Lately, the phrase “the first time in our nation’s history” has been uttered a lot. These “firsts” are rarely acknowledged when the event is not of mainstream interest. And it is rarely acknowledged even when it morphs into a huge, household phenomenon. This up-and-coming phenomenon – congestion pricing – may soon become one of those events.
Unfortunately, without many other much-needed changes, congestion pricing may quickly fizzle into a minor, historic footnote (as it has done for most of the past 50 years). However, if it succeeds – which it will if accompanied by the other changes needed to make it work — congestion pricing may effect a dramatic improvement in traffic reduction in one of our nation’s most-congested subareas: Lower Manhattan. And if it works in the heart of New York City, this success will create a major opportunity for the motorcoach industry in that City – and a preview of its opportunities in other cities. If so, perhaps our industry will not squander it, as it tends to do with most opportunities (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-1-magic-corridors/ and https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/) – although, in fairness, the crude foundation for sleeper buses was actually introduced decades ago, by Eagle, and possibly a couple other OEMs. But they were never fully developed and quickly forgotten, even while more and more commercial airlines are providing flights of 30 or 40 miles.
History Repeating Itself?
Nearly a decade and two mayors ago, former NYC Mayor Bloomberg tried to initiate congestion pricing in Lower Manhattan. But he failed to “kiss enough butts” in Albany, and the offended upstate assemblypersons refused to contribute the State’s share of the funding.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, and even most transportation professionals, this was not this concept’s first initiative. In the late 1970s, USDOT offered a million dollars to any city in the country willing to launch such a program – a program that had proven itself successful in significantly reducing traffic in Singapore. Not a single U.S. city stepped forward, and this approach began collecting dust. It recently sprung to life again, with new NYC Mayor Eric Adam’s announcement that he would launch such a program in mid-or late 2024.
As one might expect, there was resistance to this program this time around as well. Yet from a different source. This time, the resistance came mostly from motorists (and their representatives) in North Jersey, Western Connecticut, three of the City’s five boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island) and eastern Long Islanders. This is because operators of vehicles originating in these areas were already paying steep fees to pass through various tunnels (Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel, Queens Midtown Tunnel) or bridges (e.g., George Washington, Verrazano Narrows, Throgs Neck, Henry Hudson, Cross Bay Veterans Memorial, Whitestone, Robert F. Kennedy, Marine Parkway, Bayonne, Goethals, Outerbridge Crossing).
There are a few “long-cuts” for some motorists wishing to avoid these tolls. For example, one can enter Manhattan, fare-free, from the Bronx. So those motorists from Connecticut who wish to exit Route 95 prematurely and meander through the Bronx can enter northern Manhattan toll-free – at the cost of more gas and more time. And crossing bridges across the Hudson further upstate costs less (crossing the Mario Cuomo Memorial Bridge [formerly the Tappan Zee Bridge] costs $5.25 while crossing the Newburgh-Beacon, Bear Mountain, Mid-Hudson, Rip Van Winkle and Kingston-Rhinecliff cost $1.55. Further upstate, crossing the Hudson is toll-free. But so too are most bridges in Utah and Wyoming. Crossing into Manhattan without paying a toll only works for a handful of metropolitan area motorists.
Already paying high tolls, most commuters destined for Manhattan below 60th Street (59th Street is the southern border of Central Park) were furious that they would now be assessed a toll between $9 and $23 during peak hours. Night owls traveling between midnight and 4:00 AM – where barely a whiff of traffic exists anywhere in New York City – can expect discounts of up to 50 percent. Clearly, equity considerations have not been thought through. But again, this congestion pricing is a traffic reduction/revenue raising program.
Finally, resistance is actually coming from a Federal lawsuit filed by the State of New Jersey – another irony of unfairness and corruption from a State that, last year, received an $11.8B grant from the New York/New Jersey Port Authority (likely with FTA “pass-through” funds) to widen the expanse of lanes on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel – another handout to a long row of rich landowners that will not add a tail light of additional capacity to the tunnel.
