Home Congestion Fee Kheel: The subways could be free, but…

Kheel: The subways could be free, but…

by Benjamin Kabak

Theodore Kheel, the 93-year-old public advocate with a lot of money and a hate of traffic, unveiled his much-anticipated transit fare-congestion pricing report on Thursday. The report — entitled Balancing: Free Transit and Congestion Pricing in New York City — is the culmination of an 11-month, $100,000 effort funded by Kheel.

The plan itself is audacious and thorough. Theoretically, it would work perfectly, and I love it for its promise and all that it could represent for the future of the MTA. Too bad it will never happen.

First, the details. You can read the whole thing right here. It’s a 55-page PDF file, but it reads fast.

Kheel’s plan proposes a massive increase in the congestion fee. He wants to charge cars $16 and trucks $32 at all times to enter Manhattan south of 60th St. But that’s not all; the proposal also calls for medallion cab fares to increase by 25 percent and for curbside parking in the Manhattan Central Business district and outside of the zone to go up to as much as $4. This way, there is no incentive for people to drive to the edge of the congestion zone and park for below-market rates.

Now, here’s the brilliant trade-off. All of this money will go toward public transit. And not only just toward public transit but for making public transit 100 percent free. As Kheel’s analysis shows, by implementing his plan, traffic would decrease by 25 percent in the central business district and nine percent outside of it, and public transit would receive a dedicated source of funding that far exceeds what they currently draw in through the fare box and what they plan to draw in through the relatively modest fare hike. Based on the models, the subways would draw in an additional $700 million a year that could go toward improving the system.

From a productivity perspective, Kheel’s plan is rife with results. Besides the decrease in traffic, mobility in the city would go up. People who choose to venture into the congestion zone will find their trips easier; people outside of the zone will notice the decreased traffic as well. The city on the hole should save $4 billion in productivity lost to traffic and approximately 100 million vehicle hours. Fewer cars would allow the city to dedicate more space to wider sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes, and a well-implemented bus rapid transit plan — which is a key part to the Kheel plan as many former drivers would turn to BRT lines in the non-subway accessible parts of the Outer Boroughs.

Now, the obvious answers as far as we’re concerned involve potentially crowded and insecure subways. Won’t free transit mean more vagrants and vandals in the trains? Won’t it also mean a massive increase in the volume of people riding the subway? To these questions, Kheel responds worry not.

First, Kheel notes that a lot of the traffic in the city is brought on by off-peak users who don’t want to turn to a slower subway system. The congestion pricing should add an estimated 28,000 commuters to the rush hour trains and more to off-peak, underutilized (in that they aren’t packed to the gills) trains. Meanwhile, Kheel figures that a good number of people will switch to the speedier commuter rails and those folks living close to the CBD will simply bike instead of taking the train. In fact, he estimates that the subways would see an initial net loss of 5000 commuters. Considering that nearly 8 million people a day ride the trains, those numbers are insignificant.

As for the safety of it, Kheel’s plan has it more that covered. Transit workers currently tasked with fare-related jobs can turn their attention to safety, for one. Furthermore, with $700 million in extra revenue, the MTA can finally get to outfitting the cars and stations with security devices, and the MTA and NYPD can hire more officers to patrol the trains.

To make matters better, Kheel’s plan scales as well. Charge $16 but don’t implement it 24/7, and transit fares could decrease by 80 percent. Charge $12 24/7, and the fares could decrease by 75 percent. These other plans however cut into the traffic-alleviation part of it. Kheel’s researches include a very detailed chart with a few alternatives on page 13 of the report.

So with this topline summary in mind — and I really do urge you to read the report — let’s go back to the beginning. Once a skeptic, I love this plan, but it will never happen for the simple reason that it would be political suicide for any elected official to support a $16, 24/7 congestion fee plan even if it makes economic and environmental sense for the city. And forget the plans to raise curbside parking to $4 an hour.

People in New York City are, stupidly, married to their cars. They demand below-market, on-street parking. They demand access to roads at the expense of wide sidewalks and bike lanes. They demand access to roads at the expense of common-sense bus rapid transit lanes. They demand the right to drive as though it were protected by the Constitution, and this is simply a misguided and harmful attitude.

For New York City to remain a thriving, viable city long into the 21st Century, we have to leave behind 20th Century conceptions of travel and personal space. As much as I hate to preach about this, automobiles in vast urban areas are a dying breed. We can’t widen the city roads to accommodate the cars, and anyway, widening roads simply leads to more traffic. Our nation refuses to adopt clean-air technology for cars in a timely fashion so in order to combat urban smog, politicians are turning to a highly-contentious congestion fee.

Opponents, meanwhile, turn this congestion fee fight into a populist battle. We can’t let the politicians curtail our right to drive, they say, pointing out how it affects the middle and lower classes more than the upper classes. Well, guess what? The middle and lower classes don’t own cars and would be much better served with a free transit system that enjoys a $700 million annual operating surplus.

