Something for Drivers
There's a group of people here in New York trying to get tolls on the East River bridges. I know some of these people. I like them. They're allies. They've done some good things for the city in the past. And yet, in 2012 they came up with a really shitty plan.
I want to be on their side. I want them to be on my side. That's why I wrote a series of blog posts last year constructively criticizing the plan. I haven't seen the latest version of the plan, but from what they told Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times a few days ago, the worst elements are still in there. They also told Flegenheimer "its details would not be made final until after a series of public forums next year." That's reassuring. With this in mind, I'm editing those posts into a single page, easily tweetable, and suitable for reading in one sitting, or printing out and bringing with you to one of these forums (hint, hint).
Tolls and goals
I've been a supporter of congestion pricing from the day Mayor Bloomberg announced it. In fact, my blog started as a way for me to jot down arguments that I found myself making over and over again in favor of the congestion pricing plan and later the Richard Ravitch bridge toll proposal. Since then I've expanded to many other areas of transportation. In particular, I've spent some time making my transportation policy goals more explicit than they were then, and describing the cyclic way that these policy decisions reinforce or undermine themselves. Lately, bridge tolls have come back into the media again, so I wanted to explicitly connect them to my goals.
First, the inherent advantages of encouraging people to shift from cars to transit for suburban-to-center commuting:
Reducing carnage. By discouraging driving, tolls decrease the number of cars on the streets. This does not only include the cordon area, but potentially the entire commute route from home to the zone. It is important to note that this does not by itself reduce carnage, and may in fact increase carnage if the increase in available capacity encourages drivers to go faster.
Reducing pollution. By discouraging driving, tolls decrease the number of cars on the street. By decreasing idling, they reduce the amount of pollution that each car spews.
Increasing efficiency. At a minimum, tolls encourage efficient use of our bridges, and of other car facilities to and in the cordon area. By decreasing demand for the bridges and other car facilities, they may spare us payment for the reconstruction or expansion of these facilities. They also decrease the demand for other driving subsidies, such as oil wars.
Improving society. By encouraging people to take transit from their homes in the suburbs, tolls will encourage denser suburban living, increasing demand for transit-oriented development and thus contributing to a critical mass for walkable suburban downtowns. This will give people alternatives to "bowling alone" and soccer chauffeuring.
Access for all. The increased demands for transit-oriented development will provide better access for the elderly, the young, the poor and the disabled.
Second, some effects that require combinations. If traffic calming measures are introduced, cordon tolls can definitely reduce carnage. If buses are exempted from these traffic calming measures, the buses will go faster, giving them an advantage and increasing farebox recovery. If the toll revenues are allocated to transit, they will allow transit to expand.
The increased demand for transit and decreased demand for driving will also have cyclical effects. It will permit better economies of scale, allowing expansion. It will increase support for government subsidies to transit and reduce support for driving subsidies. If transit has more frequent service and better coverage, it has a better advantage when competing with private car use. It will tend to discourage car use beyond the tolls themselves. These cyclical effects will compound the effects described above.
Gridlock Sam's 2012 Plan
Last year Crain's ran a glowing profile of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, and I was certainly impressed with the stories about him injecting even a tiny bit of concern for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders into the New York City "Department of Traffic," surrounded by engineers who were trying to cram as many cars as possible into Midtown Manhattan. Sam is clearly trying to help as many New Yorkers as possible get around efficiently, and he deserves credit and support for this. Plus, anyone who follows me on Twitter can't be too bad.
Schwartz made the rounds then with the latest Move New York plan for tolling the East River bridges. I've long argued that something along these lines is necessary, for the reasons that I laid out above. In addition, his plan would deal with the very specific problem of the tolls on the Verrazano and Manhattan Bridges, which offer truck driver going from Brooklyn to New Jersey the perverse choice between paying $70 to travel on the Gowanus and Staten Island Expressways or pounding the streets and tourists of Lower Manhattan for free.
