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How New York got congestion pricing, and why Boston should be next

Boston has the worst rush-hour traffic in the US, according to one study.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

New York City is very likely to become the first city in the United States to implement a traffic reduction and transit funding policy known as congestion pricing. The plan, which establishes a toll, probably to be around $11 a day, to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street, is expected to relieve the city’s gridlocked streets, cut greenhouse gases, and provide billions of dollars in new revenue to fix the city’s ailing mass transit system.

But why should Greater Boston — or any big city in America — pay attention to what goes on in Manhattan? Well, for starters, Boston recently overtook New York to rank number one in the nation in traffic congestion, according to a study by transportation analysis firm INRIX.


What’s the cost of all that gridlock? Congestion costs the average Bostonian $2,291 annually, and each commuter spends 164 hours a year stuck in soul-crushing traffic. That’s close to the average American’s tax refund this year, and longer than most workers’ annual vacation time. What would you do with that time back?

Thriving, growing cities like Boston and New York, have tried — and failed — to combat congestion in traditional ways. The Big Dig is a classic cautionary tale: A 2008 analysis by the Globe found that traffic delays actually increased, in some cases doubling commute times, as more drivers assumed driving downtown would be easier and piled onto the roads in greater numbers than before.

Los Angeles’s expansion of the 405 freeway has similarly failed. But its construction provided an insightful anecdote. Lane closures for roadwork were expected to cause “Carmageddon” gridlock. Instead, traffic declined by as much as 73 percent: Warned that the closures would snarl traffic for days, many drivers opted not to make unnecessary trips, leaving roadways open for those who had less flexibility around when to drive.

The lesson is clear: Increasing road capacity only encourages more people to drive, creating more congestion, dividing neighborhoods, inviting sprawl, and polluting communities near and far from the new roadways. We also know it often isn’t enough simply to offer better public transportation; cities have to encourage drivers to change their habits — and as long as roads are free, there is little incentive for commuters to forego unnecessary trips or increase their use of public transit.


Enter congestion pricing.

In 2003, London implemented congestion pricing across eight square miles in the urban core, initially charging drivers £5, or about $6.50. Transport for London also added 300 new buses, updated bus routes, increased transit frequency, and added 8,500 new park-and-ride spaces. The result? Fifteen percent less congestion and up to 30 percent faster travel speeds. The health benefits were profound too: One study found Londoners gained a collective 1,888 extra years of life thanks to cleaner air.

In New York, we estimate congestion pricing will reduce traffic by 13 percent and cut greenhouse gases by 2.1 billion pounds per year. That became our primary argument: Everyone benefits from congestion pricing. Drivers will have faster commutes; transit riders will see $1.5 billion invested annually in New York’s transit network; and anyone who breathes in New York will have cleaner air.

New Yorkers have been trying to pass congestion pricing since then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed it in 2007, when it subsequently floundered in the state capital. What changed 12 years later? The contemporaneous collapse of our public transit system and spiking traffic congestion — and advocates’ dogged efforts to call both crises existential issues for New York that politicians in Albany had to solve.

These efforts brought together a strange-bedfellows coalition of over 100 business associations, labor groups, environmental justice advocates, developers, and social justice and anti-poverty organizations, all of whom joined out of a mix of civic duty and self interest: At the end of the day, everyone relies on a functional transportation grid.


Boston and New York have their differences, but congestion unites us. I hope Boston doesn’t wait as long as New York did. Consider this: Data from Transportation for Massachusetts show that removing even just 5 percent of cars from Boston’s roads can lead to a 20 percent reduction in congestion — so a modest toll that peaks during rush hour and declines at other times would have a substantial impact on rush-hour traffic. And while New York might be the first city in the United States to enact a full congestion pricing plan, time-of-day tolls, or “smart tolls,” are hardly new: Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and other large cities all do it. In fact, of the 10 largest cities in the United States, Greater Boston is the only one that does not use some sort of time-of-day or demand toll pricing.

Stuck with the worst congestion in the nation, it might be time for Boston to give it a try too.

Nick Sifuentes is the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.