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.