The 2012 plan, similar to the one put out a few years ago by Charlie Komanoff on a commission from Ted Kheel, would also reinstitute tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, and implement a "screenline" toll to drive across 60th Street in Manhattan. The toll would be five dollars. Instead of the massive increases in bus and subway service promised by Bloomberg and Ravitch, it would provide relatively little:
Reduce bus fares by $1 in neighborhoods with no subways
No service reductions on local buses for three years without Community Board approval
Consider restoring some local bus service discontinued in 2010
Why the huge reduction? Move New York tries to build support by offering "something for the drivers too." Komanoff and Kheel proposed to raise tolls on the Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Marine Parkway, Cross Bay Veterans and Henry Hudson bridges. In his plan for Move New York, Schwartz went the opposite direction and proposed that instead of using the toll money for transit, as is done with the current tolls on the MTA bridges and tunnels, and as Bloomberg and Ravitch proposed, he would use some of the money to widen the Belt Parkway to Interstate standards and allowing truck traffic on it. He also proposed to widen the Staten Island Expressway, and the Van Wyck Expressway near Kennedy Airport, where it gets most congested.
Charlie Komanoff likes the plan: he gushed in Streetsblog about how it "feels inclusive" and "feels egalitarian."
I'm a lot more skeptical. Sam Schwartz contributed to the discussion with this plan, but I hope this doesn't end with this plan being adopted. To me it doesn't actually feel inclusive or egalitarian anywhere below the surface. It doesn't fit well with my own goals, particularly with expanding the constituency for transit beyond the core of the city. There are a number of other things that bother me.
Something for the drivers
One of the biggest objections I have to Gridlock Sam's proposal is the extent to which it goes to provide "something for the drivers." It is based on a serious misreading of the objections to Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal and Ravitch's bridge toll plan, and if it succeeds it will be an empty victory.
Schwartz correctly observed that the vast majority of the objections to the congestion pricing plan and the Ravitch plan came from drivers. Unfortunately, he failed to grasp why they objected. Sure, they came up with all kinds of reasons, like "it's wrong to charge people to access a part of the city," and "it's a regressive tax." But none of these reasons made any sense, and if they weren't so dead set against the idea of tolling the bridges they would have known that.
The fight against congestion pricing was almost entirely symbolic, like the numerous actions that Jimmy Vacca has taken: deactivating parking meters on Sundays, getting rid of the parking violation stickers, and enshrining a five-minute "grace period" in law. These drivers view their status as car owners as either a birthright or a hard-fought victory. It is a symbol of their worth and their station in life, and when the city slapped a sticker on their cars it turned that symbol into a badge of shame.
For the past hundred years the "free" bridges and streets have been a potent symbol in their own right, demonstrating that the city may not be able to do much, but they're doing all they can to promote driving, and drivers are their top priority. The NYPD's ticket-fixing, the DCP's minimum parking requirements and the widespread tolerance of double parking have had similar symbolic value.
Already, the actions of Janette Sadik-Khan have made drivers less welcome in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and they have encountered vehement opposition. The idea that a person who has put in years of sacrifice to become a car owner (or has inherited that status from their parents) would count no more, or even less than, some kid from Ohio who just sits around all day playing bad music or making artisanal pickles drives these people nuts with rage. But to charge a fee to cross the river would be the ultimate insult. If there are more important things for the city to do than to help responsible citizens navigate the streets with a free bridge or two, then the city has truly failed them.
Yes, of course they spend more time driving around the other boroughs than driving into Manhattan. Schwartz and the others at Move New York looked at that and thought that if we made it easier and cheaper for them to do that, they would allow tolls on the bridges. But this is not about money or convenience, and that's why nuts like Richard Brodsky are completely unimpressed. It's about symbolism, and the Move New York plan would in fact reinforce that symbolic segregation by expanding the roads in the outer boroughs. There is nothing you can do "for the drivers" that would erase the symbolic humiliation of the government making them pay to drive into Manhattan.
You and I know that the road network is completely unsustainable, and that some day New York's drivers or their children or grandchildren will have no choice but to give up their cars. Some of them see the writing on the wall, and they may be willing to give in on tolls into Manhattan if we throw in enough goodies "for the drivers." But they may ask too much. They may ask for things that will make the bridge tolls worthless. Are we willing to give them those?
