Associated Press

Risks Outside the Zone

Austin Celestin

May 01, 2024

The impact of congestion pricing on the South Bronx and Northern Manhattan

The impact of congestion pricing on the South Bronx and Northern Manhattan

After 17 years, New York City is preparing to activate the nation’s first congestion pricing scheme. The new tolls are expected to provide billions of dollars in improvements to public transit in the area while reducing vehicular congestion in the region entering Lower Manhattan by approximately 17%.

But that reduction in congestion isn’t going to be shared evenly across the city, and some areas could see a slight uptick in car and truck traffic as drivers divert onto untolled highways and use nearby local streets to look for parking outside the zone. The MTA’s environmental assessment indicated that a few spots across the city could see increased vehicular traffic as drivers change their habits, with the largest potential increases forecasted in and around low-income, majority-Black and Brown neighborhoods in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, particularly on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Representatives worry that these outcomes may worsen air and noise pollution.

These threats are not new problems — the history of the South Bronx and Northern Manhattan is defined by decades of environmental racism through the placement of things like power plants, distribution facilities and urban freeways, heavily polluting the area and producing the highest asthma rates in the city. Advocates for congestion pricing are right to celebrate the new revenue stream for the MTA and the benefits that will come from less traffic across the region. However, supporters must acknowledge that these side effects are a possible outcome for already marginalized communities, and transit officials and legislators must make firm commitments to help alleviate these potential negative consequences.

Rectifying the problems starts with the distribution of the toll revenue. With the cloud of lawsuits delaying the activation of the tolls, the MTA released a report listing the contracts and projects the legal challenges delayed. These include signal modernization, bus depot upgrades, accessibility improvements and the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway. Those are all critical investments to keep the system running and make it more accessible to commuters. But the only projects for the Bronx are ADA upgrades, depot and rail yard upgrades, fan and power facility upgrades, and some structural repairs on the 6 train — no signal modernization, frequency improvements or expansions.

Those of us who support the policy recognize that these side effects are a very plausible outcome for already marginalized communities. As a result, transit officials and legislators must make firm commitments to help alleviate these potential negative consequences.

Improving air quality in the Bronx means getting cars off the road, which necessitates getting people onto public transit. Travel Behaviour and Society’s 2022 meta-analysis showed that the factors influencing people’s willingness to take public transit included frequency, speed, reliability, coverage, car ownership and parking availability. The public transit network in the Bronx is notorious for inconsistent frequency, rampant delays and slow speeds. Significant gaps in bus service, particularly in the East Bronx, make it significantly harder for commuters to rely on public transit, resulting in higher car usage. 

Alleviating this will require using congestion pricing revenue to bolster bus frequency, something the state Legislature started to address by committing $12 million to more buses in the city. But far more is needed. The New York City Department of Transportation should prioritize installing new bus lanes and dedicated busways, as they are critical tools for improving speed and reliability. They’re also legally required as part of the City’s Streets Master Plan from 2019. Unfortunately, Mayor Eric Adams has failed to meet those benchmarks and has delayed and canceled projects for bus infrastructure across the city, including in the Bronx. The City Council must hold the Adams administration accountable to these benchmarks and ensure that the DOT starts meeting those requirements.

These solutions should extend beyond the Bronx. Most Bronx and Upper Manhattan households are car-free, meaning a large proportion of congestion on the borough’s highways originates from the suburbs. Here, the portion of congestion pricing revenue geared towards Metro-North improvements becomes uniquely consequential. Frequent and reliable regional transit would be especially useful in directing suburban commuters toward mass transit options. The Penn Station Access project will help provide suburban (and Bronx) commuters additional options for commuting into the city. Westchester can also help by bolstering service on its Bee-Line Buses, particularly along routes that connect to Metro-North stations and travel into the Bronx.

Decking the Cross Bronx Expressway is a solution that has been suggested for years and already has some financial and political support.

Addressing concerns about increased parking issues could require exploring a concept known as Parking Benefit Districts. PBDs cover a block or a set of blocks with free on-street parking that charge a small hourly fee, generating revenue for public transit and dissuading cruising around streets looking for parking. While it might seem like an equitable policy, free on-street parking is the opposite — car-owning households have twice the median income as car-free ones. The people looking for free parking are, on average, wealthier. A 2008 TransAlt report also found that drivers searching for free parking led to over 350,000 more vehicle miles traveled. While the primary concern might be for the Upper West and East Sides, both directly adjacent to the tolled zone, neighborhoods farther north might see smaller increases. Introducing PBDs to Upper Manhattan might be a good way to dissuade excess vehicle miles traveled.

While reducing private vehicle traffic would help ease potential pollution increases, the environmental assessment does predict increases in truck traffic, with a projection of up to 700 additional trucks on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The $310 million the MTA put towards mitigation efforts makes a partial attempt to address this through freight electrification (as well as green space upgrades and air filtration modernization). A more aggressive move would be to capitalize on the city’s robust harbor network and continue the transition toward utilizing our rail freight terminals. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that while emissions from ships are high, they are much more efficient than trucks at transporting goods, and rail freight is even cleaner than both. New York City has one of the nation’s largest port networks, and a maximized utilization of those ports would help offset truck traffic in the Bronx. The Hunts Point Distribution Center has a rail freight terminal. Upgrading and fully utilizing that terminal would also reduce the need for trucks. Greener, lighter, last-mile delivery methods, like cargo bikes and smaller electric vans should also be used to distribute goods locally from distribution centers. 

Much more aggressive proposals could include physical changes to highways. Decking the Cross Bronx Expressway is a solution that has been suggested for years that already has some financial and political support. The benefits of highway capping identified by Columbia University Researchers in 2018 include decreased noise and air pollution, increased green space access and improved mental and physical health. Downsizing and tearing down certain highways, like the Bronx River Parkway, also has precedents. Case studies from across the United States show that highway teardowns improve air quality, reduce traffic and bolster public transit while stitching communities together and fostering opportunities for economic development. But such ambitious projects come with hefty price tags, extensive prerequisites and lengthy timelines. However, the side effects of congestion pricing are entrenched with existing issues that have long required attention. Such investments fit the bill of what would be necessary to deliver equitable solutions to the area.

Congestion pricing is necessary to improve New York City streets; its many benefits cannot be achieved through any other policy tool. However, it’s not a perfect plan. Acknowledging this reality and remedying it to the fullest extent possible is critical for ensuring a successful and equitable implementation. Our success could serve as a model for other cities like Boston and Los Angeles, who are keenly observing the outcomes of our program in hopes of implementing a similar congestion pricing scheme of their own. We have an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the country and must be ready to address the issues that might arise.