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Inside the plan to reduce traffic in NYC by 15-20% starting this summer — and why 'a lot of anger' may turn into enthusiasm

"I think people are going to see and feel an improvement to their quality of life."

"I think people are going to see and feel an improvement to their quality of life."

Photo Credit: iStock

Editor's note: On June 5, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced she was postponing New York City's congestion pricing plan "indefinitely," citing concerns about its proximity to the COVID-19 business recovery efforts. Alex Matthiessen, director of Move NY and one of the key figures working to make congestion pricing happen, issued a statement about that news:

"Governor Hochul's plot to pull the plug on congestion pricing — even temporarily — is a monumental act of political cowardice," Matthiessen said. "Hochul is playing with fire in abandoning her commitment to congestion pricing at the 11th hour — the plan she only recently said '… will make New York City a global leader in transportation policy.' Well, Kathy Hochul, you just single-handedly made New York a global loser, a pandering joke to other cities serious about transitioning away from fossil fuels.

"You, and you alone, are betraying millions of New York transit riders, asthma sufferers, families who have lost children to impatient drivers, and New York's commitment to clean air and tackling climate change. It's a disgrace. Shame on you."

Continue below to read The Cool Down's original article on Matthiessen's thoughts about the congestion pricing plan before its postponement.

Starting this summer, New York City is expected to reduce traffic by 15-20% as it becomes the first city in the nation to implement a toll on vehicles entering the busiest parts of town.

The new — and largely unpopular — initiative, called "congestion pricing," also promises less asthma-causing pollution, fewer vehicle and pedestrian accidents, less annoying horn-honking, higher worker productivity, and a huge investment in the city's public transit system.

In an exclusive interview with The Cool Down, Alex Matthiessen, director of Move NY and one of the key architects of the plan, addressed critics and gave us an inside look at the 15-year battle to make it happen. 

First, here's what you need to know 

Vehicles entering Manhattan's central business district (all streets south of 60th Street) will be charged a toll, including $15 for passenger vehicles, as of June 30. (There are some exemptions and pending lawsuits that could delay implementation.)

The toll income will enable the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to secure a $15 billion bond toward improving New York's mass transit system over 10 years.

According to the MTA, more than 900,000 people in vehicles enter the busiest part of Manhattan every day, reducing travel speeds to around 7 mph.

And while New York City's air quality has improved, ozone and "PM2.5" particulate matter in the air are linked to 2,400 deaths per year as well as thousands more ER visits and hospitalizations for asthma, heart, and lung problems, according to NYC Health. 

"We're inured to the idea that traffic is just an inherent part of New York City — and that doesn't have to be the case," Matthiessen told TCD.

How we got here 

The fight for congestion pricing began over 15 years ago and features a number of important characters, not the least of whom is Matthiessen, who describes himself as an advocate who has devoted his life to "taking on big issues that are seen as impossible to win," he said.

"I'm stupid enough to take on the hardest challenges, but once I do it, I feel absolutely bound to see it through no matter what it takes and how many years off my life," he told The Cool Down.

Matthiessen's passion was ignited when he was an 8-year-old out for a bike ride on the eastern end of Long Island with his father, after his mother had died a year earlier. 

"We were riding along and we saw this [seagull] — and it was wrapped in those plastic six-pack rings," he said.

"My dad and I dismounted and we approached several times, trying to see if we could catch it so we could free it," he explained. But each time they neared, the bird kept trying to fly away, and his dad told him it would likely die. 

"I was so upset by that — I remember crying — just the idea that humans degrade our environment so badly and with such disregard to the other species on the planet. I just found it profoundly depressing and awful," he said. "It really just stuck with me."

Fast-forward to college, studying environmental science at UC Santa Barbara, when a professor described the connection between corporations and federal regulations. "I just had a real sense of outrage, and I never looked back at that point," he said. "That's why I became an environmentalist."

Matthiessen started working with grassroots environmental organizations and went on to policy roles within the government. He then spent 10 years as the president of the nonprofit environmental organization Riverkeeper, where he worked to clean up the Hudson River after more than a century of pollution, pressuring General Electric to remove harmful chemicals (PCBs) from the water.

After leaving Riverkeeper, Matthiessen was part of a small team recruited to help make congestion pricing a reality, along with the infamous Sam Schwartz, aka "Gridlock Sam," the former NYC traffic commissioner who coined the term "gridlock." 