Something for the future drivers
I've talked about how the Move New York plan goes out of his way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. Inadequate as it is, that "something for the drivers" offered in the plan may be too high a price to pay for tolls on the East River bridges.
In the plan he made for Move New York in 2012, Schwartz talked about widening the Belt Parkway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Van Wyck Expressway. The "Bus Rapid Transit down median," as shown in the image above, would add capacity to the Long Island, Bruckner and Belt Expressways by moving the buses into a new separated lane. Some of these details may change with the plan, but as of November 26, 2013, Move New York's people were still saying that "its revenues would be used not only to fund the capital program of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority but also to upgrade roads and bridges — a nod to drivers who might be expected to oppose any congestion-based pricing."
There are people who are currently drivers, who have made Investments in driving like buying or leasing cars, or houses with garages and driveways, or houses or businesses in car-dependent areas. Some of them maybe should have known better, but given the blind eye that we've turned towards pollution, carnage and resource depletion, and the pressure that all of us have felt to Grow Up and Get a Car, because Families Need Cars, we can be sympathetic. I want to see something for those people. I don't know, twenty years of free transit for Nassau and Westchester?
We don't want something for Drivers that essentializes their decision to buy a vehicle, and that they can't enjoy if they then renounce driving. But even worse than that, the last thing we want is something for future drivers. Massive investment in driving infrastructure of the kind Move New York proposes will not just benefit existing drivers, but generations of drivers to come. We want future generations to walk and take transit, not keep driving.
The status quo is crazy. Let's just get that out there right away. This idea that there are two paths to prosperity, one for working class "real New Yorkers" that leads to an SUV and a McMansion in Spring Valley and another for "hipsters from Ohio" that leads to a cargo bike and a Park Slope brownstone, is false. Large lot, car dominated development is unsustainable, and we will bankrupt our city and state if we try to sustain it.
The Move New York plan would sink a whole pile of this toll money into car infrastructure. Once that money is spent we will feel pressure to make it easy for people to use those roads in order to recoup our investment. They will also enshrine the precedent that we have to keep spending money on roads, and the toll money will continue to be supplemented with the sales and income tax dollars of people who don't drive.
Maybe Schwartz is playing some kind of game. After all, in 2010 his employees gave a talk in Chicago about the advantages of tearing down urban freeways (PDF). Maybe he's only pretending to be unable to imagine that only a tiny percentage of my grandchildren (his great-grandchildren) will want to drive. Maybe he thinks that getting the bridges tolled is the thin end of the wedge, and in twenty years we'll have enough political support to dedicate all the toll money to extending the subways out to Syosset. If so, he's a very good actor. But unless those new highway lanes are secretly built with hidden rails, ready to be unveiled at the implementation of Fair Plan Phase II, we'll be stuck with a lot of new roads to maintain.
The bottom line is that we are never going to get our pollution and carnage down to acceptable levels, maintaining our energy supply and our dynamic economy, and provide access for all to work, commerce and society, as long as our outer neighborhoods and our suburbs are dominated by cars and their infrastructure. We can't give those up for East River bridge tolls. It's just not enough.
It's not fair or equitable
I've talked about how Schwartz goes out of his way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. I've talked about how this "something for the drivers" is not about compensating the current drivers, but sinking money into durable infrastructure for anyone who will drive in New York City in the next thirty to fifty years. This is not a vision of a sustainable future.
Now let's move on to the next big one: it's not fair. Schwartz actually called his plan "the Fair Plan." This was reiterated by Charlie Komanoff and Brian Lehrer who call it "fair" and "equitable." The problem is that it's only fair if you take a very limited view of the system.
You've probably all heard the story about the two women who went to King Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of a single baby. Solomon, in his wisdom, offered to split the baby and give each woman half. One of the women, realizing that half a baby was worse than none, told Solomon to give the baby to the other woman. Solomon replied that she must be the real mother because she was willing to part with the baby rather than see it killed.
