Across the country, air quality in big cities suffers from an onslaught of daily commuters in cars. Some government officials are tackling traffic congestion head on. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a congestion pricing plan last year that would have discouraged automobile use and encouraged commuters to bike, walk or use mass transit. Bloomberg's plan, stillborn amid fierce turf wars, would have charged a fee to drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan during its heaviest times of use. It was modeled closely on London's highly successful pricing plan, put in place in 2003.
According to the mayor's congestion scheme, part of PlaNYC, the revenue collected would be used solely to fund expansions and improvements to the regional transit system. Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit group whose mission is to "reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile," strongly supports the initiative. "A congestion pricing plan is the most cost-effective way to jump-start transit improvements and reduce traffic congestion," says Wiley Norvell, the group's communications director. But commuters hated it, as did the general public: According to a Quinnipiac poll in 2007, almost two-thirds of New York City voters opposed the plan.
Congestion pricing plans are already in place across the country. On Los Angeles' private 91 Express Lanes, the tolls increase gradually during peak hours to almost $1 per mile. But while congestion pricing eventually reduces gridlock, drivers are quick to fight the rate increases. Observers in Houston blame heated opposition for Harris County canceling a price increase on the Westpark Tollway.
Mayor Bloomberg's proposal was rejected by state legislators last July, causing the city to miss a deadline to apply for federal funding--as much as $354 million if the plan is enacted. "Congestion pricing didn't fail on its merits and flaws, but on the politics of Albany," says Norvell.
New York's plan may be revived. Proposals on the table include restricting cab hailing to designated taxi stands and barring cars with certain license plate numbers from entering Manhattan on specified days. Bloomberg claims his plan would bring a six percent reduction in traffic, and serve as a model for clogged California cities.
Before it instituted congestion pricing, London was plagued by gridlock, poor air quality and hazardous streets. But since the implementation of a $13 charge during peak traffic...