While the Green New Deal basks in the national spotlight, a different but parallel policy idea is advancing in New York: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s congestion-pricing plan, which would charge motorists to drive in the most car-jammed (and transit-rich) part of the city, Manhattan south of 60th Street.
At first glance, the two initiatives appear more distinct than related. The Green New Deal is national; congestion pricing is New York–specific. One is expansive, a solar- and wind-energy-based revitalization of our society and economy. The other seems punitive, making drivers pay for what is now free.
But we believe the two have a great deal in common, both practically and philosophically. So we invite Green New Deal adherents—from Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to the legions of determined climate-justice activists who have put the Green New Deal on the political map—to make congestion pricing in New York a stepping stone in the national fight. The New York legislature must pass a state budget by March 31; at issue is whether that budget will include the initial appropriations needed to put congestion pricing into practice.
The first commonality between the Green New Deal and congestion pricing is the fact that any program to save the earth’s climate depends on having cities thrive. Urban residents use only a fraction as much fossil fuel as suburbanites or rural dwellers, not because they are virtuous but because cities, due to their compactness, are inherently lower-carbon. City residents drive less both because they can take public transit and because destinations are close by. Density also enables homes and offices to use less power and heat. For cities to thrive and grow, automobile traffic must be tamed and restrained, which congestion pricing does with marvelous efficiency.
Congestion pricing shares DNA with the 20th-century New Deal through emphasis on public investment. Federal spending in the 1930s strung electric wire and conserved the soil, and federally driven investment going forward can decarbonize our economy. In the same way, the congestion-toll revenues in New York can pay to modernize the city’s buses and subways—as happened after London adopted congestion pricing in 2003. Thanks to massive transit investment and reappropriation of street space there, nearly 25 percent more people now enter the center of London daily, mostly on trains, buses, and bikes, while car-travel speeds have remained stable.
There’s more. Congestion pricing rests upon the Rooseveltian idea of caring for the commons—rivers and forests and farmland. Streets and transit are cities’ commons, which America has allowed cars to plunder for a century.
After years of temporizing, transit advocates in New York have finally resolved that the antidote to broken subways and too many automobiles must include charging vehicles to drive in city centers. Both of the city’s leading mass-transit coalitions—the more business-oriented Fix Our Transit and the Fix the Subways coalition, led by the grassroots group Riders Alliance—have put congestion pricing at the top of their agendas. Before long, we predict, Green New Deal supporters will similarly acknowledge that fully unleashing green energy requires a robust carbon tax, not just as a source of funds but to reset societal defaults, reorient incentives, and unlock innovation.
The Markey–Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal resolution is adamant about labor rights and economic justice. So too is the movement for congestion pricing. New York City’s most venerable anti-poverty advocate, the Community Service Society, examined congestion pricing and found that for each low-wage New Yorker who regularly drives into Manhattan, nearly 40 will benefit from better trains and buses paid for with the congestion-toll revenues. In the same vein, the right-of-center Manhattan Institute concluded last year that extending New York’s decade-long jobs boom depends on massive and effective investment in mass transit to allow immigrant and other workers to access jobs.
These considerations appear to have finally pushed New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio off the political fence last month to proclaim his support for congestion pricing.
The iconic New York progressive centrist Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood this 30 years ago. As a powerful Senate Committee chairman, he found a way to use a portion of federal-gas taxes to decouple urban mobility from automobiles, spurring a rise in transit and bicycling and making cities cleaner and more dynamic.
There is this difference, however. Unlike the Green New Deal, which is open-sourced by design, congestion pricing for New York is being finalized by the state’s governor, who seems intent on keeping the toll levels and other key plan details under wraps till the last minute. Attempts to toll the entrances to Manhattan’s central core have come up short so many times that leaders have come to presume that ironfisted control is the only way to get it done. But that approach is out of step with both the current political era and the enormous momentum to pass congestion pricing in the state budget this month and finally cure the dysfunction of the city’s streets and subways that afflicts millions daily.
A fifth of the way into our new century, awareness is spreading of the folly of giving away a finite resource for free, whether it’s the atmosphere’s capacity to remain temperate or Broadway’s five travel lanes through Times Square.
A Green New Deal, like its illustrious antecedent, can start in New York. Today, congestion pricing can revitalize and unsnarl New York’s subways and streets. Tomorrow, a nationwide mobilization can turn our carbon economy green.