Move New York spent time talking to people who had opposed the Mayor's congestion pricing plan and came up with something that at least some of them felt would be fair. To me it seems like a classic case of splitting the baby. It will not satisfy the drivers and will prevent transit from successfully expanding into the outer boroughs and suburbs. We have enough money to maintain one transportation system for the area, but we can't afford to properly maintain two - or at least, there are very few New Yorkers who want to pay high enough taxes, gas prices and transit fares to maintain both.
Worst of all, it's an example of a special crazy kind of "fairness" that completely ignores history. It was apparently football coach Barry Switzer who said, "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple." That's the mindset of New York drivers, who benefit from the billions of dollars poured into the region's highway system over the past fifty years, and zoning codes that require every builder to supply parking, outside of Manhattan and Long Island City. They can't even wrap their minds around the idea that New Jersey drivers already pay tolls to enter Manhattan.
This kind of bizarro "fairness" that ignores history and splits babies is not too surprising coming from Shelly Silver and Peter Vallone, Jr. It's sad to see it coming from Melissa Mark-Viverito and David Yassky. It's downright depressing to see it coming from people like Sam Schwartz, Charlie Komanoff and Brian Lehrer, all of whom really ought to know better.
The unviable, uninspired busways
I've talked about how the Move New York plan goes out of its way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. I've talked about how this "something for the drivers" is not about compensating the current drivers, but sinking money into durable infrastructure for anyone who will drive in New York City in the next thirty to fifty years. This is not a vision of a sustainable future.
Now I'm going to turn to a relatively minor point, but still an important one. Schwartz's 2012 plan includes some improvements to transit, but they're small and uninspiring, what you might expect from a traffic engineer who feels obligated to come up with something to contribute to transit but is completely uninterested in it. It's got several bad points, including these elevated busways along the median of the "LIE, Bruckner and Belt":
I'm very much in favor of using highway rights-of-way for transit, for a number of reasons linked to my goals (see the first section). Reducing highway capacity discourages driving. A dedicated right-of-way with grade separation allows transit to move faster, making it more competitive with driving and thus improving ridership and revenue. Using a highway right-of-way enables grade separation without expensive tunneling or property condemnation. But these elevated busways are probably the worst possible way to provide a dedicated grade separated right-of-way.
First of all, Schwartz's proposed elevated busways are expensive. Part of the success of the Lincoln Tunnel XBL comes from the fact that it uses lanes that are already there. The only additional expense is moving the bollards. In contrast, Schwartz's proposal would leave all of the existing lanes for private vehicles and construct expensive elevated roads above them.
Second, the proposed busways do not take existing car lanes. The famous BRT of Curitiba, Bogotá and Guangzhou take lanes away from cars and trucks, thus reducing the competition from government-subsidized private vehicle travel. Schwartz's proposal would actually increase the available road space for private vehicles by removing buses from the roadway.
Third, they are still busways. The only reason to run buses instead of trains is that they can use existing road infrastructure. If instead you're going to construct an entirely new platform, it is much more efficient to put tracks on it.
Fourth, Schwartz gives no thought to Manhattan terminal capacity. More than anything else, this is what convinces me that he just tossed this in to please transit advocates (or bike advocates who spend some time on transit issues). How does Sam Schwartz expect the bus riders to get to their jobs in Manhattan? Does he just want to terminate the busways at the bridges and tunnels and have them fight their way through against private cars? Does he really not know that when the DOT tried to build a dedicated busway on 34th Street, they were defeated? Does he not know that there's an organized movement with political clout fighting against bus stops in Manhattan?
Schwartz's plan is sold as being more politically and financially viable than the plans put forth by Bloomberg and Ravitch. If you build proper terminals for these busways in Manhattan the plan becomes financially unviable, and if you use the existing streets and curbs in Manhattan it becomes politically unviable. Nice try.