A year ago, Washington, D.C. was planning to implement fare-free transit this past July 1st – a plan adopted unanimously by the City Council (such as it is in a City with no Congressional representation). Today, months after the targeted start-date for the program, regular transit fares are still $2.00, while fares for express buses are $4.25. Insofar as Manhattan’s mobility future – and the 20 percent reduction in traffic “estimated” (which I consider an illusion, and a wild exaggeration without the additional elements cited below) – remains to be seen.
Unimagined or Ignored Elements
As with most things in public transportation, numerous promising programs have never emerged. Historically, this is hardly a surprise. For National Bus Trader, I just completed a seven-installment series identifying most of the key elements that would make public transportation work – elements that were highly touted a half-century ago but which largely (and quickly) fell by the wayside as the years drifted by, traffic increased, and transit ridership began plummeting radically – declining by 10 percent a year during the two years preceding COVID-19, and still not nearly recovered in most urban areas (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-2-park-and-ride-lots/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-3-feeder-service/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-4-system-design-and-networks/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-5-ridesharing/ and https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-6-high-occupancy-vehicle-lanes/).
To be fair to New York City, it formerly recovered 35 percent of its fares from farebox revenue. (The next highest was Washington, D.C., at 25 percent; it was 13 percent in San Francisco – many of whose streets are now practically bare of any vehicles – and nine percent in Los Angeles. At eight percent, Kansas City abandoned fares altogether four or five years ago). Still, parts of Lower Manhattan can come to a standstill during rush hour. The skinny peninsula contains only about 15 north-south streets below Central Park – and two of those are West Side Highway/Henry Hudson Parkway and FDR Drive (a freeway without any traffic signals). Below 59th Street, Broadway now runs only northbound. At the same time, Lower Manhattan is crisscrossed by roughly a dozen subway lines, as well as service to Penn Station and Grand Central Station by several passenger rail lines from New Jersey Transit, PATH, the Long Island Railroad and three Metro North lines running north into Westchester County – in addition to a number of AMTRAK lines. So plenty of convenient transit is available — almost. The failure of ridership to materialize lies in the absence of elements needed to accompany these services – without which, they fall short. The congestion pricing experiment will like fail as well without these same elements.
This is particularly true as the entire “windfall” of congestion pricing revenue will drop into the lap of the New York City Transit Authority – an entity I have helped sue 37 times for the consequences of flagrant safety deficiencies, and which does not possess a single bus line that runs remotely on schedule during either rush hour, and most of which do not even run on schedule during the “base period.” The counter-innovation I had witnessed during my 23 years residing and working in the city (all but the last three in Lower Manhattan) does not portend well for an intelligible use of the revenue that congestion pricing is likely to bring in. At the same time, new Mayor Adams has done some radically-innovative things that run against the grain of U.S. economic traditions in the past half century. Among them was the reintroduction of traffic cops (although the origins of this contributing solution may have begun during the waning years of former Mayor DeBlasio’s term) – including a decent number of them deployed even in the boroughs. In contrast, the most-respected New York City medium (The New Yorker) has characterized Mayor Adams as a virtual playboy, many of whose closest friends are ex-convicts. I tend to disregard much of this criticism, most of which is tangential, superficial, personal and stylistic. Still, can this individual handle a beast like the NYCTA? Can he provide the other elements that are needed to make congestion pricing succeed?
Key Supplementary Elements: To Be or Not to Be
Bridge and Tunnel Fees for Motorcoaches. I have railed against this counterproductive practice before I began writing for National Bus Trader in 2000. A 57-passenger motorcoach replaces roughly 50 personal vehicles (given the typical ridership level of about 1.1 passengers per vehicle) – while less then twice one’s length in a slow-moving traffic stream. If one wishes to eliminate traffic – keep in mind that motorcoach passengers pay fares – one can only ask: “How stupid can one be?” This issue is less noticeable in NYC since the NYCTA operates roughly 1500 commuter/express coaches (decades ago, they were operated by five related private subsidiaries) which, as public sector-operated vehicles, do not pay bridge or tunnel fees. Otherwise, the stupidity of this practice speaks for itself. Or perhaps it speaks to the impotence of the motorcoach lobby. Can Mayor Adams put a stop to the practice? Will it even be brought to his attention? We shall see.
