On Tuesday morning, a head-on accident on Manhattan’s West Side Highway at 125th Street shut down a major commuter artery for nearly two hours. And it demonstrated just how badly the entire Tri-State Region needs congestion pricing.
Typically, the benefits of congestion pricing were communicated to New York City residents specifically. Little was mentioned of the overall benefit to the region, as the key benefits were reduced air pollution, additional funding for transit, and less congested streets in Lower Manhattan. But this accident shows that when massive amounts of single-occupant car traffic insists on commuting to Manhattan’s Central Business District, there are ripple effects throughout the entire regional highway system.
The accident, according to the New York Times, “led to traffic delays as far back as New Jersey and northward into Westchester County.” Needless to say, this backup spilled onto major east-west arteries that serve to transport people through the region, and between areas that are not easily accessible through public transit. This accident inconvenienced thousands of commuters who use the George Washington Bridge, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the New York Thruway, and had ripple effects on hundreds of miles of local roads throughout the region. Many of these drivers have commuting patterns that currently make driving a necessity – getting from Westchester County to New Jersey can require several time-consuming transfers. In addition, the accident had an impact on regional commerce, slowing the movement of goods not just within the immediate Tri-State area, but up and down the East Coast. Most of these vehicles never enter Lower Manhattan, and almost all of them never ventured onto the West Side Highway.
The West Side Highway, however, serves as a funnel for steering vehicular traffic into Lower Manhattan. Over 125,000 vehicles pass along this particular stretch of the West Side Highway each day, and nearly 93,000 of them travel below 59th Street. If congestion pricing was instituted in a cordon zone below 59th Street, Komanoff’s Balanced Transportation Analyzer suggests that downtown-bound entries to the zone would drop by 16%. That’s nearly 15,000 vehicles off the West Side Highway, improving traffic flow on that road and having a ripple effect on the entire region. With fewer vehicles heading to the FDR or the West Side Highway, there would be less traffic at the key choke points where these highways link to principal regional arteries: the George Washington, the Major Deegan and Thruway, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the RFK-Triborough Bridge. A great deal of the traffic on these roads is not heading to the Central Business District, yet all of the drivers who use these roads suffered from the West Side Highway backup, which was spawned by motorists who chose to drive into an area with bountiful mass transit options.
Throughout the congestion pricing debate in 2007, residents of New York’s outer boroughs complained that congestion pricing would be an unfair tax on them – even if they only occasionally drove into Manhattan. What was never communicated was the significant time savings they could reap while heading to other destinations as more people heading into Manhattan get out of their cars and use mass transit. While it would be in everyone’s best interest to get these people out of their cars as well, the livable streets movement could have swung more drivers in their favor if they told outer-borough residents what they stood to gain from congestion pricing. Perhaps next time around, proponents will remind drivers that they don’t all lose if the congestion pricing fight is won.