The empty dollar discount
The transit portions of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's transportation proposal just feel kind of bizarre and divorced from reality. Sometimes it seems that the entire city's transportation advocacy discourse is dominated by drivers and cyclists. Occasionally a transit rider like Jay Walder may get a little bit of influence, they still don't get the support they need when the chips are down.
When drivers and cyclists make big plans that include transit, as in the 2012 proposal from Gridlock Sam, the transit component runs the whole range of uninspiring, from mediocre (we'll consider restoring the 2010 cuts, but only on local bus routes) to other people's fads (elevated busways!) to WTF. The WTF in this case includes reducing the fares on buses "in neighborhoods with no subways" by a dollar, i.e. from $2.25 to $1.25.
Part of the problem here may be due to Powerpoint. It's possible that this is better thought out than it sounds, and it was edited into inanity to fit in one bullet point. But honestly, if your bus proposals don't get their own slides, what does that say about your priorities?
Anyway, so what's wrong with reducing bus fares to a dollar twenty-five in neighborhoods with no subways? In principle, nothing. But there are costs, and unforeseen consequences, and it's not clear what it will accomplish, if anything. The main cost is the opportunity cost: what else could we do with that money? Increase frequency on the buses; build bus bulbs or physically separated bus lanes; implement traffic signal priority or offboard fare payment. Or we could even use it to extend the E train to Valley Stream. With all these possibilities, why did Schwartz choose to spend the money lowering the fare?
Then there are the unforeseen consequences of lowering the bus fare. Many years ago I bought an "Apollo" inkjet printer for a hundred dollars; the sales people told me that it was made by Hewlett-Packard, and had the same technology as HP-branded printers. Why did HP go to the trouble of creating a separate company and brand for this printer? Because they didn't want anyone to see a brand new HP printer selling for a hundred dollars. They didn't want anyone to associate "HP" with "cheap" in their mind.
Buses already have a reputation in Staten Island, eastern Queens, southeastern Brooklyn and the eastern Bronx as cheap, crappy transportation for people who can't afford cars. A $1.25 bus fare will just reinforce that image. That's something that Schwartz seems to have no problem with - but it means giving up on the possibility that these areas will ever increase their transit mode share. I have a problem with that, and I hope you do too.
So reducing bus fares would spend money that we could instead use to expand the system and make it better, and it would probably reinforce the reputation of buses in the outer boroughs as cheap, crappy transportation. But is it worth that?
Well, is what worth that? Schwartz didn't say what he expects to accomplish by reducing bus fares. On one level it seems obvious: save people $40 or more a week! But why save those people money, and not lower the fare for subway riders, and for people riding the buses in neighborhoods where there are subways? The answer can only be to encourage more people to ride buses in the outer boroughs. Presumably this is instead of driving, but it could be that Schwartz wants to encourage people to make bus trips that they wouldn't otherwise have made, or that they would have made by walking, but it's not clear to me what the value of that is. Mobility for mobility's sake?
It's not clear, anyway, that lowering the fare will do either of these things. To begin with, take a look at this chart from the most recent MTA Transit Committee meeting:
That's right, almost half the fares are paid with unlimited-ride Metrocards. There's no way to take a dollar off if you're not paying per ride!
Now, it's quite likely that the percentage of people paying with unlimited Metrocards is lower in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan, but I'll bet it's still pretty high. But beyond that, a lot of the people riding buses in "the two-fare zone" are transferring to subways, or even to buses that go to "neighborhoods with subways." A rush hour visit to Kew Gardens, Pelham Bay Park or Flatbush Avenue will give you a sense of how many. Presumably, when they make the transfer, and when they come back, they would spend that dollar anyway. Thus, the discount would only apply to trips that begin and end in neighborhoods without subways. How many is that, really?
For that tiny number of trips, the $2.25 fare is already lowered by the 7% pay-per-ride bonus if the passengers pay with Metrocards and not cash. Many of the people riding those trips would be disabled and senior citizens eligible for the 50% discount on top of that. Whether the fare is $1.10, or $2.05, how often is that really a deterrent? Keep in mind that many of these people already pay a market price of $2 for "dollar vans."