Regressive Parking Lot Charges. It costs roughly $70 to $80 a day to park for a full day in much of Lower Manhattan – although one might pay as little as $59 if he or she parks for less than 90 minutes. The problem is not the prices. They have had little or no impact on traffic or the usage of any public transportation mode. This is because it costs the same to park a car driven by a Sumo wrestler traveling alone than to park a car filled with 27 clowns. Traffic congestion would change completely – and give congestion pricing a boost – if, say, it cost a vehicle operated by single driver $150 a day to park, one with two passengers $95, one with a trio $40, and one with four or more occupants zero. These are extremes, of course, and only illustrative. But a more moderately-scaled and more-acceptable regression would absolutely produce results. (To my knowledge, no city has ever tried such an approach.) Such an approach should be demonstrated, at different break-points, and gradually tweaked to produce the highest personal vehicle occupancy. The downside, of course, is that ridesharing would become a substitute for using transit. But to the degree this is an issue, it could be mitigated by more moderately-scaled, full-car discounts combined with a spate of transit improvements and parallel discounts for transit and motorcoach usage.
Signage and Markings. I was never treated to a study of the wasted mileage, and suspect it would comprise only a percent or two. But one unfamiliar with destinations (particularly in commercial parts of New York City) add mileage to their travel, since few buildings of any type contain numbers. Similarly, few intersections contain street signs (indicating both streets) on all four corners. With limited parking, and far-more-limited on-street parking, navigating with one’s phone only provides an approximation of one’s destination: With buildings with enormous depth and little width, one’s phone’s announcement that “You’ve Arrived” has limited value, especially when coupled with parking that may lie blocks away. Cabbies are a bit better at finding destinations than TNC drivers (Uber, Lyft, etc.) without their phones. I find it disappointing that no New York decision-maker has ever addressed this obvious shortcoming.
Bus Terminals and Zoning. NYC’s traffic problems are directly related to, and derived from, tall buildings continually replaced by taller ones, and new tall buildings erected where there used to be none. In the early 2010s, there were roughly 2500 residential units (most of the tall ones in Battery Park) below Wall Street – while 7500 were under construction. The implications of this single statistic are staggering. Perhaps one may be unable to curtail greed. But the traffic implications can be mitigated, to a degree, by zoning that requires certain buildings (particularly on corner lots) to devote their bottom floors to bus terminals. (New Jersey Transit did this decades ago in its Newark, NJ bus terminal.)
Fare-free or Heavily-Discounted Commuter/Express Service. As bridge and tunnel capacity are limited, the crude 50-to-one tradeoff offered by a motorcoach compared to a personal vehicle should be stretched far beyond eliminating motorcoach tolls. One soaring and greatly-ignored need is for more (and, ideally, free) parking places for motorcoaches – a problem that worsened around the turn of the century as parking beneath FDR Drive near the South Street Seaport was eliminated (oddly, nearly the same time as the Fulton Fish Market was relocated from this Lower Manhattan venue to Brooklyn). Yet the Fish Market was a trucking destination; the South Street Seaport remains a tourist attraction. Many motorcoaches that used to park here now must deadhead 60 or 70 blocks to mid-town locations on or near 11th and 12th Avenues in “Hell’s Kitchen.”
First Class Compartments. These have been present on subways in Paris and other cities for decades. Frankly, those wishing to secure a seat (and its many benefits) will gladly pay more for this privilege. At the same time, with minimal enforcement, it would isolate these passengers from the regular passengers, including many standees. There is no need to limit this practice to trains. Frankly, existing technology could easily accommodate rear-door boarding. And first-class passengers could ride in the rear – where the bumpier ride behind the rear axles would be less dangerous to seated passengers than to standees. (Of course, the MTA’s tight schedules would have to be eliminated so that they don’t lead to safety compromises like buses pulling away before passengers reach a point of seating or securement (see https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-8-boarding-and-alighting/ and https://safetycompromises.com/ ). With poorly-designed and under-designated fares, such an approach would translate into lower total farebox revenue. But intelligibly-designed first class fares would yield a bonanza. Plus, it would make the following innovation far more feasible
Low-Income Certification. In planning jargon, “fare elasticity” varies with income. As an example, the Rich may resent higher fares; but they can easily afford to pay them. In return, the way to eliminate many non-transit trips, and thin out traffic, is to get more people of every income level onto public transportation. Fares need not be non-existent. They can be lower for those who struggle to afford them. This differentiation makes far more sense than lowering fares for in return for greater usage (i.e., weekly or monthly passes) – a pure gimmick that doubtfully has any impact on the frequency of ridership. If properly-scaled (e.g., those on welfare who might qualify for one class of lower fares are as easy to identify as those who are disabled), ridership and revenue would actually increase from improvements in equity. What a novel idea for a supposedly free country.