Schwartz, who is well-known and respected through regular newspaper column and media appearances, worked with Matthiessen to build a broad coalition and ensure that the proposal was not solely Manhattan-centric but reflected the interests of New York's outer boroughs. 

They also took inspiration from other cities with congestion pricing, including London and Stockholm. London's Ultra Low Emission Zone was implemented five years ago in part after the death of a 9-year-old London girl; a landmark lawsuit concluded she died from pollution after years of living next to one of London's busiest roads. 

The results? Traffic has reduced by nearly half. London's air quality, which was significantly worse than New York's, is more recently on par with it, according to Bloomberg. The adoption of electric vehicles has increased by more than four times, while diesel cars have dropped by more than a quarter. And overall trips into the city through mass transit and bikes have increased by 21%, which is good for business.

"There was a lot of resistance there too," Matthiessen said. "But once it was up and running and people got used to it, as much as 70% of the local population supported those programs."

For New York, Matthiessen says, after several failed attempts, it's finally the right time and the right place. 

"If I give myself credit for anything, I'm the one that kept the idea alive when no one was really keeping it alive in the conversation," he said.

Why it's unpopular

"There's just something that people resent as a car owner about the idea of being penalized for something that they're doing that they think is their American, God-given right. It does feel like, in our American life, there's just a cost to everything now, and you can't turn around before there's a new surcharge or fee … so I get that."

But, he says, "by adding a toll into the central business district of New York City, you're forcing drivers to think twice about whether they're going to take that trip into the city with their car."

Each of those drivers is slowing down traffic and emitting harmful pollutants that have increased asthma rates and contribute to New York's carbon footprint. 

"They're causing all kinds of ills that cost New Yorkers and New York businesses substantially," he said.

"They might have to pay for the privilege to drive into the most congested part of the city, but the return on their investment is that they will encounter much less traffic."

Taking on the critics

During our interview, we asked Matthiessen to take on critics, point by point.

Will it penalize lower income residents? 

"If you look at the statistics, the average car owner is substantially wealthier than the average mass transit rider in New York city. So the people who are squawking and complaining are, on the whole, wealthier than the people who are taking mass transit and for whom this program is mainly designed," he said. 

"If you're seriously concerned about lower-income and middle-income people, you invest in the transportation system that the vast majority of them use."

Will it negatively impact rideshare services?

Uber, Lyft, and Revel were part of the coalition arguing for congestion pricing because it will mean less traffic and more rides for their drivers.

For taxi and rideshare drivers, the toll will be passed on to riders.

Will it be bad for business? 

"When we first proposed this over a decade ago, a lot of businesses were upset about the possibility that this was going to dampen demand for their businesses and patrons because of fewer cars driving in, and fewer potential customers to their businesses," Matthiessen said.

But he predicts the opposite will happen, with more people coming into the city via mass transit: "There's no evidence to suggest that this is going to suffer because of fewer cars and fewer passengers traveling by car into the city."

Will it negatively affect the disabled community?

The MTA will offer exemptions for people with disabilities. Matthiessen says the exemption "squarely addresses the two major concerns with the previous system of exempting all state-issued disability license plates, which allowed for too many cheats and excluded people with disabilities who don't own cars, both of which were unfair."

Picture this — and give it a chance 

Here's the future Matthiessen envisions: a city with less horn-blowing, fewer car accidents, and even fewer pedestrian deaths. People moving more quickly to get to that Broadway show or a school meeting or interview, including much faster travel times by taxi, rideshare, and bike. 

"Overall, I think people are going to see and feel an improvement to their quality of life," he argued. "I'd say to people who are resistant to it, give it a chance. Let's see how it works. There's no reason why we can't make adjustments through the program as we go, as we learn what the impacts are where it's not working as well."

Other cities across the United States will be watching New York closely. Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; Chicago; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Houston have considered or are looking seriously at their versions of the program — following London and Stockholm, which were, along with Singapore, the first cities to introduce congestion pricing.

"What I expect and hope to see in New York is that once this thing is turned on, there's going to be a lot of anger and resistance and probably a lot of bad press," Matthiessen explained. "Once the dust settles, and people accept that it's happening, it's a reality, I think people are going to be quite enthusiastic about it."

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