In 2015, when Renae Reynolds finished graduate school and landed a New York job offer, she was faced with a choice: Fork up the money to buy a car, or spend nearly three hours each day taking four separate buses just to get from her home in Far Rockaway to her new office in Bayside.
Even though both Far Rockaway and Bayside are in the borough of Queens, there isn’t an easy way to get between the two neighborhoods. Reynolds lives in what experts call a “transit desert,” an area with a high level of demand for transit options, but little supply. Just one subway line runs to the eastern end of the Rockaway Peninsula, where Reynolds had moved in 2013 to be closer to her family.
“I am from one of those communities that’s part of that whole forgotten city narrative,” Reynolds said. “If one train is having issues, your entire day is shot. Ultimately, it means you have no alternative. It’s pretty intense to live in a place like that.”
And so even though Reynolds preferred to take mass transit, she bought a car. Three years later, she is still driving to work. She now works about 20 miles away (a 40-minute drive without traffic) in Brooklyn. Reynolds is a transportation planner for the New York City Alliance for Environmental Justice, where she successfully campaigned for congestion pricing, a fee on drivers traveling through the most gridlocked streets of New York.
Proponents of mass transit say congestion pricing is a no-brainer. Increasing the cost to drive in busy areas decreases traffic, improves air quality, and has the potential to raise money for new public transportation projects. Metropolises like London and Singapore have embraced the scheme, but the idea has been slow to take hold in the U.S. One reason: Critics say it can burden working-class commuters, many of whom, like Reynolds, live in transit deserts where taking mass transit is not a practical option.
Still, with New York City’s growing urban population, struggling transit system, and more pressing gridlock, the prospect of congestion pricing has lingered, floating around Big Apple policy circles for more than a decade. And then last week, a breakthrough: On March 31, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s State Legislature approved a $175 billion budget, which includes a congestion pricing fee, making New York the first U.S. city to adopt the policy.
The fee, which likely won’t go into effect until the start of 2021, will only apply to drivers traveling through New York City’s ‘central business district,’ which includes most of the streets below 60th St. in Manhattan. The language in the budget stipulates that passenger vehicles can only be charged the fee once per day. The state has yet to determine how much drivers will be charged and how much the fee might vary throughout the day; a new Traffic Mobility Review Board is expected to announce more specifics later this fall. (Previous suggestions recommended a toll of $11.52 for cars and $25.34 for trucks).
Now that the city has adopted congestion pricing, which estimates suggest will generate $1 billion per year, advocates for low-income communities and communities of color are trying to ensure the scheme will ultimately benefit the residents they represent. But after a decade of struggling to get traction behind the idea, most stakeholders agree on one thing: the city can no longer afford to delay addressing its transportation woes.
“The 10 years of getting it passed was step one,” said longtime congestion pricing proponent Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, whose membership includes more than a dozen local grassroots organizations. “Now the fight’s going to be over the next years how this thing gets rolled out.”
The time is now
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who ran for office as a Republican — first raised the idea of congestion pricing more than 10 years ago. But Democratic Assembly members representing New York City districts outside of Manhattan blocked his proposal. Much of the opposition to the policy today still comes from these outer boroughs — particularly Brooklyn and Queens, where some residents drive to the central business district for work. Lawmakers from those neighborhoods say their constituents will be the most burdened by the new fees, forcing them to take public transportation into the city that could increase their commutes by hours — and that’s if there are transit routes available in their neighborhoods at all.
“My community is knocking down my door saying they don’t want to be taxed,” Democratic Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte said at a rally in March held in opposition to the congestion pricing proposal. She represents a district in central Brooklyn. Bichotte pointed to “dollar vans,” an informal (and sometimes unlicensed) network of drivers who charge residents small amounts to get around nearby neighborhoods as evidence of ad hoc systems designed to address her constituents’ poor public transportation options. “Now the people who will be affected are people in my community — the immigrant workers,” she explained. “The people who need alternate ways to get into work.”
Congestion pricing can burden lower-income communities where people priced out of city centers are forced to live. These are neighborhoods that may be too far from downtown for many residents to walk or bike to work, or where there aren’t many public transit options. With no reasonable alternatives to driving, congestion pricing can appear like a regressive tax for people living in these areas.
