it work well for the majority of New Yorkers. Otherwise, backlash could quickly sink the policy and discourage similar efforts in the future—in New York and elsewhere. For congestion pricing to work, as Mamdani clearly understands, public transit needs to be good enough to present a viable alternative to the $15 toll.

Having fewer cars on the roads is demonstrably fantastic for the environment, public health, and quality of life. In Stockholm, congestion pricing has reduced carbon emissions by 20 percent. In London, it has reduced the nitrogen oxides and particulates in the air by 12 percent. Cleaner air will in turn improve health of New Yorkers: In Stockholm, congestion pricing cut the number of asthma-related hospital visits in half. Reducing traffic—the MTA estimates the plan will cut traffic by 17 percent—will also ease the stress of driving for anyone who has to do so, and make much of the city more pleasant for pedestrians, especially crucial since New Yorkers walk more than any other group of Americans. Reducing traffic will also save lives: Since emergency vehicles are among the few exempted from the toll, they will presumably be able to move more quickly to put out fires and get people to the hospital. 

Congestion pricing will also raise $1 billion a year for the public transit system, allowing the MTA to make the kinds of improvements that will save New Yorkers money, time, and irritation. These improvements will also boost ridership; this will make the subway safer, which will, in turn, boost ridership further.

Yet congestion pricing has received a great deal of pseudo-populist mockery and resistance. The New York Post has run negative articles on the topic on an almost daily basis (“Congestion Pricing Will Leave NYC in a Jam” and “Time for Congestion Pricing to Hit the Road”  are just two recent headlines). The policy has faced lawsuits from city workers’ unions, the governor of New Jersey, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, the Staten Island borough president, and a range of other injured parties. The gist of all the criticism is that the policy will hurt ordinary hardworking New Yorkers.

Although New York’s policy does still have flaws that must be fixed—insufficient exemptions for low-income drivers, for instance—the populist argument against congestion pricing is mostly disingenuous. Only 4 percent of outer-borough New Yorkers drive to Manhattan to work; 57 percent take public transit. And only 2 percent of low-income outer-borough New Yorkers, specifically, would be asked to pay a congestion fee as part of their commute; 61 percent take public transit.

As we’ve seen in France with the “gilet jaune” movement, in which motorists wore yellow vests and blocked highways to protest an unpopular gas tax in 2018, and the more recent farmer protests against the European Union’s effort to limit harmful pesticides, this kind of populist anti-environmental argument resonates when large numbers of ordinary people don’t feel their material needs have been considered by the elites in charge.

Congestion pricing carries precisely this kind of baggage, even though it will improve our lives in many ways. That means the big question politically, the one that will determine congestion pricing’s longevity as a policy, is whether the vast majority of New Yorkers will experience its benefits and how quickly.

We must see the positive results of congestion pricing in our own lives to balance out the rage induced by what behavioral economists call “the pain of paying” (research shows that we are far more bothered about small expenses that we pay frequently and can see, like milk or gas, than about bigger expenses we don’t pay often or that are simply deducted from our paychecks, like our health insurance premiums). Unfortunately, we can’t see or feel reductions in carbon emissions. Clean air is more ambiguous. We do notice pollution. We freak out about bad air quality warnings in the summer. And last year when the smoke from the Canadian wildfires turned New York City’s skies red and smoky, I saw children running out of school buildings to gape at it in terror. Some of us will undoubtedly feel, over time, that our asthma or headaches have improved, or that we are breathing more easily. But it’s possible that for many people, the clean air might be an invisible benefit, the kind that is politically troublesome because it doesn’t reward its architects.

By contrast, New Yorkers have in recent years been complaining about the subway a lot and will notice if it gets better. Public transit is one of the least abstract political issues for New Yorkers, affecting where we can work, whether we can get there in time, and whether we can pick up our kids on time at the end of the day. Ridership has suffered since the pandemic. Sensationally reported crimes on the subway have contributed to anxiety about the system, which New York’s governor has idiotically played into by sending in the National Guard. Less dramatic but perhaps far more frustrating to most people, the service has deteriorated recently, with more delays and disruptions, and even derailments, which are quite scary. The political reception of congestion pricing, then, will be mostly determined by how tangibly it improves our transit system.

Of course, there’s no evading the biggest problem with congestion pricing, which is that people hate being forced to change cherished habits. New York City is a great place to implement this policy, since it’s already a terrible city for motorists, the transit system goes almost everywhere, and many New Yorkers already avoid driving. But those who are attached to their cars will be vocal in their objections. Such gripes will resonate and spread like a contagion if people don’t see the positive effects of congestion pricing right away.

That’s why immediate measures like Assemblyman Mamdani’s “Get Congestion Pricing Right” proposal—making more bus routes free and more frequent, before the revenue from congestion pricing even kicks in—are so crucial. Good environmental policy prods us to change our behavior while making our lives better at the same time. Congestion pricing will do this: It will obligate driving less by forcing cost-benefit analysis of our car trips, while also rewarding us by transforming urban life for the better—not just with cleaner air and better health, but by ensuring that we all waste less of our lives sitting in traffic. But the biggest benefit for most people will be the investments in our transit system, making a safer, more convenient, and joyful experience. If more of us start feeling anything close to the happiness that nurse felt on the Bx18A that day, congestion pricing will be a lasting political success.