Congestion and Change

“If you were to design the ultimate system, you would have mass transit be free and charge an enormous amount for cars.”

So said Mayor Michael Bloomberg last April, right about the time he unveiled his plan to charge motorists a fee to drive into Manhattan’s central business district. Eight months later, as the mayor’s original proposal mutates for better or worse, the MTA is hours away from raising transit fares. Neither idea has exactly caught fire with the public, and the fare hikes could actually end up a foil for congestion pricing — a plan originally intended as a sustained financial boost for the transit system.

And then there’s Theodore “Ted” Kheel. The environmentalist, philanthropist, and renowned labor attorney has lobbied for free transit in New York for over 40 years. Last February he commissioned a $100,000 study that, as it turns out, could put the city’s money where the mayor’s mouth is. A summary of findings released late last week shows that if the city were to impose a $16 congestion fee ($32 for trucks) below 60th Street in Manhattan, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, along with higher curbside parking fees and a taxi surcharge, the MTA could remove its turnstiles and fareboxes forever.

Brad Aaron, Streetsblog, December 18, 2007

With all the talk of change– surely a bad sign for anyone who wants change– I thought it might be interesting to think out loud about a particular change and what it might mean for the people who are asked to undergo it. In this case the change involves transportation in New York City and a proposed strategy to reduce congestion while making public transportation free.

The benefits seem pretty obvious. Anyone who takes public transportation into the city to work, or who uses public transportation to get around the city, will save money. The projected reductions in pollution and traffic and savings– even in health care– seem remarkable. If traffic is reduced, for example, studies predict that more people will ride bikes and walk. How could you be against this sort of change?

There are lots of ways that this will make life harder, at least at first, for lots of people from cab drivers to delivery services. I think that is mostly a matter of transition, though. Then there are the relatively well off commuters who drive into the city. They will either have to pay for the privileges or ride the subways and commuter trains with everyone else. That hardly seems like a terrible burden to bear.

I think the real problem here is philosophical or even sociological– pardon my Marx– and that the resistance to this form of change has to do with some very bourgeois and limited ideas about ‘personal freedom.’ It’s often suggested that in order to deal with climate change we will have to accept a less affluent life. Yet the New York plan suggests that our choice can be seen as two different forms of affluence, one less damaging. That’s what we need.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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