Roughly one in 14 New Yorkers lives in a transit desert, according to research from the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas. A 2015 New York University report found that neighborhoods in the city with limited transit access also had higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes.
While many of the previous concerns about congestion pricing remain, some stakeholders who once opposed the policy now support it. This time around, efforts to pass congestion pricing were championed by Democrats, including Governor Cuomo and newly elected state legislators who now control both the Assembly and the Senate. That kind of unity on the issue put pressure on other leaders who were once skeptics, like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had initially preferred a millionaire’s tax to fund mass transit fixes.
“The time to act is running out, and among all alternatives, congestion pricing has the greatest prospects for immediate success,” de Blasio said in a February statement. “It is my hope that critics of congestion pricing will join me in acknowledging its necessity.”
New Yorkers can thank the fact that getting around their city is increasingly becoming a shit show — whether you drive or take subways and buses — for their legislators’ dramatic change of heart. Last year, average car speeds through midtown Manhattan fell to a pitiful 4.7 miles per hour. The hellish traffic is at least in part due to so many new Lyft and Uber drivers on the road. The ridesharing crunch got so bad that NYC last year had to place a cap on their numbers.
But it’s not just the roads that clogged roadways. The more than 100-year-old subway is also showing its age. Car equipment failures and notorious “signal problems” that cause delays are twice as frequent as they were 10 years ago, and one in three trains fail to arrive at their destinations on time. A New York Times investigation found that although twice as many riders are taking the subway now compared to 20 years ago, the amount of money allocated for maintenance has barely changed when adjusted for inflation. Shortly after a subway train derailment in Harlem that injured dozens of people in 2017, Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority system.
Finally, something had to be done to quell angry commuters who elevated transit to a major election issue last fall. Even without congestion pricing, New Yorkers were going to have to pay more for their commutes to fund much-needed repairs and upgrades. Experts released a report last year estimating that it could take up to $60 billion to get the city’s transit system back on track. And without other options to raise those funds, the burden was passed on to train riders via higher fares.
Governor Cuomo and the MTA President warned earlier this year that failing to pass congestion pricing would lead to a 30 percent increase in subway fares by 2024. “There’s no way that folks can afford to pay $3.50 for a ticket,” said Renae Reynolds. (A standard base fare is $2.75 right now.)
“The Great Equalizer”
As much as New York’s subway needs the funding, there are still a lot of unanswered questions that will ultimately determine who will be the policy’s winners and losers. In order to ensure that congestion pricing’s implementation doesn’t create new disparities, cities have to address transit deserts.
“A robust public transit system is not just a complement, it’s a prerequisite for effective congestion pricing,” Alex Bigazzi, an assistant professor at British Columbia University who studies transportation engineering, told Grist last year.
For her part, Reynolds says she has been pushing for congestion pricing in the hopes that the money the city generates will go toward improving subways and bus lines in Far Rockaway and other under-resourced neighborhoods. “Overwhelmingly low-income communities and communities of color rely on public transportation,” Reynolds said. “That means that any delays — and we have been dealing with tons of delays as the system has continued to deteriorate — makes those communities even more vulnerable to losing pay or losing their jobs, or missing critical appointments, or staying connected to the most important people in their lives.”
A 2013 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development found that black New Yorkers’ commutes are, on average, 25 percent longer than those of white residents. Hispanic commuters face travel times roughly 12 percent longer. Two-thirds of commuters who journey more than an hour to get to work earn under $35,000 a year.
And even though people of color are more likely to have to travel long distances with fewer mass transit options, they are still more likely than their white counterparts to take mass transit. According to a 2017 report from the city comptroller, 75 percent of bus commuters and 66 percent of subway commuters are people of color. Across the U.S., people who are lower-income, black, Hispanic, and immigrants are more likely to depend on public transportation, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that only affluent drivers will be paying the new congestion pricing tolls. “One of the things that they have to try to measure is what is the impact on low-income folks in terms of their need to enter the central business district and how that may create impacts on that strata of our society,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which advocates for largely black and Latino neighborhoods in Harlem and other parts of Northern Manhattan.
Figuring out how to mitigate those impacts is essential, he explained, as is making sure that businesses aren’t forcing workers who make deliveries to pay the fees: “We just can’t allow something with as many benefits as this to be taken advantage of and scammed on by people who are supposed to be responsible for bearing these costs.”
