Sunday, June 10, 2007

Congestion Pricing Misses Mark

It was big news on Friday when Gov. Eliot Spitzer said he would ensure passage of the controversial congestion pricing plan for New York City.

The plan is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's blueprint for reducing traffic and improving air quality in the city--a measure that is well overdue. The plan was also endorsed by U.S. transportation secretary, Mary E. Peters who appeared with Gov. Spitzer to announce that New York could be one of nine cities that wins a $1.1 billion aid package to fight traffic.

If passed by the state legislature, the plan would charge drivers $8 to travel below 86th St. between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Commercial trucks would be charged $21. Drivers operating solely in the commercial zone would be charged $4--for example a private car that lives and works in the area.

Most New Yorkers who live in Manhattan will endorse the package because the majority of them--well over 60 percent by last count, do not even own a car, let alone drive one in the city.

But those New Yorkers who live outside of the borough--mostly Brooklynites, and Queens dwellers, often drive to Manhattan. What's worse, many of them use Manhattan as a conduit to another destination when they drive, according to a pivotal study conducted by Partnership for New York City who released their findings in December 2006.

The organization also identified that the city loses $13 billion a year due to traffic congestion. This is what else they found:

--3.6 million people travel into Manhattan south of 60th Street each weekday, a third of them in cars, trucks or taxis.

--Delays endured by commuters, workers and other travelers annually cost some $5 billion to $6.5 billion in lost time and productivity and up to $2 billion in wasted fuel and other vehicle operating costs.

--Traffic delays add to logistical, inventory and personnel costs that annually amount to an estimated $1.9 billion in additional costs of doing business and $4.6 billion in unrealized business revenue each year

But there is also a serious loss of quality of life factor involved in overuse of motor vehicles. Pollution, noise, disease--lung cancer, emphysema, and other pulmonary problems, as well as death from traffic accidents with pedestrians and cyclists.

So, Benepe'sBike Blog certainly does endorse the plan, and hopes that the shortsightedness of both the residents in the outer boroughs, as well as the state legislature, which is expected to be against the plan, do not derail this initiative.

However, we also firmly believe that the congestion plan falls about 80 percent short of a real solution to traffic problems. New York still lacks the most fundamental, basic infrastructure that will encourage and allow cyclist traffic to substitute for a portion of motorized transit.

Although Bloomberg is a significant improvement over previous mayors in terms of installing cycling infrastructure--he reignited plans for the Greenway, one of the only safe cyclist paths in the city that had previously been delayed and even died under Giuliani, and he also engineered increased Central Park car closures--his efforts still fall far short from the ideal (crackdowns on the Critical Mass monthly ride notwithstanding).

It is still incredibly difficult to pass safely from the various bridges leading to Manhattan by bike. Transfers from the bridges are labyrinthine, poorly marked, and a sad example of engineering compared to the luxury overpasses and roadways that have been made for motorists.

Worse, the biggest resource cyclists have at their disposal, the upper portion of the Greenway, is not lit at night, making it unusable for safe commuting even within Manhattan.

Riding in the city is a game of cat and mouse, where riders are in constant fear of being hit. Perceived and actual danger from motorists is the single most important reason that people cited for why they will not ride in the city, according to a study by the NYC Department of Transportation.

The second most important reason for not riding is lack of parking facilities.

Perhaps the city is aware that these problems need correcting. But they need to work faster and harder to help New Yorkers get on their bikes.

That means more safe bike lanes, better enforcement of the lanes: I counted over 70 cars in the bike lane from Central Park 110th St. entrance to 157th St. last month--with two police cars passing, and doing absolutely nothing; better enforcement of traffic outlaw drivers --not cyclists who are too easy a target; and the conversion of major avenues to ped-and-cyclist-only traffic, a move that would put us on par with significant European cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Public bike parking facilities with locks and protection should be installed everywhere--in the same spaces now reserved for parking cars.

So Mayor Bloomberg, and Governor Spitzer: if you really want to have a decongested city, you need to work on making cycling safer, easier and more convenient.


