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Examining Congestion Pricing In Cities

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Officials have now decided to try something new, congestion pricing. Drivers here are soon going to be charged a toll to enter certain crowded neighborhoods. Darius Rafieyan and Stacey Vanek Smith from Planet Money's The Indicator podcast recently ventured into New York's infamous gridlock to see how bad things are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN SOUNDING)

DARIUS RAFIEYAN, BYLINE: We are standing at 42nd Street and 1st Avenue. We are going to try to do the impossible - get crosstown at rush hour.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: So we should try to hail a cab. It looks like there's some cabs. We're just going all the way across town to the West Side.

So this congestion pricing plan was passed by the New York legislature, but it won't be put in place for a couple of years.

RAFIEYAN: Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant who used to work for the city of New York, thinks that the system could really help cut down on traffic in the city.

BRUCE SCHALLER: Because as you charge people, some people will decide to take the subway or bus to come in instead of driving. Secondly, it raises very badly needed revenue for public transportation.

RAFIEYAN: It's estimated that New York will need to spend tens of billions of dollars to fix the subway system.

VANEK SMITH: And congestion pricing has proven itself to be a really fast, effective way to raise money, says Bruce. Places like Singapore and Stockholm do it. London rolled out congestion pricing, and they've seen speeds increase by 30 percent.

RAFIEYAN: So checking in. We're just passing Grand Central Station. We have been in the cab for six minutes.

VANEK SMITH: Not bad.

RAFIEYAN: There are still plenty of details that need to get ironed out, not least of which is, just how much is this toll going to cost? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested a flat fee, per car, per day, of about $11 or $12 and $25 for trucks. But there will be some exemptions. The state has already approved breaks for emergency vehicles, for people with disabilities. And other groups are asking for exemptions, as well - delivery truck drivers, livery cab drivers, motorcyclists, police officers.

VANEK SMITH: And that could really affect how much money the congestion pricing plan brings in.

RAFIEYAN: Yeah. Because if cabs and delivery trucks and buses all get exemptions then who's going to be paying the toll?

SCHALLER: I think it's really a question of choosing between two things. One is having people pay for something like this, and secondly, seeing the subway system continue to go downhill, seeing the streets become even more congested. And I think that in terms of the future of the city, it's really clear that we need to solve some of these problems, and congestion pricing is one part of that.

VANEK SMITH: And Bruce says a whole bunch of cities are watching what happens in New York to see if maybe they will also try out congestion pricing. Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Boston are all looking at this as a possible way to cut down on traffic and pollution and, you know, mostly to just raise a ton of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAXI ROLLING TO A STOP)

RAFIEYAN: Here we are.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. This is perfect. Thank you. What's the time?

RAFIEYAN: It's 22 minutes and 11 seconds.

VANEK SMITH: Twenty-two minutes and 11 seconds. That's how long it took us to go two miles across the heart of 42nd Street. You know, you could basically walk two miles in that time, 22 minutes.

RAFIEYAN: Well, I mean, it's, like, 5 1/2 miles an hour. So, like, a light jog.

VANEK SMITH: That's, like, more than a light jog. Right?

RAFIEYAN: So it's a brisk jog. Darius Rafieyan.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.