The next best thing to banning cars is crafting policies that factor in the toll they take on society. And that’s exactly what New York has now done. After toying with the idea for more than a decade, on Sunday the state legislature passed a budget that would implement congestion pricing, making New York the first city in the U.S. to do so.
The move will charge drivers entering Lower Manhattan, money that will be used to fix public transit. The policy is likely to make a direct reduction (albeit a small one) to carbon emissions. More importantly, it could open the door to bolder climate policies, all while not screwing over poor people.
A few details are missing such as how much drivers will pay, and there are very real concerns about how the policy will be implemented and how much control the city will have, but the basic outlines are there. Cars traveling below 60th Street—the start of Manhattan’s dense business district—will have to pay a fee starting at the end of 2020. Those that live below 60th Street and make less than $60,000 a year will be eligible for credits to offset the cost. All told, the budget estimates congestion pricing could raise up to $1 billion a year, which would then be leveraged against bonds to help fix the subway.
Aside from the net benefit of fewer whiny tweets from New Yorkers, the plan could also help combat climate change and environmental injustice. On the climate front, the direct benefits are comparatively small. Charles Komanoff, who heads the Carbon Tax Center, told Earther that the plan would eliminate about a million tons of carbon annually. Using the social cost of carbon, a metric that puts a dollar figure on the net benefits of every ton of carbon, Komanoff said that amounts to a savings of roughly $50 million. Not chump change, but pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things. But then, the direct carbon savings itself is only a small sliver of the climate and other benefits tied to the policy.
“I think this is an extraordinary win or can be for climate on a couple of levels,” Komanoff said. “One way is that revitalizing and making cities work and not just for the wealthy is key to climate survival.”
The money raised will go toward un-fucking the subway, which is in shambles for a variety of reasons, as well as improving other parts of New York’s sprawling, decidedly 20th century transit system. Improved service means more people using those systems not just to access the city, but to get around it. It also means fewer people could choose to leave New York, and in fact, more people could move here if the city becomes more livable. New Yorkers (and city dwellers in general) tend to have smaller carbon footprints than suburban and rural Americans owing to access to mass transit and jobs, stores, and recreation opportunities closer to home. More people living a car-free or car-light lifestyle means lower emissions.
The second—and possibly more impactful—way congestion pricing could be a climate victory is by setting a precedent when it comes to making polluters pay for things that cause collective harm. The tolls motorists will pay aren’t a carbon fee per se, but they act like one by putting a cost on something that damages the environment and the city. Policies that reduce emissions has proven hard to execute, particularly under the banner of climate action. Progressive Washington state, for instance voted down a carbon tax last year. Putting aside the influx of Big Oil money that influenced that vote, the reality is big policies like this have largely failed.
“[There have been] victories here and there but nothing systemic,” Komanoff said. “We have [now] disproved the idea that we’re never, in this country, going to tax or charge a significant environmental harm.”
That’s not say that individuals should have to shoulder all the burden of reducing emissions when there are plenty of bad corporate actors who should be held accountable, too. And as with any policy that will cost people money, one of the biggest considerations is how it will affect working class people. We’ve seen what the failure to do that looks like in the form of the yellow vest protests that roiled France in wake of a gas tax, and California’s rooftop solar mandate that leaves out the poor. The credit for people making less than $60,000 annually is one way to ensure that low income drivers won’t bear the brunt of the policy, though details will still need to be sorted out for how those credits are determined and disbursed.
But for what it’s worth, the working poor make up an exceedingly small portion of drivers in lower Manhattan. Irene Lew, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Community Service Society (CSS), put it bluntly to Earther: “[A]s an anti-poverty group, we wanted to see if this would be regressive. Our analysis shows it’s not. Having congestion pricing is going to help the working poor who depend on mass transit everyday.”
A 2017 analysis by the group found that just two percent of the working poor residents commute daily from the outer boroughs by car and could pay a congestion fee. In comparison, 58 percent take public transit. The analysis showed 38 working poor residents would benefit from improved transit for every one impacted by congestion pricing.
What’s more, the new policy is likely to yield air quality benefits by reducing idling and the number of cars traversing the city. For communities of color that disproportionately suffer from asthma and other air quality-related illnesses, that could provide a huge health benefit.
“I’m not going to say that this is a panacea for everything that ails cities but it is a big step,” Komanoff said.
This post has been updated to reflect that the congestion pricing credit will be available to those earning $60,000 per year who live below 60th Street.