Increased Fleet Size. While “working remotely” has likely had an impact on the decline of transit ridership (which, again, began before COVID-19 struck), much or most of it had to do with the decline in the quality of public transportation service. As buses and trains are cleaned and disinfected virtually every night, drivers converse sparsely with passengers, and the mostly-unsecured wheelchair users comprise a small percentage of transit riders (and few train users), the worst characteristic of transit service is its severely tight schedules that dominate routes in most major cities, and which are their worse in the largest of these cities. (See https://transalt.com/article/tight-schedules-part-3-fixed-route-transit-service-2/). Missed connections are more the rule than the exception. The first thing that must be done to reduce traffic (while not sacrificing capacity) – and to make congestion pricing work – is to add vehicles.
Because New York City is laced with subway lines that cannot reasonably be moved, the task of modifying bus routes is both more limited and less complex than in most cities. Manhattan’s urban form, in particular, lends itself to what I term a user-centric system (i.e., one need not know how to read a schedule to make sense of it): A core of intersecting subway lines and feeder services via “crosstown buses.” This already-existing configuration comprises two elements I covered in previous National Bus Trader articles that are rare in transit service (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-3-feeder-service/ and https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-4-system-design-and-networks/). The City’s former 35 percent operating ratio is evidence of this design – even while this statistic incorporates ridership in four other boroughs with a far-less-streamlined “urban form.”
Shadowline Service. The “City that Never Sleeps” is a memory. Largely with hours now spent on one digital apparatus or another, and for other reasons, those clubs stuffed until 2 AM, and “after-hours” venues, are a thing of the past. Most of Manhattan is now “dead” by 10 PM. There is no need for passenger rail service to operate between 2 and 6 AM when buses could operate on the identical routes – and both enhance security and increase ridership by serving more stops. But the general lower ridership during these hours would also translate into fewer stops in other places. Subway stops are all “mandatory” stops, while in the outer segments of many routes during this part of the “owl” period, few or no passengers alight from an entire outbound train at many stoops. Buses would run more slowly. But not unreasonably more slowly, – since there is virtually no traffic anywhere during these hours. Plus, technology like “signal preemption” devices could bias the green time of many traffic signals in favor of buses – whereas it has little impact in near gridlock, daytime traffic, and would be politically infeasible.
Introduction of Live Passenger Assistance. As noted, Mayor Adams has already broken the half-century-tradition of replacing employees with robots by introducing traffic cops. Ridership, particularly during the night and owl periods, would follow increases in live security personnel. Instead of focusing the City’s innovation of fare collection robots (does scanning one’s farecard – a technology that often does not even function – really speed up the time it takes to feed passengers through a turnstile? Do sidewalk-installed ticket issuance machines really increase boarding time – now that drivers must collect the receipts (instead of passengers swiping or inserting their fare cards?) Of course not. These devices are subtleties of waste, delusion and corruption. They should be eliminated. Kiosks with live staff should be re-opened. And subway platforms should contain law enforcement and customer assistance personnel. (During the brief moment such staff were present on subway platforms – immediately after 9-1-1 – they were swarmed by passengers with information requests.) The cost of these additions should easily be offset by the ridership increases they generate. As a not-unimportant bonus, the scores of passengers shoved to their deaths off rail platforms each year would likely decrease significantly: A policemen with a nightstick uttering “Stand back!” is far more effective than such an announcement coming from a loudspeaker.
