It’s official. Congestion pricing is happening in at least one U.S. city. By 2020, New York City will charge vehicles to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, using the money to pay for much-needed transit repairs.
“Over $10 to drive in Manhattan?” gasped the New York Times.
The way congestion pricing works—and it has worked in a lot of cities outside the U.S.—is like this: If cities charge certain vehicles to use the busiest streets during the busiest times of the day, some people will pay that fee, and other people will either shift their trips to other times or choose to use those streets in a different way.
Which means instead of fixating on the fee, the question really should be, what could you do to avoid paying the fee?
Fortunately most major U.S. cities already have a really good way for people to find out the answer to that question. Every weekend, across the U.S., open-streets festivals close parts of cities to vehicular access for a day, and open them for walking, biking, rolling, strolling, and scooting.
I’ve written before about how open streets illustrate latent demand for car-free modes. Hundreds of thousands of people pour into car-free city streets on any given Sunday, but come Monday the bikes and scooters stay stashed at home if they aren’t a safe or practical way for those same people to get to work and school.
But there’s another really great benefit to open-streets festivals—they provide a low-risk, low-stakes opportunity to try accomplishing your daily activities without a car.
With streets open, safe, and car-free, you can see what it’s like to commute to work by dockless scooter, haul your groceries home on the bus, ride the train with a stroller, learn it’s no big deal to get a little sweaty on a bike-share bike—and that you’ll be a little less sweaty on an electric bike-share bike.
Plus, car-free streets help to illustrate the real-world benefits that a future of fewer cars might bring, like shorter travel times, lower pollution levels, and smaller vehicles taking up less space in dense urban areas.
Later this month, New York City will close two miles of Broadway, from Union Square to Times Square, to commemorate Earth Day. In August, the city’s Summer Streets festivals will close seven miles of Park Avenue on three consecutive Saturdays.
With congestion pricing on the horizon, the open-streets routes could be changed to reflect where pricing would be in effect in different sections of Manhattan. New events could be planned on busier streets like Third Avenue or Lexington Avenue, or all of Broadway below 60th Street. This way, everyone can start testing out their journeys in preparation for 2020.
Since the streets would be opened in neighborhoods where people would be most affected by congestion pricing, this would be a great time to register local residents who’ll get credits for living inside the zone, and help sign people up for exemptions who have disabilities or other mobility needs.
Organizations could be on-hand to help answer questions about how congestion pricing works, address concerns about emergency vehicles, and bust myths (like explaining how driving has been subsidized for decades). The MTA could show how the money will be funneled into the transit system. Workshops could help commuters plan their car-free trips. Residents could offer input on solutions like rentable cargo bikes or electric rickshaws that could help people get around without cars.
These events could also be held with more frequency so people can test out weather-appropriate travel modes in different seasons, like taking a bus on a cold day or practice biking in the rain. There’s no reason why U.S. cities shouldn’t continue their open streets activities into the colder, wetter months, anyway, especially when heavy snow ends up closing parts of cities to cars. How about Winter Streets?
New York City is certainly the U.S. city that’s best equipped to pilot such a program due to its existing transit infrastructure. But it won’t be alone for long: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and other cities are exploring the idea of congestion pricing, too.
These cities would be well-served to align the goals of their open-streets festivals with their congestion pricing plans because they’re often working towards the same future. Open streets and congestion pricing have both ended up catalyzing more transformative changes in global cities.
At Bogotá’s Ciclovía—started in the 1970s and widely considered to be the original open streets event—over one million people freely move around 74 miles of car-free streets every Sunday and holiday, which spurred support for an expansive bus-rapid transit system. Mexico City, which holds a weekly open streets event on 40 miles of streets, used the momentum to pedestrianize streets and eliminate parking minimums.
In London, the introduction of congestion pricing funded so many upgrades for biking and walking infrastructure that there are now more bikes than cars in the city center—making everyday life more like open-streets events. And cities like Paris, Madrid, and Oslo which started with programs like congestion pricing are now moving beyond that, making large sections of their city centers car-free.
Open streets can still be framed as a fun day, but they should be seen as part of something bigger—a path to a more sustainable future, a preview of permanent changes, and a way to help residents who are less confident about moving through the city without a car.
In LA, where I live and regularly participate in open-streets events (disclaimer: I was the 2019 recipient of the Spirt of CicLAvia award), the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) released a study that looked at implementing congestion pricing in a 4.3-mile area of West LA and Santa Monica that might reduce vehicular travel times by 24 percent.
Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times framed the study this way: “Pay $4 to drive to the Westside?”
But according to SCAG’s study, only a very small decrease in car-use inside the zone would make enough of a difference to see benefits. The zone only needs to facilitate a 9 percent increase in transit ridership, a 7 percent increase in biking, and a 7 percent increase in walking.
While that kind of incremental change seems very achievable, introducing any policy that might be construed as an inconvenience for drivers won’t go over so well with some residents. However, opening streets on a Sunday with information, entertainment, and beer gardens—lots of beer gardens—to ease people’s anxieties about how they’ll get around after congestion pricing goes into effect would probably be enjoyable to everyone.
If U.S. cities want to reduce travel times, make streets safer, and meet their climate goals, the transition to fewer cars is inevitable. We don’t have any time to waste, so let’s make that transition fun.
Congestion pricing is coming—how would you use your streets in a different way?