Local Peace Economy

Is 'Congestion Pricing' Good at Reducing Traffic, or Is It Just Another Big Price Gouge?

It may be just another burden for New Yorkers.

Photo Credit: Linda Moon / Shutterstock

Cab driver Doug Schifter committed suicide last week, severely distraught due to the crushing weight of the gig economy. Uber, Lyft—and even congestion pricing—were some of the distressing issues he pointed to in the months and weeks leading up to his death. While at one time he could work 40 hours a week and make good money driving a black car, he was now working 100-plus hours a week, and still unable to make ends meet.

Congestion pricing, which Schifter had written about for Black Car News, might seem like a good idea to public transit, cycling and pedestrian advocates: Groups including Transportation Alternatives assert the plan will “reduce the total number of cars in the city,” reduce fatalities and make streets safer. They point to London’s congestion pricing as making streets safer for cyclists, with rates on injury and fatalities that fell by nearly 70%.

The idea so far, according to the New York Times, is that, “Drivers who enter a zone that stretches from 60th Street south to the Battery could be charged $11.52 during peak commuting hours, while trucks would have to pay $25.34. Passengers using ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, which have contributed significantly to the traffic problems, could face a $2 to $5 per-ride surcharge.”

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The idea would be to use that money—estimated to be a billion or more per year—to pay for much-needed upgrades to the MTA, New York City’s public transit, though NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio says the plan doesn’t guarantee reliable funding for the transit system.

Some see the plan not as a funding source for a better MTA, but rather as an undue tax burden on New York’s middle and working class. State Assembly member David I. Weprin (D-Queens) considers it an “additional tax on people who drive into Manhattan, often not wealthy people, but middle-class people,” he told the New York Times. Many New Yorkers are already slapped with tolls—as much as $15 for a car to cross—once—into Manhattan at the George Washington Bridge and as much as $17 for a car to cross into Brooklyn via the Verrazano bridge. New Yorkers already pay a surcharge in taxis that goes to the MTA and a cell phone tax that also goes to the MTA, on top of the tolls and charges they pay when they use the transit system.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose Fix NYC committee wrote the report suggesting the congestion pricing plan, calls Manhattan congestion “unbearable” and “a nightmare.”

Yet a big part of that traffic is congestion caused by the politics of the wealthy in New York City: Ubers and Lyfts are up over 60% in just four years (yet one-third of those cars are empty at any one time). And more New Yorkers are shopping online, often because ridiculously high commercial rents have skyrocketed the cost of many staple items people once purchased from neighborhood stores. As a result of consumers seeking better deals online, e-commerce deliveries are up over 30% in just five years, and those big box trucks are now making over 80% of their deliveries to residential buildings, clogging one-way streets, blocking bike lanes and double parking, hindering traffic flow.  

This leaves many New Yorkers to wonder, why not charge the box trucks and Uber and Lyft the congestion fees specifically, rather than citizens already paying taxes and tolls for the MTA?

Well, that answer, again, might actually be in the politics of the wealthy: Lobbying. Democracy Now recently reported that in 2016, Uber and Lyft together spent more on lobbying than Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart combined. Democracy Now also noted that Uber often hires former Democrats, and that Gov. Cuomo is Uber’s biggest cheerleader in New York, going so far as to prevent the city of New York from capping the number of Ubers on the street.

Uber has been lobbying for rules and regulations that work in its favor from states nationwide. This enables it to out-compete the existing taxi industry in a place like New York, which once could claim the best and most respected cab drivers in the world. Uber drivers, for their part, profit from bonuses when they start working for the company—and then the money dries up. Exempted from labor laws and regulations, drivers can see their income drastically reduced. The legal corruption that harms workers is at the core of Schifter’s death, as noted in his own suicide note, posted to Facebook.

So the question becomes: If the government is truly by and for the people, when will politicians like Cuomo put their own citizens first? And when and how will the people hold them accountable? How do we protect the citizens, the poor, the pedestrians, the cyclists, and the cab drivers, without a regressive tax? Schifter’s death is a tragedy, but it is not a solution. And neither is a blanket congestion tax on New Yorkers.

Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.