Replacement of Short- and Medium-Distance Flights with Coaches. I covered this innovation in a previous National Bus Trader installment (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-1-magic-corridors/ and https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/). Fewer trips to airports would thin out traffic on selected segments of many major freeways to and from these venues.
Alternative Work Schedules. As also covered in a previous National Bus Trader article (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/), most workers need not work “9 to 5.” If there is any proof of this, it came when COVID-19 caused a significant percentage of workers to work “remotely.” This reality was further cemented into proof as this trend continued long after all those masks went into the bottom drawer. What is likely either necessary or helpful is that certain (occasionally all) workers overlap. This reality has illuminated the feasibility of alternative work schedules to a degree that was unimaginable when this concept was formally introduced by USDOT in the mid-1970s. (Before then, it was referred to, occasionally, as “staggered hours.”) In the transportation arena, spreading out the “peak periods” of travel necessarily thins out traffic.
Bargaining for Funds for Innovation and Success. Since the beginning of operating assistance in 1967, cities like New York City have always received less than their share of these funds with respect to the number of public transportation riders they transport. (Frankly, these users should include motorcoach passengers.) This needs to change. Since more and more people continue to move to urban areas (there are some exceptions: Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles have experienced outmigration for decades), our cities must work. Frankly, I am a supporter of the creation of new cities – which numerous countries, rich and poor, have built for decades (witness Brasilia and Tel Aviv – both of which [until recently] were their nation’s capitals). But America does no such thing. So America has one less difference-making choice. But our ever-growing cities also contain a disproportionate number of representatives at the Federal level – particularly in the House of Representatives, which allocates funds. There is no reason why the receipt of operating assistance cannot be skewed to reward those cities whose decision-makers contribute the most to certain accomplishments – like making their cities more livable by reducing levels of traffic, improving their air quality, and by increasing the percentage of transit ridership covered by fares (and decreasing the percentage that must be covered by taxpayers’ subsidies). One would be hard-pressed to develop a more-productive rationale for the allocation of public transportation funds among cities.
Such an idea need not reduce funding to rural areas. The fact that public transportation costs more in rural areas is irrelevant – simply because we need rural areas. As a starting point, this is largely because we need to grow things. A close second is that many industries require a great deal of space. A third is that we need to preserve forests and other treasures of land use that we take for granted. And on and on. But we have also failed to adapt public transportation to such areas where, for example, subsidized car-sharing would cost a fraction of the costs of traditional public transportation. One bus line in New Jersey – not exactly Wyoming – transports less than one passenger per hour. This must stop. Instead, such a venue should be rewarded for replacing such waste with alternative forms of movement.
Making Public Transportation Work
Stealing the subtitle from seven previous National Bus Trader installments, these notions – only a quick selection of the most obvious and likely among the most productive – are not merely elements that would make congestion pricing work better. They would make public transportation in general work better. And they would make their cities more livable, and travel into and out of them more tolerable.
These suggestions are not “thinking outside the box.” There is no box in public transportation. There are only time and space. Transportation planning is nothing more than moving these two things around, ideally in coordination with one another. At the lower end of the speed spectrum in which we reside, we cannot translate space into time – as one can as he or she travels at a speed greater than the speed of light – beyond which point time actually moves backwards; this was proven, mathematically, in 1905. (Please excuse this particular author from explaining the theory of relativity in one sentence.) But we can manage time and space in our slower-moving environment.
As always (or almost always), the motorcoach community cannot expect its umbrella organizations to exert pressure on local governments. But a considerable number of privately-owned motorcoach carriers serve New York City. At this rare moment of change, as the concept of congestion pricing is being refined, the motorcoach community must make its weight felt – not only by the volume of its presence, but by forcefully sharing its ideas.
It took one major city’s mayor nearly 50 years to schedule the implementation of congestion pricing. But it would benefit the entire country – and the entire country’s motorcoach industry — if this one city can make it work. Ideas spread slowly, and often die before birth. But proof spreads rapidly, and generally survives. We would be wise to encourage this dynamic.