Finally, if we're talking about getting people out of their cars, we know how much people pay to own and insure a car, and drive and park it on the streets of New York City. How many of them are sensitive to a few dollars in bus fare?
As you can see, I've tried mightily to make sense of this. I probably spent a lot more time on it than it deserves. And I'm pretty damn sure that I put more time and thought into it than Sam Schwartz or anyone who's working for him on this plan. A dollar reduction in fares in "neighborhoods without subways" is hard to implement, would accomplish very little, would probably be counterproductive, and would take money from more worthy uses.
Community boards would stifle transit innovation
Last year I expressed doubt that the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority could create an innovative bus service like the Koreana van between Flushing and Fort Lee. Some of the commenters on that post pointed out that the MTA has created a few new routes. Some of them are tweaks, but they're good tweaks; we like them, right? Well, you can expect even those to go away if one of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's proposal is adopted.
Schwartz's "equitable transportation formula" includes this point: "No service reductions on local buses for three years without Community Board approval." Sounds great, right? We hate service cuts, and we like community. More power to the community! What could possibly go wrong?
Any transit expansion advocate who's ever been to a New York City community board meeting knows exactly what's wrong with that. Many of the people who are involved in community boards are nice people who really want to do what's best for their city and their neighborhood. But the boards themselves are undemocratic and tend to be dominated by drivers and obsessed with increasing the supply of free parking. Their proceedings are almost always reactive and usually reactionary. They tend to stifle and oppose growth and innovation.
Some of you may be familiar with London's borough councils (elected by district) or Paris's district councils (elected at large). The community boards are nothing like that. Prospective members must be nominated by either their City Council member or the Borough President, and then approved by the Borough President's office. Some councilmembers and borough presidents value inclusiveness and a diversity of opinion, and some don't. Community board members are all volunteers, and the significant time commitment makes it difficult for people with day jobs to attend.
As a result, the boards tend to be dominated by people who are older and wealthier than the average for the district. In 2013 that means that they tend to own cars and drive them, to see driving and parking as an inalienable right, and to identify more with drivers than with pedestrians, cyclists or transit riders. The top issues they care about seem to be: (1) getting developers to provide more parking, (2) preventing anyone from interfering with double parking, (3) preventing traffic changes that they fear would overwhelm the neighborhood with cars, and (4) doing something about those damn bikers that almost ran over poor Connie.
Older and wealthier people also tend to be more interested in protecting what they already have than in getting more that they might use in the future. As a result, transportation discussions at community boards tend to be about preserving existing rights and privileges. There is very little interest in innovation. When they do support innovation, it's usually ornamental initiatives that present no threat to the car-oriented status quo. Why risk what you've worked so hard to get?
I have a number of friends who put in a lot of time and energy on community boards around the city. This is not to denigrate their efforts; it's important for someone to show up and make it clear that the conservative, selfish ones aren't the only people in "the community." But I think they'd all agree that giving more power to community boards is a bad idea.
Basically, if you want to kill an idea, the best way to do it is to require community board approval. That's why I was so pissed when Dan Squadron and friends gave community boards power over bus stops. It's also why I'd be fine with requiring community board approval to buy leaky headphones, or to walk up the down side of the staircase, or to split a line at the Duane Reade.
Transit cuts are bad too, right? So why wouldn't I want to kill transit cuts? Because you can't have transit expansion without transit cuts. For an agency to try something new, it needs to be able to cut it if it isn't working out.
In the case of across-the board reductions like we saw in 2010, community boards can't prevent the State Assembly from cutting the transit budget. They can only tie the MTA's hands as they try to deal with those budget cuts. Schwartz's proposal would not make the cuts go away. It would either force the MTA to borrow more or raise fares, or it would hold back service reductions on routes that are popular with influential community members, usually the elderly. Other routes would have to be reduced even more to compensate.
As with the bogus fairness, the elevated busways and the dollar fare reductions in neighborhoods with no subways, this is an idea that may sound nice to people who don't know that much about transit. But under scrutiny, it falls apart.
