Werner Bischof Estate / Magnum Photos

The Long and Winding Road

John Surico

May 01, 2024

How we got to this turning point, and where we’re headed

How we got to this turning point, and where we’re headed

In 1977, when then-Mayor Abe Beame was forced to obey a court order to restrict on-street parking between Central Park South and 34th Street during rush hour to comply with federal air quality standards, he stood alongside business leaders at City Hall and bemoaned that the ruling would “make a ghost town of the area from 59th Street to the Battery.” Beame had been reluctant to carry out the plan his predecessor, John Lindsay, had hatched with the Environmental Protection Agency, which also included tolls on the four free East River crossings. An agreement with Washington later voided the fees before they could start, and Beame’s poorly executed parking ban evolved into the Midtown bus lanes and commercial loading zones we see today.

In 2008, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg revived the idea of charging cars to enter Manhattan’s central business district in his PlaNYC. The $8 fee would fund projects undertaken by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), like express bus service and subway station renovation. Bloomberg enjoyed the backing of most city and state leaders — except Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who remained skeptical of traffic diversion and the health risks it could pose to underserved communities. After the push died upstate, Assemblymember Mark Weprin of Queens told reporters that “the word ‘elitist’ came up a number of times” in dealings.

Congestion pricing, as the policy is called, has always been one of the hardest political puzzles to solve in New York, a Jenga of priorities where the removal of just one piece could topple it. Even if, on paper, one would think the voices of mass transit riders, who make up New York City’s dominant DNA strand, would easily overtake those of car users. But Gotham, as we know, isn’t that binary. And that is because congestion pricing is like the Hydra of transit’s culture wars — a price placed not just on road use, but also on the very idea of driving itself, provoking often subtle yet uncomfortable conversations about who needs access to what and who should pay for it. And those divisions play out along socioeconomic lines, inner- versus outer-borough geographies, and neighborhoods. Odd bedfellows, like Staten Island and the teacher’s union, ensue.

In 2019, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo had what appears to be the winning game board. After years of split-party control in the state Legislature, a new progressive wing, more sympathetic to public transit users, had assumed power. The same goes for City Hall, with enough, albeit mild, support from Cuomo’s rival, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio. The business community, tired of traffic’s projected $100 billion five-year cost to their bottom line, had warmed up to it. And almost-daily headlines about the system’s sorry state — then the world’s worst-functioning of any global capital — doubled as argumentative ammunition.

Congestion pricing, as the policy is called, has always been one of the hardest political puzzles to solve in New York, a Jenga of priorities where the removal of just one piece could topple it.

Five years later, nearly 120 cameras are set to flick on at the end of June, activating a system that’s been imagined in the United States since Nobel Laureate economist William Vickrey proposed it back in the 1950s.

Private cars will be charged $15 once a day to enter the central business district’s “congestion relief zone,” which runs from 60th Street down to the tip of Manhattan. Major arterials, like the FDR Drive, will be immune. Trucks will pay up to $36; motorcycles, $7.50; and taxicabs and Ubers, a $2.50 surcharge. Prices drop 75% overnight. Under limited exceptions, low-income residents will get 50% off, and those living in the zone will get a to-be-determined tax break. Drivers already paying bridge and tunnel tolls will get rebates. And vehicles conducting city business, like building inspectors and garbage trucks, will be exempt.

Congestion pricing has a unique meta quality: It feels either inevitable or doomed, depending on the time, place and person you ask. But pulling it off was bound to be bumpy. Change doesn’t come easy, especially here, and this is the most transformative shift in how New Yorkers use their streets since the grid system. As the first of its kind in America, land of the car, the policy’s national repercussions are immense. But its sensibilities also stem from struggles and borderlines inherent to New York’s body politic, as the policy is often used as an abacus by politicians for the assumed political power of the car-driving and car-less. The battlegrounds should feel familiar: We see them arise when any new bike lane, street design or toll is proposed. This one just happens to be on a much more grandiose scale.

And we see this posturing play out in real time. In office, Cuomo held up congestion pricing as a crowning achievement of his tenure. Out of office, but perhaps clawing his way back in, Cuomo now says it’s no longer the right time for it, with office vacancy rates still high and the city’s post-pandemic recovery shaky. Similarly, Mayor Eric Adams has seesawed. He has long fretted that the city has little say over its streets. His administration pushed for more exemptions than given. Even after his deputy mayor voted “aye” as an MTA board member, the mayor said he still worries about working-class residents getting stiffed — a nod to his base of outer-borough voters of color, who he’ll need to win re-election in 2025. In a recent radio interview, he drew distance: “This is the MTA’s baby,” he said.

It can often feel like there is an “only in New York” brand of governing here. But other global capitals with congestion pricing faced headwinds, just of different speeds. Singapore had a year of public dialogue before the government implemented it there in 1975, as population and car ownership spiked. Drivers groaned at first, but pricing was paired with public transit improvements, system adjustments and electronic fees, which tampered backlash. In Stockholm, congestion pricing was deeply unpopular until the day it started as a pilot in 2006, after which traffic dropped and approval soared. The city also bolstered bus service and added parking along the periphery.

The battlegrounds should feel familiar: We see them arise when any new bike lane, street design or toll is proposed. This one just happens to be on a much more grandiose scale.

As often is the case, New York sees itself most in London. The “congestion charge,” which helps fund Transport for London, their MTA equivalent, was a key campaign plank for Ken Livingstone, who became the capital’s first mayor in 2000, back when Labour dominated British politics. But Boris Johnson, who was electorally aided by the votes of frustrated outer-borough drivers, like himself, wasn’t as friendly when Conservatives took power in 2008: As mayor, he reduced the zone’s borders and squashed talk of any additional pricing, yet largely left the popular policy intact. On a recent trip to the U.S., Johnson, now in political exile and looking for allies, pointed to the camera and told Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island, an ardent opponent of the policy, “don’t go for congestion charging.” Sound familiar?

In signature bravado, New York will top London as the world’s largest congestion zone, at nine square miles, should it happen.

This iteration is battle-worn. It has survived the Trump administration, which indefinitely delayed federal approval, seemingly out of spite. It has survived nearly three years of public comment and environmental review, which garnered promises to mitigate air pollution in The Bronx. It has survived a new governor, who, in turn, has become one of its most articulate defenders. It has survived a pandemic and the existential crisis it posed to public transit. And yet still, it faces lawsuits from the city’s teachers union, downtown residents, the borough of Staten Island and the entire state of New Jersey, all aggrieved about drivers having to pay to enter most of Manhattan. As June 30 nears, seemingly treacherous holes keep getting plugged up, at least for now, the latest being promises of funding to our trans-Hudson neighbors, which was always a likelihood.

A Beame repeat is plausible, where a judge could, again, determine what happens next. But history shows a fragile future. When the plan was approved in March, Sam Schwartz, the city’s former traffic commissioner and a longtime booster, voiced caution, the memories of 1977 still stark. “At the traffic department, I was busy designing all the toll plazas,” he told The New York Times. “Nothing could stop it short of an act of Congress — and that’s what stopped it.”

Beginning on June 30th, we’ll see whether the third time’s the charm.