New York Traffic Pricing, Not Very Bright Ideas Department

What is it about Manhattan traffic which makes clever people come up with decidedly

silly ideas? Back in 1999, for instance, James Surowiecki wrote

a column headlined "Deregulate

New York City", in which he said that New York should deregulate the taxi

market, allowing yellow cabs to compete with each other on price.

Aesterday, Robert Frank wrote a New York Times column explaining

that although congestion pricing is a good idea, it would be an even better

idea if it didn’t

actually cost people much money to drive into Manhattan:

Every worker in Manhattan could be given transferable vouchers that could

be used to defray some portion of the new fees. This would protect low-income

people who sometimes have no choice but to drive into the city during peak

hours. Those who could avoid such trips could sell some or all of their vouchers

to others. All New Yorkers could thus enjoy the benefits of cleaner air and

reduced traffic congestion without imposing a burden on low-income families.

None of this makes any sense. For one thing, you’d need to determine who counted

as a "worker in Manhattan" – would a self-employed blogger working

from home count? Would a light-industrial manufacturer in Queens needing to

visit a client in Midtown count? Then, you’d flood the market with transferable

vouchers, since the vast majority of workers in Manhattan never dream of commuting

by car. Hell, most of them probably don’t even own a car. So the cost

of a voucher allowing people to drive into Manhattan would plunge, traffic into

Manhattan wouldn’t go down, and you wouldn’t get any of the benefits of cleaner

air or reduced congestion.

The whole point of a congestion charge is that it has to be expensive enough

to hurt, at least a little bit. If you defray the cost, you defeat the purpose.

London mayor Ken Livingstone has a much better idea: charge

high-emissions vehicles $400 to enter the congestion zone. The congestion

charge should be higher, not lower. (Hat tip to the excellent Streetsblog

for picking up on this.)

As for the political problems associated with low-income New York City car-owners

who regularly drive into Manhattan, first you’ll need to persuade me that such

people exist. Maybe we could just pay both of them a couple of hundred bucks,

and be done.

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