While many environmental groups representing the low-income neighborhoods that often bear the brunt of the city’s pollution have been on board for congestion pricing since the Bloomberg era, other advocates tackling poverty, like the Community Service Society in New York, have also jumped on board. “Simply put, the city’s subway system is falling short of its reputation as the ‘great equalizer’ where people of all economic backgrounds can afford the fare and access opportunities that help them and their families get ahead,” the Community Service Society said in a 2017 statement calling for congestion pricing as a fix to the city’s subway woes.
Even though congestion pricing is designed to eventually make commutes more bearable for subway and bus users, those improvements could be years off. The new tolls are projected to bring in $15 billion of capital investment for the MTA over 10 years. Roughly 80 percent of funds raised from congestion pricing will go towards improving New York City’s aging subways and bus system, while the remaining money will be allocated for rail lines connecting the city to surrounding suburbs.
While Corbin-Mark says many New Yorkers are willing to wait and see what the results of this new scheme will be, he adds that there will be hell to pay if residents’ expectations aren’t met. “They don’t just want to know that the money is going to the transit system, they want to know that problems are being fixed with the money that’s being generated,” Corbin-Mark said. “They recognize that, ‘OK, we’ve got to give something to get something.’ But if they don’t get it, then they’re just going to be really hopping mad.”
To minimize the fees’ impact on low-income communities, lawmakers are mulling over potential credits, discounts, or exemptions for people with disabilities and those who earn under $60,000 a year. Taxis and ride-sharing apps are also pushing for exemptions or credits. “The drivers are already suffering,” said Bigu Haider, an organizer with the Taxi Workers Alliance who drove for more than 20 years. “Now it’s getting worse.” Congestion pricing is “a suicidal charge” if it does not contain an exemption for taxi drivers, Haider continued, referencing a rash of deaths of cab drivers, many of whom were immigrants of color, who took their own lives as ride-sharing companies disrupted the economics of driving a taxi.
It’s not just New Yorkers who will be watching those thorny decisions closely as they’re made, cities like Seattle and Los Angeles are considering similar policies, and will likely look east for a potential model. And as the details over New York’s congestion pricing emerge, it’s possible that stakeholders — both for and against the plan — may once again change their tune.
Plans to outline exemptions for low-income drivers and in some extenuating situations like doctors visits have even changed the minds of former critics like Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who said in a recent interview with a local cable TV news station that her “concerns [over congestion pricing] have been addressed.”
And advocates like Reynolds say the scheme will increase equity as long as the money generated is prioritized for transit upgrades in communities with fewer resources than more affluent suburbs. “It would be great to see a victory that is prioritizing the needs of New York City’s most vulnerable, the people who are the lifeblood of the city,” she said.
A changing climate, a changing commute
Proponents of congestion pricing say there are bigger, existential risks associated with not adopting congestion pricing. The city’s vulnerability to climate change has made upgrading the transit system and reducing fossil fuel consumption a priority for many local lawmakers.
Floods have already inundated tunnels — giving a taste of what could happen as climate change exacerbates severe weather events.
“In a post-climate change world, if we’re not figuring out how to make massive investments to make our system resilient in the face of what will be ongoing and increasingly severe weather events, it could cripple the city,” said Bautista of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.
Residents of Far Rockaway, where Reynolds lives, understand this argument all too well. The neighborhood isn’t just a transit desert. It’s also one of the portions of New York City most vulnerable to flooding. In 2012, it took some of the hardest hits from Superstorm Sandy. Some families there are still rebuilding from the storm, which shut down a portion of the Rockaway subway line for more than six months.
WE ACT’s Corbin-Mark hopes congestion pricing will not only lead to less traffic, but that it will fund an electrification of the city’s buses to reduce carbon emissions and other co-pollutants — which could help mitigate the effects of climate change, and mean cleaner air for communities of color that are already experiencing higher rates of asthma than the city as a whole. “There’s a lot of talk about a Green New Deal,” he said. “Well, this is one way to put something like that into action.
“Nobody’s really excited for anything that means that some sets of folks are going to have to pay,” Corbin-Mark added. “However, many people do understand the necessity for such a system. There’s some pain, but it’s a broader benefit.”