Free Transit?

New York City’s attempt to pass a congestion pricing plan like those that have been so successful in London and elsewhere was killed a while back by the New York State Legislature.

But some advocates haven’t given up hope. In a bold move, a report put out by Nurture New York’s Nature, an organization founded by the venerable labor negotiator and conflict mediator Ted Kheel, argues for a bold new plan: double the congestion fee Bloomberg was proposing (and increase parking fees too), and make all of New York’s transit free. Totally free.

The problem with Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, the report, titled Balancing Free Transit and Congestion Pricing argues, is that it was all stick and no carrot — and it failed not because it had too much opposition, but because it had not enough support.

The report makes a compelling case, addressing such questions as increased subway ridership at rush hour (make within-New York commuter rail free too and add some subway cars, operated by former fare collecting staff) and proposing to use half of the space freed by lower traffic for vehicles and half for bike lanes, sidewalks, and plazas. It even proposes diverting police from the streets, where they will be less needed, to the subways, to address the increase in crime that many seem to fear will follow free rides.

One of the things that captures my imagination about this plan is the potential for creating a positive feedback loop: no fares to collect and fewer drivers makes bus rides faster, making them more attractive so fewer people drive, reducing traffic, making bus rides faster…

But I think what I like most about the Kheel proposal is that it addresses directly one of the age-old problems that often drives a rift between environmental advocates and low-income/community advocates: any proposal that improves environmental outcomes primarily by punishing “bad” behavior, especially driving, without improving alternatives to that behavior tends to have a disproportionate effect on the poor. The rich can just pay the “penalty” and tend to have access to other options anyway.

Now, congestion pricing itself already avoids this to a large extent in New York, since unlike in most other areas of the country, it’s mostly the wealthy who drive there.

But the Kheel proposal goes one better by tying a substantial environmental improvement directly to what amounts to a huge savings for New York’s lower income residents and commuters. And like Social Security, it wouldn’t be means tested, so if it gets passed, it should have a large constituency to defend it. (No one — drivers or transit users — likes to pay for something that used to be free.)

I didn’t follow all the details of how Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver managed to kill Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, but as far as I can tell, it wasn’t actually due to a mass uprising of unhappy voters. Perhaps a mass uprising of voters who want it to pass could give it political life again. If Bloomberg hasn’t become completely gun-shy.

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.



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