But sadly, the ideal society where a Kheel plan could pass because it would negatively impact the people who could afford and positively impact the people who need it doesn’t exist. Ted Kheel should be applauded for his vision, and his plan deserves as much attention as anything under consideration now. It’s groundbreaking; it’s visionary; it would work; and it just won’t happen.

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23 comments

Kid Twist January 25, 2008 - 9:49 am

This would be another excuse for people to move to the Sunbelt.

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Benjamin Kabak January 25, 2008 - 9:54 am

Let ’em move then. If they want to drive so badly, they shouldn’t be living in New York City anyway.

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Kid Twist January 25, 2008 - 10:09 am

The people who would move are the people who have the means to move — in other words, the folks whose spending and tax dollars support this town. You can’t keep making it harder and more expensive to live here and expect that people won’t react.

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Chris January 25, 2008 - 10:19 am

Kid Twist: They wouldn’t be making it harder and more expensive to live here. They would just make it harder and more expensive to make the idiotic decision to own a car in Manhattan. You seem to forget that the majority of New Yorkers don’t own cars, and most of those that do choose not to take public transportation for their own selfish reasons. How would this plan make it harder and more expensive to live here?

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Benjamin Kabak January 25, 2008 - 10:26 am

In fact, this plan would actually make it cheaper to live here for the vast majority of people. And for anyone who drives into and parks in the Manhattan CBD, another $16 is just another hour of parking. It’s not that big of a deal to them, and from the money to the health benefits, millions of other people come out ahead.

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brooklyn gal January 25, 2008 - 11:30 am

Wow. This plan sounds AMAZING. Wow. Wow. Wow.

It makes me want to run for office just so that I can make it happen.

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Gary January 25, 2008 - 12:17 pm

hallelujah, Ben.

I’ve posted elsewhere that I think there are benefits to having a nominal cost for the subways . . . say $1 fares, or a $30 monthly metro card.

But there are real benefits to be had from a carrot and stick approach. Right now our approach is all stick: raise costs for drivers . . . and raise costs for riders! The Kheel Plan is particularly useful in broadening the debate beyond the current conventional wisdom.

Lat night I went to the Brooklyn CP mitigation hearing. What was great was that virtually every civilian there was pro-congestion pricing. What was disheartening was that the elected officials were largely opposed.

And what was worst of all was, most of those elected officials (1) obviously haven’t studied the issue AT ALL, and (2) are often outright dishonest in their arguments against it.

Lastly, saddest of all was an elected official from Brighton Beach, who conceded that only 6% of his district would be affected by the fee . . . and came to argue against it anyway! What about the other 94% of your district, sir?

It’s an uphill fight, but we will change this city for the better, and more and better mass transit will be the means.

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Gary January 25, 2008 - 12:18 pm

Brooklyn gal, me too . . .
and I’m running for city council in District 39 in the next election. We all have an opportunity to make a difference!

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Marc Shepherd January 25, 2008 - 1:33 pm

A lot of people driving into the city have no other realistic option. Either there’s no mass transit near their homes, or the transit doesn’t run often enough, or it’s too slow, or there are too many transfers.

These problems can’t be solved quickly. New York didn’t build and extend its mass transit infrastructure when it could have been done cheaply and easily, thanks to Robert Moses. Today, even modest mass transit improvements take years (and billions of dollars) to build.

The political problem with congestion pricing is that the added cost for drivers takes effect immediately, but better mass transit doesn’t come along until many years later—if ever. I’m not an opponent of congestion pricing—indeed, I think we need it desperately. But I do sympathize with drivers who’d be socked with a $350 per month increase in their commuting cost, but who have no good transit option to fall back on.

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Gary January 25, 2008 - 2:04 pm

Actually Marc, there would be a massive and immediate investment in buses to coincide with implementation of CP . . . and existing bus service would become faster, more reliable, and therefore a more attractive mode of transit for thousands.

I personally favor subways . . . but in the meantime, the enhanced bus service would alleviate much of the problem you’ve described.

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Benjamin Kabak January 25, 2008 - 2:51 pm

Seems to me that a lot of New Yorkers have trouble envisioning the concept of bus rapid transit. That’s a perfectly reasonable problem to me because the idea of buses and rapid transit in New York just don’t jibe. Buses are famous here for being slow and slower. It takes forever to get across town, forever to get uptown and forever to get from the Outer Boroughs to Manhattan on a bus.

But – and this is a big but – when BRT lanes are implemented properly, they are very very successful. Through dedicated bus lanes, preferential signal treatment and improved loading and unloading measures, BRT lanes turn surface lanes and bus routes into access roads that are nearly as fast as underground local subway trains.