Yes, we need tolls on the East River bridges, and I agree with the many people who have argued that it will happen sooner or later. It's not worth all these bad things to make it happen sooner. Almost all of the elements in Schwartz's plan would lead to a net increase in driving citywide, and that's not what we're in this for.
How to stop them from taking our money
Okay, so what do you think all these things have in common?
That's right, they're taxes, fines and fees that people resent paying to the government. And sometimes politicians and bureaucrats have noticed that they can get a substantial revenue stream from these taxes, fines and fees. They've gone beyond simply collecting these taxes, fines and fees and resorted to chasing them, by overzealous enforcement, imposing unnecessary fees and keeping taxes too high. Worse still, many people accuse government officials of chasing revenue in this way, whether or not they're actually doing it.
Now, what do these things have in common?
You got it, they're Pigovian taxes, named after the English economist Arthur Pigou, who argued that when an activity creates a "negative externality" - a cost to society beyond its cost to the individual - a tax can discourage people from engaging in that activity. Tax cigarettes, and the number of people who smoke goes down.
The thing about Pigovian taxes is that people are already prone to resent them. They want to smoke, or drink, or drive over bridges, and here the government is slapping a tax on it. Now suppose that you have a Pigovian tax that the government also happens to get lots of revenue from. Well, first of all it's an incentive for the bureaucrats and politicians to discourage people from stopping the activity. Why would you want to stop people from driving over your bridge, if you'd lose that revenue and maybe default on your bridge bonds?
Secondly, relying on Pigovian taxes for revenue is a bad idea because it creates the suspicion that the government is chasing revenue. That provides the people who already resent the tax with an ready-made scrap of populism to cloak their selfish resentment in.
Now what do all the following have in common?
Yup, they're things that the government usually funds with the taxes, fines and fees listed above. Critically, of the people who pay the taxes, fines and fees above, many don't see these things as being for them.
So imagine I'm a car owner. I park my car at the curb, or in a municipal lot. I see my parking fee (me!) get collected by the government (them!) to spend on buses (them!). The source of the money is separated from control over the money and benefit from it. Who wouldn't resent that?
Of course I'm not the first to observe this. Matt Yglesias has been talking about it for years, as I wrote in 2010. Yesterday he had a particularly apt critique of a plan by Bill deBlasio to tax the wealthy to fund school improvements. Donald Shoup has long argued that his Pigovian parking fees should be returned to the parkers in the form of "parking benefit districts." On Wednesday, Stephen Smith argued on Twitter that allocating toll funds to transit leads to overspending. "Toll money is unearned, economically or politically, and thus is ill spent. Easy come, easy go."
So what's the solution? Something along the lines of Shoup's parking benefit districts. Yglesias writes, "We'd start out with things like congestion fees and carbon taxes that serve non-revenue policy goals but do raise money. Then we'd add on some land taxes and VATs and such to fun public services. Once that's squared away, you can do redistribution with a progressive payroll tax, a small wealth tax, whatever."
The point is to get it from "They're taking my money and giving it to those people" to "We're getting our money back in a form we can use." The trick with Pigovian taxes is to give it back to people in a form that doesn't further encourage that negative externality. You don't want to use parking fees to build more garages. You want to think, "What did the people park here for?" and use it to fund the things they like - ideally an alternative to parking there that they will find acceptable.
This brings me back to Move New York's "something for the drivers." People resented congestion pricing because it felt like "them taking our money and giving it to those people." Move NY is thinking along these lines, but by building more highways they get it drastically wrong. Bridge toll money needs to go into something that the drivers will appreciate, but not driving.
Incidentally, the MTA payroll tax was a disaster despite being a broad-based tax just because it was so badly handled that it pissed everybody off, having to file a bunch of forms just to pay thirty dollars a year. I'm sure it was designed that way from the beginning.
A grand bargain for walkable streets
What New York really needs - for cleaner air, for safer streets, for energy conservation, for a better society, and for equal access to jobs - is a plan for less driving. As I wrote before, the problem with the "Move New York" plan is that it offers "drivers" too much as drivers. The proposed toll reductions and highway widenings would encourage a huge amount of driving, offsetting a large percentage of the reduction in driving encouraged by the added tolls and bus service.
