One of the most predictable features of Midtown Manhattan is chronic traffic congestion. While gridlock is a sign of the area’s vitality and centrality, it’s also a nuisance and bad for air quality.

Now comes New York State with a plan to unsnarl the tie-ups, fund transit, and contribute to reducing pollutants and traffic hazards. It’s known as congestion pricing—and it was recently approved by the legislature for Manhattan below 60th Street.

When the plan goes into effect in 2021, motorists are likely to pay between $11 to $14 to enter the zone, while commercial vehicles, like delivery trucks, could face a $25 fee. A lot of...well, gritty details remain up in the air, currently the subject of a state task force’s deliberations.

Some travelers may get a free pass: bicyclists and motor scooter riders, for example. There’s been talk of giving people who earn less than $60,000 a year an exemption, and no drivers would be likely to have to pay the fee when using the West Side or FDR highways.

Will congestion pricing be in effect on weekends and holidays? Will it deter fewer drivers than it attracts (lured, perhaps, by the prospect of less traffic)? Will it increase traffic in non-restricted areas? The short answer: no one yet knows for sure.

NYU News asked Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Planning at NYU Wagner, to talk about whether the proposed fees could be the solution to New York's traffic problem.

Why congestion pricing for Manhattan in the first place?

You know, it’s been successful in London, Stockholm, Singapore and other cities in reducing car traffic. New York is just catching up.

Yet New York is one of the few cities in the U.S. where it’s possible for residents to get around the entire city without a car. Why do you think it’s the first to give congestion pricing a try?

New York City’s transit system provides the alternatives necessary to carry out a congestion pricing plan. If drivers are discouraged by the new fees from driving, they’ll need alternative ways to reach their destination, and in most cases, they’ll have them. What better place to adopt this strategy than in a city where car ownership is not a necessity? New Yorkers are also accustomed to the enforcement of progressive laws and policies that aren’t always found in other cities, so the policy was more likely to arise in such an environment.

photo: Sarah Kaufman

Sarah Kaufman

Will the push to exempt certain categories of vehicles hinder the overall impact of the policy?

First, exemptions from congestion pricing, as well as allowing some categories of drivers to avoid paying the full fee, haven’t been decided yet. Some consideration is being given to exempting drivers below a certain income level, those who have disabilities, and people traveling to medical appointments. That makes sense. In London, exemptions include emergency vehicles, motorbikes, mopeds, and vehicles used by people with disabilities. When it comes right down to it, exemptions play a critical role in the success of any congestion pricing plan. However, if too many exclusions are allowed, it can increase toll amounts for others, or cause the Manhattan program to fall short of the goal of $1 billion-a-year in revenues. Too many exemptions would make it harder to reduce car traffic, too.

Since so many restaurants and groceries rely on daily deliveries for fresh produce, will the price of the average New Yorker's morning bagel go up?

If commercial vehicles are charged the $25 fee for congestion pricing, it is possible that some business owners may be more likely to increase prices to offset delivery costs. However, because congestion pricing is only enforced during peak traffic hours, this may encourage changes in delivery timetables to mitigate the impact of this charge. Some business owners and delivery services may begin to consolidate their delivery needs, which would reduce costs and truck congestion.

Coincidentally, this is all happening as driverless cars, potentially a technological breakthrough, are on the horizon.

Yes, but don’t forget, the main objective of congestion pricing is to reduce the number of cars on the road, which will help traffic—of all kinds—move more efficiently and safely. Autonomous vehicle developers aim to be able to operate AVs more closely together (smarter vehicles will require less braking time), which will increase the throughput of vehicles in the city. Autonomous vehicles will hopefully also offer greater safety performance than vehicles with human drivers, and reduce human error. But AV’s may draw passengers away from public transportation, exacerbating gridlock. Policymakers will need to address this concern as driverless vehicles start to become city-ready.

Nobody loves a toll. But are you feeling optimisitic about what may be coming to perennially gridlocked Manhattan in 2021?

Ideally, we’ll see smarter, safer streets, with less traffic. That should open up the street to more active modes of transportation, like cycling, and use of cars only for specific needs. If congestion pricing works, we’ll see safer, quieter, cleaner streets.

(Jenee Malloy, graduate research assistant with the Rudin Center, provided research assistance for this interview.)