Motor City Blogman

Manhattan’s Congestion Fee Could Save Driving as We Know It

Or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bike lane.

Attending the New York International Auto Show this month, I took Lyft rides to the two press days at the Jacob Javits Center, and walked the mile-plus distance back to my hotel on West 38th. That first day, even though I left for Javits about 7:30 a.m., the walk back didn’t take much longer than the drive in the morning.

By the time the 2021 NYIAS rolls around, Uber and Lyft drivers and the beleaguered yellow cabs trying to maintain a foothold within the town’s transportation infrastructure will likely have to raise their rates a bit, to pay for the first congestion charge planned in the United States. The proposal before New York’s city council will charge cars between $12 and $14, and trucks (presumably bigger commercial trucks) $25 to enter Lower Manhattan, below 60th Street, according to The New York Times. The fees are expected to raise about $1 billion annually, enough to secure $15 billion in bonds for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to fix and update its sagging subway system.

Emergency vehicles, vehicles carrying disabled people, and drivers who live in the congestion zone would be exempt from the charge. The latter would not pay when they drive their cars and trucks within the zone or when they leave, but they would have to pay when they drive back in. Residents who keep cars in the zone and earn less than $60,000 per year would receive a tax credit.

Drivers using the West Side Highway and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive to pass through would not pay the congestion fee. Exemptions are being sought, the Times notes, for New Jersey (whose residents already pay tolls to enter and exit New York), police officers (who “require the greatest possible flexibility to get to work”), motorcycles, green cars including EVs, and Staten Island and Queens drivers.

After all those potential exemptions, who’s left?

An estimated 880,000 people now drive into this congestion zone each day, the Times says, quoting the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. No Elon Musk autonomous-car ride-sharing scheme, no proliferation of the Uber or Lyft or Cruise fleets will alleviate this congestion. The best answer, if not exactly a full solution in such cities as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, maybe part of Chicago, and eventually in smaller cities, is better, cleaner, more efficient mass transit combined with safer bike lanes and sidewalks. General Motors is thinking in the right direction with its electric-bike program, though I’m not quite so bullish on Ford Motor Company’s electric-scooter program.

The Citroën Ami concept, if produced, would belong to a class of cars in France that don’t require driver’s licenses.

Autonomous cars and light trucks are touted as a future “last-mile” solution, but really, they’re a solution for suburban commuters who don’t like to drive—a NIMBY-like answer those who cringe at the idea of sharing a subway or light-rail car, or bus, with city folk.

Extrapolating New York’s 2021 congestion fee toward the Commuter Car City of the Future, I think cars like the Renault Twizy–based Nissan New Mobility concept are better suited than those the size of the Chevrolet Bolt or Tesla Model 3 for such congestion areas. Another car in the Renault Twizy’s segment is the Citroën Ami concept unveiled at Geneva last March. Our design editor Robert Cumberford doesn’t like the category of cars to which it belongs, as they’re all limited to 35 mph, and they’re often in front of him on the roads he drives in France.

But in the crowded streets of Manhattan, or San Francisco, Paris, Los Angeles, or London, 35 mph seems optimistic. I felt comfortable driving the Nissan NMC around Manhattan in a mid-day demonstration, even with all the buses and diesel-powered delivery trucks in the next lane. I’d be even more comfortable on such streets riding in a bike lane, widened because motorized vehicles such as the NMC/Twizy would be whizzing by in the traffic lanes. There will still be delivery trucks (and emergency vehicles) of course, but this scenario could allow for narrowing of the motorized-vehicle lanes in favor of wider, more generous spaces for cyclists and pedestrians. Nissan NMBs and Citroën Amis would serve as “last-mile” transporters.

The Renault Twizy–based Nissan New Mobility concept.

Note that while all these EVs will reduce CO2, we still must deal with jet-aircraft emissions. Meanwhile, skyscrapers have been identified as the biggest emitters, by volume, of carbon dioxide in New York. And after all, this is Automobile. What right do I have to spew this pro-congestion fee, 35-mph EV commuter vehicle nonsense in an enthusiasts’ publication?

I don’t know anyone who thinks driving in Manhattan—or in any of the other cities I mentioned—is fun. In fact, in the best tradition of “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast,” I submit that the Nissan NMC is more entertaining on these streets than any Ferrari. It makes more sense for those of us who live in or near cities to have a Renault Twizy or e-bike or metro card for our commute into town, and a sports car, or if you’re so inclined, am SUV for driving off in the other direction on weekends and vacations. Restricting how we use personal vehicles in large metro areas is inevitable. If we make the right choices implementing this transition, restricting how we use personal vehicles outside these metro areas is not.