Monday, May 18, 2015

Is Über Creating More Congestion in New York City?

Density is good, severe traffic congestion bad. Congestion wastes fuel, adds
 to pollution, lowers the quality of life, depresses retail sales and the economy.
Will anyone pay enough attention before we have a Godzilla of Gridlock? 
Über may force another look at the toll-free status of four bridges across the East River.

Traffic congestion is a costly problem for New York City residents, workers and visitors. An aspect of the Tragedy of the Commons, scarce public goods like roadways in dense cities run the risk of overuse without restrictions or pricing.

New York City has a sophisticated traffic control system to ensure that the main arteries are flowing freely. In Manhattan, that's north-south. Traffic lights in Manhattan can be shortened, through a central control system, to restrict traffic in the east-west direction.

However, some arteries are east-west - for example around the entrances to the bridges and tunnels. I have been noticing that in high-traffic periods, the east-west traffic heading for the West Side Highway or the Lincoln Tunnel is backing up onto the avenues (I see it on Ninth Avenue), creating gridlock.

Is congestion getting worse? That's my perception, despite huge resources invested in traffic police and traffic-light technology.

Could Über be adding to the problem? Something like Über was inevitable, putting passengers and drivers directly in touch. It puts to use private vehicles at peak periods to supplement NYC's yellow and green taxis and on-call limos. BUT the result is more use of the public roads, more congestion. Like the frog in the saucepan pan with the heat slowly rising, we don't notice what is happening until a crisis occurs - the frog is boiled to death, or (equivalently) we have a mile-long gridlock in Manhattan that takes hours to clear up.

Former Mayor Bloomberg tried to get congestion pricing introduced in 2007-08. A broad approach to traffic pricing and mitigation is provided in the 12 principles of the late Columbia University Professor William Vickrey. I posted them at Singapore and London have introduced congestion pricing that seems to work.

A new group in New York City has come up with a "Fair Tolling" plan to introduce incentives to direct traffic to routes that make more sense than existing ones. The principal shift seems to be imposing tolls on the four toll-free bridges across the East River. Sam Schwartz, former City of New York Traffic Commissioner,  sees a big problem in these toll-free bridges:
The term I'd borrow from my father is that we have a cockamamie system of charging people that makes absolutely no sense, and in fact encourages people to drive through our densest part of the city: Manhattan.
This coming Friday millions of workers are going to be heading out to their Memorial Day Weekend vacation at the same time. Many cars come out of garages and parking lots for the long weekend excursions. This is the first of the three biggest weekends of the summer. It could be a test of the existing system.