The key failing, which I've also observed in other politicians who claim to be pro transit, is the practice of dividing the world into drivers, transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians, with the assumption that there is never any overlap or change among these categories, and that all people care about is their own transportation. This may be a good simplifying assumption to start with, but when it leads you to disasters like widening the Van Wyck, it's time to step back and revisit your assumptions.
It's one thing to oppose the bad parts of the Move New York plan, but what we really need to do is come up with something better. So let's go back to what we actually know: that a significant segment of the opposition to congestion pricing came from people who currently drive. These people will probably not be driving much longer, however. I've been to the congestion pricing hearings. Most of the active opponents are over fifty. In thirty years, most of them will be dead, and many of those who are still alive will be too infirm to drive.
There are of course plenty of people under fifty who love driving, hate paying for transit, and fear that losing their status as drivers will infantilize them and drive all the chicks away. But they're a much smaller proportion of younger generations than they are among the Baby Boomers, and even the diehard motorists will think twice about driving when gas gets up over ten dollars a gallon. We shouldn't be building big highways for them.
The question becomes, then, how do we structure it so that "we" don't wind up taking "their" money? What can we do for the people who are currently drivers, and don't see any benefit to decreased Midtown congestion or increased transit funding? Something along the lines of Donald Shoup's parking benefit districts?
I have one idea. Let's take the sidewalks off their hands.
Although the City Department of Transportation oversees sidewalk maintenance, they report that 99% of the 12,750 miles of the city's sidewalks are the responsibility of whoever owns the adjacent property. The only thing the DOT has to do is send out inspectors and then fine the property owners whose sidewalks aren't up to standards. In practice, they have a program where they repair the sidewalk themselves and send the owner the bill.
From a pedestrian's point of view, that sucks. It means that the sidewalks quality is inconsistent from one property to the next. The city is constantly tempted to cut the sidewalk inspection budget, which provides a huge incentive for the property owners to skimp on sidewalk maintenance and hope that the inspector won't notice. When the inspectors do their job the property owners complain, hence the endless stream of kvetching to elected officials, community boards and the media in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
It actually doesn't make sense for the property owners to be responsible for maintaining sidewalks. Most of the sidewalks are on city-owned right-of-way, not private property. The city sets strict standards that leave property owners hardly any room for self-expression. While the city DOT can take advantage of economies of scale to save money, small property owners have to pay regular market rate. On the few streets that are missing sidewalks, it is politically difficult for the DOT to force property owners to pay to build them.
Of course, it costs money to maintain all those sidewalks. According to this article, it cost the City of Los Angeles $172,727 to replace a mile of sidewalk. Sidewalk only needs to be replaced at most every ten years, for $17,273 per mile per year, or $220 million. This is a small portion of the $1.4 billion that Gridlock Sam's plan would raise in bridge tolls, leaving almost $1.2 billion for other projects. If enough of "the drivers" are satisfied with this arrangement, then we don't have to widen the Belt Parkway, and we can put all that money into transit projects.
Would "the drivers" like this? The Census website isn't cooperating with me, but I'm pretty sure that most drivers in Brooklyn and Queens own their homes, and a lot of those, especially the vocal ones who show up at meetings and call their city council members, live in single-family or two-family houses. For them, sidewalk maintenance is a big headache that they don't need.
The best part, of course, is that this benefit will accrue to "the drivers" even if they never drive again. Even if they sell their homes, they will still have well-maintained sidewalks to walk on. And so will the rest of us.
A plan for more driving?
Keep all this in mind when you read articles about Move New York's plans, and about their public forums. If you attend the public forums, please raise these issues and make sure they're dealt with.
Like I said, most of the people behind this plan are good people, and I think they'd go for something better. I've come up with one idea, and I'll try to think of more, but what are your ideas? Please write them on your own blogs, or in a message, and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet me @capntransit. Let's fix this thing!