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New York City Moves One Step Closer To Congestion Pricing - Cat Smith

CAT SMITH, HOST: The Biden administration has given New York City the OK to move one step closer to congestion pricing. The plan is designed to cut down the number of cars on the city’s busiest roads, and to reduce air pollution. To do so, vehicles entering Midtown Manhattan between 60th Street and Battery Park would pay a toll. New York would be the first city in the U.S. to use such a plan. But, there are a lot of questions. There’s a federally required environmental assessment of the plan, and it’s unclear how long that will take or how much drivers would have to pay. And some experts worry it won’t be enough to reduce traffic in a meaningful way. To discuss how to implement the plan effectively, and what New York can do to get more cars off the streets, I’m joined by Lewis Lehe (LEE), assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois.

CAT SMITH, BYLINE: Lewis Lehe, thanks for being with us.

LEHE: Thanks for having me.

SMITH: A handful of other cities around the world already have congestion pricing plans. In London, cars pay a flat fee of $15 to enter the central business district. But critics actually say the London scheme hasn’t done enough to ease traffic. What can New York learn from London’s already tried?

LEHE: The criticism there is that travel times are not much better now than they were before they did the scheme. What I would point out is that they didn’t just do the London congestion charge. They also implemented a lot of things that tend to slow down vehicles. Like, they lowered speed limits, they put in a bunch of pedestrian and bus facilities and bus lanes, things like that. One way to look at it was that they lowered the amount of vehicles coming in, so that they could use street space for other things. I think that’s what they would probably say in defense of that. So they do have a lot of benefits that would be beyond just travel times.

SMITH: The City of San Francisco is considering a congestion pricing plan of its own. Los Angeles is studying its own traffic patterns, to see if congestion pricing is a good fit. Washington DC is looking into it. Could New York City be a leader on this?

LEHE: New York City is kind of a prime place to do it first, I think, because of the history of, you know, it kind of almost happened back in the Bloomberg administration. And also just , geographically. The fact that you have this very dense area, that doesn’t have a lot of routes into and out of it. It’s a little harder to do this in a place like Los Angeles, where there’d be more routes that you’d have to cover.

SMITH: I see, so the reason New York City is the leader on this is because it makes the most sense. is the way it’s set up, maybe the easiest. The way the city is set up makes it easy to implement something like this.

LEHE: Yeah, the geography of the city. If you wanted to toll downtown Houston, or something, there would be a lot of entry points you’d have to cover.

SMITH: Other cities around the world have managed to reduce traffic without implementing congestion pricing. Paris, for example, has made streets friendlier for bikes and pedestrians. What are some of the other things New York City could be doing to get more cars off the roads? It’s not enough to just do congestion pricing and leave it at that, right?

LEHE: I saw recently that Paris has this new plan where they’re going to get rid of 70,000 on-street parking spaces. The main issue I think, how realistic is it that New York City would eliminate half of its on-street parking? Things like that I see in the news from afar that things that make it harder to drive are often pretty controversial there.

SMITH: But a lot of details aren’t hammered out yet. The new toll for personal cars entering Midtown might cost $12-$14, trucks might pay $25. Other details are less clear. Is it bad that we don’t know all these details yet?

LEHE: It wouldn’t be unusual in the history of downtown tolling to not know all the details in advance. One of the most important decisions that they do need to make soon is what technologies they want to use -- whether or not they want to use Easy Pass, or whether or not they want to use plate-reading cameras, or both -- or if they want to go more advanced and use something like GPS. They do need to reach a decision about the fundamentals of how the system is going to be operated. They can hash out details about exemptions or particular toll levels once that’s kind of decided.

SMITH: That was Lewis Lehe, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Lewis Lehe, thank you so much for being with us.

LEHE: Thanks for having me.

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