Spring 2003, p.13

Lessons from London
New Tolls A Huge Success in London
The Lesson for NYC?

London's road pricing experience has proven that pricing can work in big cities to reduce traffic and improve bus service.

The April 20 New York Times Magazine called it the "Day the Traffic Disappeared." Now more than two months after $8 tolls were placed on all streets entering central London, traffic there has declined 20%, buses are carrying more people much faster and delivery trucks are making record time. Traffic on roads surrounding the "pricing zone" remains steady and public support for the pricing scheme high. One cyclist described post-pricing London as a "New Nirvana for bicyclists." The tolls are in place Monday-Friday, 7 am-6:30 pm.

Interestingly, London's transportation mix and land use closely resemble that of New York City. So what can we learn from London's pricing experiment?

First, there is no doubt that road pricing can work extremely well in a giant, complicated city to reduce traffic and help vastly improve bus service.

Second, the technology London is using to toll streets is vastly superior to E-ZPass and would allow New York City to toll East River bridges without toll plazas. It would also allow fees to be collected easily from vehicles crossing south of 60th Street in Manhattan. London uses a few hundred computerized cameras, which automatically bill an account linked to the license plate of every car driving in the pricing zone. Motorists create an account in person at local newspaper stands, by e-mail or using their cell phones, by far the most popular option. Accounts can be created after a vehicle travels in the zone, up to 10 pm on the day of travel. Currently, 95% of motorists entering the zone are paying the fee.

There are no technical obstacles to introducing London-style pricing in New York City. The City could implement a road pricing system within 18 months. So will NYC soon be following London's lead? Not likely. Despite the fact that Mayor Mike Bloomberg favors tolling the East River bridges, there are enormous political obstacles to doing so and to charging vehicles to enter the central business district of Manhattan south of 60th Street.

Left: London Mayor Ken Livingston
Right: NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg faces much greater political obstacles to road pricing than Livingston
The Politics of Road Pricing: NYC Versus London

The Mayor's Authority to Impose Tolls
Mayor Ken Livingstone given right to impose tolls by the national government in 1999. No other approval required.
NYC: Mayor Mike Bloomberg must get the approval of the City Council and/or state legislature and governor. The Queens and Brooklyn delegation to the council are adamantly opposed to East River bridge tolls, as are suburban state legislators and the governor.

Constituency for Tolling/Pricing?
London: Big business supported tolls. Plus, the Mayor sold tolling as a way to substantially improve bus service for the working class and poor, his core constituents.
NYC: All of the major newspapers, environmentalists and transportation experts support tolls. However, major unions, middle class voters and most elected officials in the two most populous boroughs oppose tolls. Big and small businesses are currently
neutral. Even in Manhattan, where the public would benefit enormously from reductions in traffic, three of its six city councilmembers oppose tolls.

Pricing to Unsnarl Traffic or Raise Money?
London: Pricing is seen as a way to unsnarl traffic and improve bus service, especially for working class, Livingstone voters, who take the bus from the outer boroughs into the center city. All money raised from the pricing scheme must go to transportation improvements.
NYC: 99% of the political impetus for East River bridge tolls is as a new source of revenue for a city in a dire fiscal crisis. Toll revenue would likely go to fill the budget gap, not transportation.

Election Issue?
London: Mayor Ken Livingstone made road pricing and unsnarling traffic a central issue of his campaign. All of his opponents also supported the pricing scheme, though not as soon.
NYC: Neither Bloomberg nor his opponents emphasized traffic reduction
or called for tolling in their campaigns. Doing so would be considered suicidal.

Fragmentation of Tolling Authority
London: Transport for London, a mayoral agency, sets rates. All revenue goes to the City of London.
NYC: The MTA and Port Authority have their own tolled bridges and tunnels and set their own toll rates. The MTA is controlled by the governor and the Port Authority by the governors of New York and New Jersey.

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