Dec 262008

I like London a lot, but it’s been a bad influence.

The London congestion charge, a fee charged to drivers who enter the city center during peak hours, has put dollar signs in the eyes of American politicians who would try to impose a similar scheme in the US, in New York and San Francisco in particular.

Although I’m a firm advocate of mass transit and its ecological benefits, and although I recognize the public fisc must be funded through some sort of revenue generation, my egalitarian notions find these plans abhorrent. Should congestion charges be implemented they will disproportionately tax lower-income people, putting our city centers out of affordable reach of many and turning them into gated communities enjoyed only by the wealthy.

I don’t know enough about the London particulars to know if the congestion charge there has had this kind of class-splitting effect. But there are a few reasons why it might not have in London but would if implemented in these American cities.
For one thing, London topography is different. Its most defining geographical feature, the Thames river, runs through the middle of the city. No other barrier prevents access to the city center. Not so for San Francisco, a peninsula that is connected to mainland United States only through its southern border and is otherwise completely surrounded by water, or Manhattan, which, as an island, is entirely surrounded by water. Access to these cities therefore is already severely limited by geography to just a few entrances, entrances that for the most part already are expensive to access. These gauntlets could easily capture further revenue because people in surrounding areas lack any geographical alternatives that might be more affordable.

That lack of alternative means of access to the city center itself is another significantly different feature to the London plan. Before implementing it London already had a fairly comprehensive mass transit system that could generally provide a viable alternative to the private car. Not that it was perfect: the effects of privatization of the nation’s railways have led to erratic service and pricing structures, and the very fact that all service ceases on certain days of the year seems to necessitate that people use cars anyway. But at least the infrastructure exists to give people reasonable alternatives to driving into the city. In London then the ability to drive into the city may more fairly be seen as a discretionary premium that can be priced accordingly, but in the US it’s still often a necessity.

While American mass transit has improved in recent years — I think of suburban New Jersey, where thanks to the construction of the Secaucus Junction and enhancement of NJ Transit rail service has made a car much less necessary, and in San Francisco the extension of BART to SFO and Caltrain, which also has helped lessen the need for cars — in many instances it’s still not an acceptable alternative. Take the example of Marin County, north of San Francisco. There’s no rail line serving it, so all access to San Francisco is via ferry or bus over the Golden Gate Bridge. During rush hours, and depending on the locale, mass transit may provide reasonably sufficient access to downtown San Francisco. But during off-hours service is so scant as to make the bus commute many times longer than it should be, and many areas on both sides of the bridge remain unlinked.

Meanwhile the mass transit that exists can also be very expensive, especially from the farther out places where housing is more affordable. Even with “living wages” now approaching $10/hour, a relatively cheap $5-6/day commute it still takes a significant chunk of one’s daily pay to get there, and for many the commute costs much more than that. Perhaps there is a point where one can earn enough to comfortably afford these kinds of prices, but for the many families for whom even putting food on the table is a financial challenge, the trip to the city is a huge hit. Poorer people must think long and hard about whether it will be worth the cost to go into the city for the day, and many are inevitably going to have to decide it’s not. Though the center of their metropolitan area may be a mere few miles away from their homes, already people are finding themselves priced out of visiting it.

Which is a problem that will only become more pronounced if further fees are imposed upon people who live outside the cities. It may be easy to see commuters as cash cows, who can be made to pay for what they use, but in practice it ignores financial reality. Commuters do not have infinitely deep pockets that can continually be picked, and trying to fund public infrastructure on their backs alone will not work.

In the case of both San Francisco and New York, the Bush administration promised money to fix transit infrastructure, but only if each city imposed congestion pricing to fund the rest. Leaving aside the discussion of whether the federal executive can ever be in the best position of deciding local transit policy (an already often thorny question involving the interests of multiple jurisdictions), in these instances it is terrible policy. In the case of San Francisco, for example, there is a major artery connecting the Golden Gate Bridge with the city that is in desperate need of a seismic retrofit. The federal government conditioned its grant money to fix it on the institution of congestion pricing for commuters entering the city, on top of the $6 bridge toll they already pay (which, admittedly, is cheap compared to the $8+ tolls on New York area bridges). Because the area is largely presumed to be wealthy perhaps it’s thought that the region can afford to pay more. But toll collectors make no distinction in net worth when people appear at their pikes. Someone who makes $150,000 a year pays the same toll as someone earning $15,000, but the imposition on them is hardly equal.

The end result of these pay-as-you-go policies is that fewer and fewer people will be able to enjoy, or even work in, our cities. Perhaps that might seem like a good result for people who don’t like the crowds, but it’s hardly good either ecologically or economically. Years of unsound urban development have already left our landscape scarred by urban sprawl, so if we truly want to be “green,” we must encourage our urban centers to be more efficiently developed. Keeping people out of them is therefore inconsistent with that policy goal. Furthermore, our economy depends on exchange: people must be able to get together to trade goods and ideas. Keeping them from meeting in the city centers keeps that exchange from happening and smothers the very economic vibrancy that ultimately funds everything else.

 Posted by at 2:33 pm

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