NYC Has an Old-Timey Plan to Fix Its Traffic Future

New York City is still more than a year away from becoming the first American metropolis to implement a congestion charge, but its plan to ease Manhattan traffic is starting to take shape. The tolling zone will cover the southern part of the island, starting at 60th Street. Vehicles will be charged a flat rate upon entering the area—it’s likely to be between $11 and $14 for cars—but the fee could vary depending on the time of day. Most of the expected $15 billion revenue through 2024 will help finance public transit improvements. It looks like the system will essentially replicate or expand the current E-ZPass toll system that’s already used on New York’s roads, bridges, and tunnels.

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That last point, critics say, is a bad sign. But to understand why, you should first take a lesson from London. In 2003 the British capital introduced a £11.50 flat fee for vehicles entering a 13-square-mile zone in the city center between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The number of cars driving through Central London fell sharply, but began rising again when ride-hailing apps like Uber appeared in 2012. Private-hire vehicles were exempt from the charge, and as their number increased, so did traffic. This slowed the bus system, in turn leading more people to abandon public transit.

London changed its policy to charge Uber and other drivers the fee last April, but it hasn’t always been so flexible. The flat fee, for example, is a blunt tool that “does not discourage long journeys and journeys at peak times,” says Silviya Barrett, a research manager at Centre for London, a think tank focused on the city. And over time, the city has found that congestion isn’t the only thing it wants to regulate. When it decided to curb pollution, it created a new, separate £12.50 charge for vehicles that do not meet emission standards. The Ultra Low Emission Zone covers the same area as the congestion charge and is always in effect.

This may be a short-term fix. As low-emission vehicles become more common and transport habits continue to evolve toward shared mobility, transit authorities will have to find new sources of revenue to replace fuel taxes, tolls, and emission charges. London’s income from the congestion charge is already plateauing, and logic says revenue from the emission zone will drop as dirtier cars are phased out. To fulfill its goals of curbing congestion, cleaning the air, and helping finance infrastructure upgrades, then, London will have to keep adjusting how it charges drivers.

So will any city that hopes to make the most of this type of road pricing scheme. They should think about vehicle size, or number of passengers, distance travelled, and what other options are available to those who do drive. “We need to think about dynamic pricing as resolving important mobility issues, and one of those is access,” says Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If you earn $15 or $20 an hour, and it takes you an hour and a half to get to work, that’s a substantial percentage of your income. Looking at it just as congestion is not comprehensive enough.”

So when the New York state legislature approved Governor Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan earlier this year, many hoped the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would pioneer the kind of innovative technologies that would allow for flexible pricing: not just by time and location, but by other factors. The MTA did ask companies to submit information about which new technologies could be used, including Bluetooth and smartphone-based apps. But then the MTA gave a seven-year, $507 million contract to Nashville-based TransCore. The company, which manages electronic toll systems, will roll out the new charging system using the transponder-based EZ Pass. The system is a known quantity, but it can’t do any more than tell you when a vehicle drives past a given point.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” says Robin Chase, a transportation entrepreneur best known for cofounding Zipcar. “The transponder in your car is a device that’s used 30 seconds in a month and is a 20-year-old technology.” She suggests the MTA rely on smartphones to make drivers pay for road use. She says the MTA should work with third-party providers to use location data and charge drivers based on how much they drive. It’s as if Waze came with a payment system. Or if Uber’s surge-pricing algorithm, location-tracking feature, and payment interface were applied to all vehicles.

While the idea of having one’s location tracked at all times may raise privacy concerns, Chase says adding more cameras on the street is far more worrisome. (EZ Pass uses cameras to pull the license plates of cars without transponders and mails their owners a bill.) “Putting in the physical infrastructure that creates [a] surveillance state is deeply troubling right now, particularly as we start talking about facial recognition,” she says.

The state of New York is already running its own pilot project to test facial-recognition cameras at toll bridges and tunnels. While the MTA has denied the data would be shared with law enforcement officials, civil liberties advocates have warned that such technology only serves to increase the government’s capacity for real-time surveillance. “There’s lots of examples where cameras were installed for a particular use and then immediately reused for other uses,” Chase warns.

When asked whether the new congestion system will incorporate smartphone-based technologies, an MTA spokesperson wrote in an email: “We are committed to bringing innovative solutions and the world’s best technology to this project and are exploring a wide range of both traditional and outside-of-the-box solutions.”

Others agree the E-ZPass lacks flexibility but think relying on smartphone technology alone may not be sufficient. Paul Salama, the chief operating officer at ClearRoad, a road-pricing company, notes that GPS struggles in dense urban environments, which explains why sometimes you don’t see your Uber moving in real time on your phone’s screen. And there would need to be a way to associate a phone with a specific vehicle, to make sure that the person being charged is actually the one driving.

ClearRoad currently works with the states of Oregon and Washington to implement per-mile pricing programs. Those were launched when both states took steps to replace existing fuel taxes, revenues from which are threatened by the rise of electric cars. ClearRoad’s platform collects data on road use from a variety of sources, including built-in navigation systems and transponders, and applies whatever pricing policy the government has put into place, acting like a data broker.

Salama says his platform also protects the privacy of drivers, because it mostly works with anonymized data and doesn’t handle payments itself. “Governments actually don’t want this data. They don’t want to worry about how they manage this data. So we prevent them from having anything aside from aggregate data,” he says.

To get a better idea of what a fully fledged data-based congestion pricing scheme would look like, you can skim through the April proposal made by the Centre for London for the city’s soon-to-be-updated road-pricing plan. It suggests charging drivers based on distance traveled, vehicle emissions, real-time congestion, and availability of public transit. Drivers would have the choice to be tracked via their smartphone or by a transponder-like device. Visitors and those who wish to opt out due to privacy concerns could purchase prepaid credits online or in physical stores.

And the proposal says London should create an app through which users could not only pay for road charges, but also plan their trips and compare different modes of transportation based on travel time and road pricing. In short, it would merge the features of a mobility-as-a-service app (such as Whim in Helsinki) with the location-tracking and billing system of a ride-hailing service.

“The idea is that pricing is then balanced in favor of sustainable modes and shared mobility, so that people are incentivised to reduce car usage,” says the Centre for London’s Barrett, who cowrote the proposal. It’s a bold plan compared to what London has now—and also to what New York is working to build. But maybe it’s not too late to make the Big Apple’s plan smarter than it looks now.

“The issue today is not the technologies, it’s the governance,” Goldsmith says. “We have the technologies. We’re not deploying them because of both the way we manage government and the way we manage the narrative.”

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