Talking Congestion Pricing and Transit Equity with Elena Conte

On March 31, 2019 the New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo approved the 2020 Budget, and along with it, the first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan for drivers entering Manhattan below 60th Street. Pratt Center's Director of Policy Elena Conte gives us the long and short of the new plan, and talks about how conversations a decade ago brought to light inequities in the transit system and paved the way for introducing Bus Rapid Transit in NYC.

What is Pratt Center’s connection to congestion pricing?

Pratt Center was very active in the conversation more than a decade ago, and supported a coalition of community based organizations in their organizing and advocacy. Major congratulations are owed to all the frontline communities, organizers, and advocates who have worked tirelessly in recent years and are responsible for winning this plan.

What is congestion pricing? And how does it work?

Congestion pricing is a redistributive way to raise money for the transit system, which is really the backbone of our city. It's a way to shift the hidden subsidies that are given to private vehicles owners into the public sphere and into public transit. It's also about shifting the way we think about how space is used and who owns space and who owns mobility. In terms of the mechanism, it basically charges a fee to both personal and commercial vehicles for entering and driving in a certain area, as a way to raise funds and manage the flow of vehicles by discouraging unnecessary trips.

How did congestion pricing come about in NYC?

Congestion pricing doesn't exist in any other major U.S. city. One place where it does exist that's become a sort of model is London. The Bloomberg administration picked up on this as a way to position NYC as a best practice global city, and it made big waves when they included a congestion pricing proposal in PlaNYC. To get funding to study this, they applied through a federal transportation competition, but in order to unlock the funds, they argued that they needed the state legislature to approve the plan very quickly because congestion pricing, like so many things in New York City that seem like they should be locally controlled, is something that actually requires permission from Albany. In trying to get approval from the state, the genuine engagement of folks at the local level wasn't prioritized. This is one of those things where, whether the idea is a good or bad or something in between, process-wise, people took offense at the speed with which it was attempting to be pushed through. 

What role did Pratt Center play in the congestion pricing conversation?

What we do at Pratt Center is to try to explain things that are not in the overarching framing. For example, there’s no such thing as a free passage into Manhattan. If you're in Queens and want to go to Manhattan, you're paying an MTA fare unless you're walking or biking. Transit riders are already being charged to enter Manhattan below 61st Street. If you're taking a car over a “free” bridge, you're not being charged. So, we try to unmask these hidden things about the way our system works, explain it in everyday language, reframe what's happening, and then engage in meaningful dialogue. Once we have a fairer basis of information, or a less biased one, we can get a better sense of how folks see the issue. 

We try to unmask these hidden things about the way our system works and explain it in everyday language so that we can reframe what's happening, and then engage in meaningful dialogue. Once we have a fairer set of information, or a less biased set, we can get a better sense of how folks see the issue.

That’s what we did back in 2007. We convened a bunch of partners, specifically in areas where we had mapped a lot of low-income workers with extremely long commute times, to have a conversation about what they knew and wanted to know about this proposal, and even more importantly, what other issues they were experiencing in the transit system--where they wanted to go but couldn’t get to. Not everyone is going to work - some people are going to school, some to the hospital, some to receive services. There's a lot of focus on commute times because its reported in the census, but people’s actual trips in communities are richer than what the data set describes.

Out of this work, a coalition was formed called Communities United for Transit Equity (COMMUTE!), with a platform of lowering the fare burden and improving bus service. Much of NYC’s recent job growth has been concentrated in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and most people living in those boroughs actually work where they live. But unless your journey to work happens to be on a train into Manhattan, it’s really hard to get around your own borough. Even though buses are the slowest and least reliable form of transit in NYC, most folks in the outer boroughs are on at least one bus, if not more.

We also looked at the growing trend of people who don’t have a fixed work site. When you think about manual or domestic labor, whether it’s cleaning homes or caring for children, you see the combination of folks who live in areas not well served by transit having to travel to areas that also have poor transit access, and those destinations changing constantly.

This research and these conversations lead to bus rapid transit, which at the time was a really important insertion into the conversation about congestion pricing because it addressed the systemic inequities in the city’s transit system. We see subway lines and stations in different conditions and with different levels of accessibility, and these differences are correlated with race and income. Naturally, our groups were interested in organizing and advocating for congestion pricing if it was tied to an active anti-racist, transit justice agenda as embodied in a bus rapid transit system.

Our groups were interested in organizing and advocating for congestion pricing if it was tied to an active anti-racist, transit justice agenda as embodied by a bus rapid transit system.

You hear some folks saying this will actually negatively impact low-income New Yorkers. People were saying that ten years ago, and the numbers didn’t bear that out. Is that still true today?

One of the more popular tools we developed was a set of fact sheets that we made in partnership with the Tri-state Transportation Campaign. We looked at the transportation data across every single jurisdiction because we wanted to say to representatives at every level, "Here are your people, and here is the percentage that are driving into the Central Business District that would be incurring this charge.” Overall, it was less than 5 percent of workers in all lower income communities of color. In the last year or two, Tri-State reran that data, and it's the same as a decade ago. It's a very small percentage of folks that are going to be eligible for that charge.

The overarching position of most of the advocates is that you could always come up with a million reasons why it would be better for some category of people not to be subject to the fee, and every single one of those exceptions both complicates the system and undermines its inherent design. Fortunately, there are good safeguards written into the budget that establish a minimum that has to be raised out of the pricing program so the MTA can bond to that level. Exempting a bunch of categories only increases the price for everybody else.

If you would like to know more about congestion pricing or the work of the COMMUTE! Coalition in NYC, Pratt Center co-authored a report in 2007 with the Environmental Defense Fund called “Does the Rubber Meet the Road? Investigating the Alternatives to Congestion Pricing,” which scrutinized some of the alternatives to congestion pricing that were being proposed. And in 2010, the Applied Research Center (now known as Race Forward) published “Filling the Gaps: COMMUTE! and the Fight for Transit Equity in New York City” which tells the story of the COMMUTE! coalition.


30 Apr, 2019