Volume 76, Number 53 | May 30 - June 5, 2007

Villager photo by Lindsay Beyerstein

Nicky Gavron, London’s deputy mayor, far left, speaking on congestion pricing at a New York University forum. To the right of her, from left to right, are Queens Councilmember Eric Gioia; Andrea Batista Schlesinger, Drum Major Institute executive director; Queens Councilmember John Liu; and Edd Ott, New York Central Labor Council executive director.

London Bridge is not falling after congestion plan

By Lindsay Beyerstein

London’s deputy mayor captivated some of New York’s top policymakers, business leaders and transportation activists at a forum sponsored by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy on May 18. They came to hear how London is tackling global warming and gridlock through congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing — the practice of charging vehicles extra to enter busy areas during peak hours — is a hot topic in New York City right now. Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC2030 initiative involves a similar program for Manhattan south of 86th St.

Joining Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron of London on the panel were Ed Ott, executive director of New York’s Central Labor Council, and City Councilmembers John Liu and Eric Gioia.

Gavron, who had participated in the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit, held in New York City the previous week, said mayors and governments of the world’s major metropolises are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming.

Cities are especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming, such as urban heat islands, rising sea levels and flooding, Gavron noted. Centuries of accumulated wealth are at risk if cities don’t take decisive action within the next decade.

“We are experiencing, currently, the effects of greenhouse gases from the 1950s, when we consumed as much oil in a year as we now consume in six weeks. And we have to feel the effects of four and a half decades,” she explained.

Dramatic reductions in emissions in the next 10 years will be needed to forestall runaway climate change, Gavron argued, claiming that cities must take a leadership role on this issue instead of waiting for state and federal authorities to act.

Congestion pricing once seemed like a radical idea, but the urgency of the climate crisis is giving the concept traction in city halls around the world. In addition to London, Singapore and Stockholm have already implemented such programs.

London’s congestion pricing program was launched in 2003 amid stiff opposition and dire predictions of economic devastation. Despite the initial resistance, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, was determined to rescue the city from crippling congestion that was costing the city $4 billion a year, according to figures cited by Gavron, and the resultant abysmal air quality that had earned it the derisive moniker “Dirty old man of Europe.”

As explained by Gavron, London’s congestion pricing system uses a camera-and-computer network to automatically levy an £8 charge on all vehicles entering London’s central business district between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on workdays. Weekends, evenings and public holidays remain free. Emergency vehicles, disabled drivers, taxis and hybrid cars are exempt from the fees. The cameras also monitor the license plates of vehicles entering the zone, while mobile enforcement teams patrol the area in vans.

Enforcement is rigorous, and although residents living in the zone get a 90 percent discount on the fees, Gavron noted that not everyone is playing by the rules.

“By the way, your U.S. embassy still hasn’t paid the congestion fee,” she noted.

To encourage law-abiding participation, Gavron advised that New York City give drivers many convenient options to pay their congestion charge. Londoners can pay by text message, telephone, online or at designated retail outlets. Drivers can also open prepaid accounts from which funds are deducted automatically.

London’s program is showing results: A third fewer cars now enter the central business district each weekday, and congestion is down by 26 percent. The total number of people entering the zone is the same as before, but a greater percentage of commuters and residents are using the subway, bus and other environmentally friendly alternatives, such as bikes.

Thanks to congestion pricing, harmful emissions have dropped substantially within the zone. Central London now produces 15 percent less carbon dioxide than before congestion pricing, despite substantial economic growth in the interim.

Meanwhile, Gavron said, the predictions of economic ruin have not materialized, and congestion pricing has had no discernable impact on employment, the number of businesses, business turnover, commercial rents or profitability. London experienced a sharp economic downturn between July and September 2005, which many attributed to reduced tourism following the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in the London subway. However, the trend had fully reversed by early 2006, and central London’s annual growth rates now surpass the U.K. average.

“London is booming now. For a New Yorker to say that streets are busy and crowded, you know it’s true,” confirmed Councilmember Gioia, who recently visited the city on a fact-finding mission.

But London’s deputy mayor stressed that congestion pricing can’t work without complementary improvements to public transportation.

For example, Gavron said, London’s buses used to languish in traffic, but with congestion pricing, the city increased enforcement to keep cars out of bus lanes. That, plus fewer cars coming into the zone and additional buses on the streets, has produced marked change. In fact, timetables had to be rewritten because so many buses were running ahead of schedule, Gavron added.

Last year, congestion pricing generated the equivalent of $241 million for London. That revenue has been earmarked for more public transportation improvements, the deputy mayor said.

John Liu, who chairs the New York City Council’s Transportation Committee, said he supports congestion pricing in New York for environmental reasons and because of the economic toll traffic is taking on the city. A recent report by the Partnership for New York City — a network of 200 of the city’s top business C.E.O.s — estimates congestion costs New York businesses $13 billion a year in extra transport time. Traffic jams mean late deliveries, wasted fuel and higher costs to the consumer.

The retail, manufacturing and construction sectors are among the hardest hit by traffic congestion. How fast a construction firm can put up a building depends substantially on how long it takes to bring in building materials and cart out refuse. Every extra day adds to the construction’s cost.

“My dad owns a flower shop in Queens,” said Gioia. “He used to deliver in a truck to Manhattan, but it’s no longer profitable, thanks to the ‘time tax.’ It takes too long, the gas is too expensive. There are business owners in the [city’s] outer ring who are making the decision every day about getting into Manhattan, and the congestion fee is just putting a number on that.”

At the same time, Liu wants to make sure that congestion pricing doesn’t become a burden on New York’s working residents. He said many of his Queens constituents are underserved by public transportation already; under congestion pricing, constituents who couldn’t afford the proposed $8 congestion charge might have to add more than an hour to their commutes by using public transit.

Gioia seconded Liu’s concern that the burden of congestion pricing be distributed equitably. He said his constituents in Long Island City, for example, who are also underserved by the M.T.A., fear congestion pricing will make their neighborhoods a parking lot for outer-borough residents.

Gioia and Liu both warned that there was potential for a major backlash against congestion pricing unless all constituencies were consulted in a respectful manner, including small business owners and members of immigrant communities.

Along these lines, Gioia objected to what he saw as the tendency of some elite opinion makers to dismiss opponents of congestion pricing. That attitude is not only condescending, it’s self-defeating, he argued.

“There’s no faster way to kill this than to go on Queens Blvd. and tell the folks that oppose this plan they’re ‘parochial whiners.’ If you do, bring Police Commissioner Kelly with you, because there won’t be anything I can do to protect you,” Gioia said, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Meanwhile, Liu called for firm commitments about the maximum acceptable commute time by public transit. Ideally, he hoped the city would set a 30-minute maximum for transit commutes from the outer ring to Manhattan, but he conceded that 45 minutes might be a more realistic target.

Liu also challenged the city to invest its substantial surplus in buses and other transportation system improvements before starting congestion pricing.

Ed Ott, of the Central Labor Council, concurred, noting that there is the potential for significant opposition from labor if the city doesn’t improve access to public transportation before levying surcharges.

“Good congestion pricing is like good sex,” Ott said. “It all depends on what you do upfront.”

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