With th Kheel plan, BRT lanes would be implemented immediately, and people in the non-subway-accessible Outer Boroughs would actually have a quicker, cheaper ride into the city than they would without the Kheel plan. That’s why this is such a win-win plan.

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Alon Levy January 25, 2008 - 7:08 pm

Marc, according to the plaNYC website, only one in six New Yorkers who drive into Manhattan does so due to lack of transit. I’m also entirely unsympathetic to drivers. They use more city services than straphangers and especially pedestrians, but pay the same taxes, or even less if they live in Long Island or the Hudson Valley. Their cars have driven Harlem’s asthma rates through the roof, and yet the additional health care costs are borne by the entire state, or, even worse, by the residents of Harlem, few of whom own cars.

Kid Twist, car-friendliness actually decreases population, because it limits density. Pundits who write about urban planning in America note how coastal California is so full its population can’t grow any more, so that people are leaving LA for the Inland Empire. LA’s population density is 3,000 per square kilometer, and it’s already gridlocked and growing at only a few percent per decade. Meanwhile, Queens, with almost 8,000, is one of the few counties anywhere in the Northeast to have grown faster than the US as a whole in the 1990s. It turns out the bedroom communities built in 1900 around streetcars are a lot easier to densify than those built in 1950 around cars.

Ben, I’m skeptical of the idea that $700 million is enough for free transit. The MTA’s revenue at the farebox is closer to $2 billion annually. I’m willing to buy that it could even halve fares, the difference being made through increased ridership, but not eliminate them, I don’t think.

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Benjamin Kabak January 26, 2008 - 2:57 am

Alon: Let me clarify that point. Right now, the MTA draws in $3.5 billion in fare revenue. Under the Kheel, they’d be taking in $4.2 billion in revenue from the congestion pricing. Therefore, they’d be enjoying an additional $700 million for system upgrades and security.

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Alon Levy January 27, 2008 - 2:39 am

I’m still skeptical. The numbers the study gives are unsourced; the only one that comes with a reference sends me to a metastudy from the 1970s. With academic studies, I know that at least the references pan out, because that’s the first thing peer review would’ve checked; it doesn’t filter out everything that’s plain wrong, but manages to stop the major bullshit. With things like this, there’s no guarantee. Who’s to say that said metastudy enjoys sound reputation among urban planners? Who’s to say a single unsourced number in the Kheel study is true? For example, PlaNYC says its scheme will raise $400 million per year; how can the Kheel study get a number six times as high just from congestion fees, when these fees are at most double those Bloomberg wants?

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paulb January 27, 2008 - 1:00 pm

I wonder if Kheel owns a car, or ever has owned a car.

Mobility is a beautiful thing, and car ownership brings it to, for lack of a better phrase, “the common man.” I have owned a car, though I don’t now, and I was like any other New Yorker, enjoying owning it for reasons that I think are very good ones: to visit relatives who may live in different parts of the tristate area, to help out other relatives who may be elderly and need the aid, to drive to the beach with friends in the summer, to get my bike to far Jersey for a daytrip, to pick up a few cabinets at Home Depot, do a bunch of errands, pick up bagels and a newspaper, make an impulse decision to try a new restaurant in a neighborhood I don’t know very well. In my case, I also just like cars. I don’t see why the most narrow minded type of pseudo-Utopian thinker should consider himself qualified to demand that living in New York means this world-enlarging mobility is forbidden. Don’t tell me that as a New Yorker I’m not American and have to live in my little box without one of the amenities and world-changing (for the better) inventions of modern life. Got a grudge against my hifi and vacuum cleaner? Do they have to go too, those noisy things that you can hear through the wall, and they use all that energy.

Or maybe that’s not what Kheel is saying, I don’t know him. Once a person has purchased a car and has shouldered all the hefty expenses that go with it, it often seems logical to use the car more. I mean, if it’s just sitting there parked all the time, what is the point? That’s how a lot of cars end up being used for daily commuters.

I am very, very angry over the tone and content of Mr. Kabek’s post. My “populist agenda” isn’t phony at all. Lower and middle income New Yorkers do own cars. I rode my bike through the central and north Bronx just a couple weeks ago, to see my old neighborhoods again. Those are low income neighborhoods, many of them, and cars are parked along every curb–same as they used to be when I was growing up. Some of them pretty nice cars, too. The tenants in those buildings own them for perfectly reasonable purposes.

If daily auto commuting is the congestion problem then play the game straight. Put the cards on the table in front of New Yorkers and see if you can bring them into the game with a solution, explaining exactly what the problem is, why it’s a problem, why they should be worried about it, and how in concrete terms your proposal’s drawbacks, including the intangible ones, will be outweighed by the benefits. But if your real agenda is an “auto free New York,” as I think it is, then I and several million other New Yorkers will simply instruct you to stick some heavy stones in your pockets and jump off the Staten Island ferry. Go away.

