Bill Keller and Sam Schwartz on Variable Pricing for New York

When former MTA and TfL Chairman Jay Walder spoke to a class I was sitting in on at the Kennedy School of Government he said that when you have a revenue shortfall (as nearly every mass transit system in America does) you can do three things: cut routes, raise fares, or increase administrative efficiency. That trio of choices each have their associated criticisms—the first two affect poor and disabled people disproportionately, the last means severe rounds of layoffs—but they are the only internal options a transit authority has when they’re faced with red which means that the fiduciary creativity needs to be an outside effort undertaken by either larger government valves (such as the Governor or Mayor’s office, or even the Dept. of Transportation) or monomaniacally devoted individuals. It seems as though the New York Times has brought attention to one of the latter.

traffic2 Bill Keller and Sam Schwartz on Variable Pricing for New York

Photo by Kate Hinds

Sam Schwartz is a pretty well-known name in planning and progressive transportation policy circles: he founded one of the most successful transportation engineering firms in New York City and designed the traffic plans for Atlantic Yards and the Ikea in Red Hook, among others. Bill Keller, the former executive editor the Times, has brought his name to the general public. In an Op-Ed published on March 4th Keller laments the “demise” of New York’s mass transit system:

IF you live in New York, commute to New York, or occasionally visit what Russell Shorto called the island at the center of the world, you have experienced the indignity of our city’s transportation hell. You have endured the screeching, flood-prone subways. You have surrendered exorbitant carfare to escape our eyesore airports, then lurched along congested highways, over creaking bridges and into our truck-clotted city streets. You have dodged the camping homeless at the Port Authority bus terminal, or wandered lost in the miasmal misery of Pennsylvania Station. New York City welcomes you with open arms — like the zombies in “The Walking Dead.”

Nevermind the inane condescension in Keller’s opening salvo (it’s obvious that Keller is not a transportation expert nor one for subtlety, every sentence is steeped in mid-20th century thinking and he doesn’t even address the lack of access as the prime issue facing the 5 million New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan) if you can, the point is that there are infrastructure problems in New York that go beyond the cost of a monthly subway pass and the volume of cars on the streets. Schwartz presents an idea that goes beyond the typical congestion pricing concept that has failed to pass in New York thanks to well-heeled suburbanites and their state representation. He wants the CBD (below 60th Street in Schwartz’s plan) to be a variable price charge zone similar to London and Stockholm, but also supports a complete restructuring of the bridge tolls, eliminating levies on the Verrazano and Triborough bridges and reinstating all other tolls on the East River (Personal Aside: I live in Brooklyn often on that late night or weekend in Manhattan it is damn near impossible to get home without a cab [the Q and B are often closed] so this would add a lot to a fare, but we’ll discuss that below).

Sam Schwartz Engineering  Bill Keller and Sam Schwartz on Variable Pricing for New York

Sam Schwartz. Copyright Crains New York/ Buck Ennis

Variable congestion pricing (also known as market based congestion pricing) isn’t a novel concept—at this point it’s the pet theory of the traffic engineering community (another, more extreme plan by the transportation theorist Charles Kumanoff, calls for extremely high charges on commuters resulting in free mass transit for all; Kumanoff’s plan is admirable but I’m afraid it wouldn’t get past the Albany city limits). But Schwartz presents the case from multiple angles to preempt his critics, something that progressive planners have neglected in the past. Poor people win because the MTA will get a $1.2 billion injection, rich people win because they can travel downtown faster (Schwartz shows that drivers have a higher median income than transit users, a fact that most people state but usually don’t prove), and New York wins because the air will be cleaner and everyone can get around easier. There are, of course, still losers (like us broke Brooklynites!) in this system such as middle-class commuters who drive for myriad reasons; an additional charge for them will have a higher marginal impact than for tony Greenwichers and Scarsdalians. Still, there is no uniformly effective plan for New York infrastructure and this one marks most of the correct boxes politically and financially, something we haven’t seen for a long time.

I encourage readers to check out Sam Schwartz’s excellent Powerpoint PDF presentation here.

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