Charles Komanoff said...

Really, Jan, here's Mayor Bloomberg proposing, and investing huge political capital fighting for, the holy grail of green urban transportation (congestion pricing), and you dismiss it as "falling short" -- indeed, "falling about 80% short of a real solution to traffic problems"! That's not just pathetic, it's lunacy.

What's more, your piece was rife with factual errors. Here are two: the percentage of Manhattan households that don't own cars is 77% (you merely said "well over 60%"); you said "Brooklynites, and Queens dwellers, often drive to Manhattan," yet only 5% of NY'ers car-commute into the CBD and many of them already pay a toll (which would be netted from the $8 fee).

Your title says it all: "Congestion Pricing Misses Mark." No, Jen, your blog about it is what misses the mark.

Anonymous said...

You tell em!

Anonymous said...

New York is one of the most bicycle UNfriendly cities I've ever lived in. Cyclists are treated -- at best -- as a nuisance by motorists and pedestrians alike. The careless disregard for the lives of New Yorkers on bikes is appalling.

I would not characterize the Mayor's plaNYC congestion pricing "80%" off the mark though. Yes, cycling is an important facet of the plan, as are public transportation improvements, greenways, and even light rail (across 42nd street perhaps?). But talk about great strides in the right direction. I think New Yorkers need to step up and do what they can to support the plan.

And Mr. Komanoff, don't forget your medication. And, you could at least get the blogger's name right.

Jen Benepe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen Benepe said...

We do come out in favor of the mayor's well-capitalized congestion pricing strategy--and it says so clearly in the blog. However, the plan falls seriously short of offering suitable alternatives, and most of my readers are cyclists who are concerned about how they are going to get where they want to get--by bicycle not by car.

For one, the use of bridges is such a huge factor--this year and last, the convenient bridge walk for cyclists on the GWB was closed during peak commute months. How can there be a successful anti-congestion policy when there is this kind of illogical thinking on our major commuting bridges? The U.S. Census shows that more than 80 percent of NJ commuters to the city use a car--no wonder, they don't see any alternatives with these kind of fickle, ill-coordinated bridge policies. Countless letters to the Port Authority of NY and NJ have yielded little as cyclists get second shrift to motor vehicle traffic.

I used the "over 60 percent" number for Manhattan non-car owners because a new U.S. Census number has not been calculated since 2000, almost 7 years ago, the source of your 77% number (on your site, Right of Way, it says 78%).

I also do not think this number takes into account gypsy taxi owners (though it might), people who have out of state plates, and people who own country places where their cars are registered.

Incomes have also risen in the Manhattan statistical area, which could lead to more car ownership and/or desire for moblility out of the city leading to more car ownership.

However, as noted in the Partnership for NYC study which I referenced, when London introduced their plan, only "15 percent to 25 percent shifted to carpool, bicycles or changed the timing of their trip," and there was only a net reduction in traffic of 17 percent in the zone.

While this would help NYC enormously, once again, the Partnership document, as well as the mayor's efforts are directed at vehicle related changes, rather than helping us commute easier, safely and with more accomodations.

No doubt reducing traffic would help cyclists feel and be safer in traffic. However, we should be cognizant that decongestion plans are aimed specifically at increasing vehicle speeds once inside the zone--which is worse for cyclists, not better. In other words, the plan is aimed at helping motor vehicle drivers, not cyclists.

The Partnership document also notes that public transportation at its current service levels is saturated. The Regional Planning Association noted more than 6 years ago that our entire mass transit system was saturated, with no room for growth until new lines are built--something that will take years. I think my emphasis still stands, that to encourage the alternate use of cycling, a lot more has to be done. Such measures could well win over some of the naysayers who do not see cycling to work as a safe alternative --today, or tomorrow.

In any event, I know your heart is in the right place, and I hope that you are involved in the congestion plan so you can assist cyclists in obtaining a better infrastructure--now. If anyone can, I know you will.