An auto free New York may be Mr. Kabak’s idea of an orderly paradise of primary colors and smiling happy people, like some 1950s technicolor travelog about Sweden. But for most it’s an idea that if implemented would strand them in the typically messy web of life tasks and responsibilities and the pursuit of a few simple quotidian pleasures. It will never happen, as Mr. Kabak says, but the reason is, the idea is a load of crap.

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Alon Levy January 27, 2008 - 5:21 pm

In Japan they have mobility, too. They just travel by rail, because the government made a decision to invest in world-class rail transit instead of in highway infrastructure.

And no, most poor New Yorkers don’t own cars. Why would they? The subway’s faster, and finding parking is difficult. All those cars you say you see may or may not be owned by residents; even if they are, there are many more residents than cars.

For example, on my Upper Manhattan block there are parked cars in most spaces, but there’s only enough room for maybe two hundred cars around a full block, compared with about one thousand residents. And many of those cars aren’t owned by residents; parking is only metered on avenues, so most parking spaces are free, making this area a good park and ride for Upstaters who don’t like getting stuck in the traffic jams further downtown.

One thing car-free areas are good at is accommodating density. In car-friendlier cities, it’s impossible to get far beyond 2,000 people per square kilometer, so the working class lives either in ghettos, or in far-flung exurbs with one-hour car commutes. In New York, accommodating five-figure densities is trivial. So the very poor tend to live in Harlem, Chinatown, the South Bronx, or Eastern Brooklyn, which are reasonably close to the center; the working class lives all over, sometimes in areas that are a spit’s distance from Midtown, like Hell’s Kitchen and Long Island City. Overall it’s a better scheme than what they have in Los Angeles or Washington.

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Cap'n Transit January 27, 2008 - 11:04 pm

I want to expand on some of the points Alon makes. I don’t know if Kheel has owned a car, but I have, and I honestly didn’t feel that the increased mobility was worth dealing with congestion, parking, gas, tolls, insurance, mechanics, loans, bureaucracy, etc. And any illusion that cars offered an absolute increase in mobility was dashed the first time I tried to drive a rental truck across 14th Street. I would have gladly abandoned the truck for the increased mobility of the L train, or even my own two feet, but I needed it to move my worldly possessions across town.

Similarly, the idea that cars are always useful for visiting relatives evaporated when a relative drove us to visit the in-laws on Thanksgiving, and we proceeded to sit in unmoving traffic on the Hutch for twenty minutes, then creep along the Merritt at a pace far inferior to that of the New Haven line.

I could go on about the beach and the bagels, but I think you get the point. Cars represent an “amenity” only because the government has sunk billions of dollars more into road infrastructure than into transit infrastructure. If it were the other way around, you’d probably be griping against anyone who wanted to defund a train line for decreasing people’s mobility. But you’d have a much better case.

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Gary January 28, 2008 - 1:27 pm

To the reactionary paulb:

No one is banning the ownership of cars.

What is proposed is that the costs of driving in the city more accurately reflect the costs to society.

Driving a car is a privilege, not a right, a fact recognized by literally every court in the United States. It is both fair and appropriate that the costs to society of automobile traffic be born by those who choose to drive.

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Gary January 28, 2008 - 1:41 pm

Oh, and I do own a car. And I’m not rich, but I recognize that there are many costs to driving a car, and I’m willing to pay them if I choose to drive.

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Charles Komanoff January 28, 2008 - 4:30 pm

As lead author of the Kheel Report, I want to thank Benjamin Kabak for his scintillating article summarizing the report and the free-transit plan it conveys. You said it better than we did!

My only disagreement is with BK’s pessimism. We think the plan can go the distance. Stay tuned (to Ted Kheel’s Web site, http://www.nnyn.org/kheelplan) as we develop strategies for bringing millions of New Yorkers on-board … with your help.

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Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways » Blog Archive » MTA has hundreds of millions of reasons to support congestion pricing plan February 1, 2008 - 12:14 am

[…] could do win $491 million a year, and they all know the MTA needs that money. While this plan is a far cry from Ted Kheel’s fantastic plan, it’s a great start. Now, let’s just hope the City Council agrees. Maybe this bad week […]

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Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » The Kheel Plan 2: Electric Boogaloo June 3, 2008 - 12:02 am

[…] free while implementing a high congestion fee and delivering all the revenue to the MTA. When I first wrote about Kheel’s plan in January, it generated 20 comments worth of discussion, and it still stands as something of a Holy Grail for […]

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Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » » Fare hikes, service cuts could lead to more gridlock November 26, 2008 - 12:32 pm

[…] from the trials and travails of bumper-to-bumper crosstown traffic. To that end, the people of the Kheel plan, the proposal that called for a high congestion fee and free subways, believe that the Doomsday […]

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