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The Nation

New York Looks at London's Traffic Tolls

British capital now charges drivers who enter city's center. A Manhattan gridlock expert thinks fees may also work at home.

June 01, 2003|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The problem with city traffic is that it refuses to discriminate: The rich and beautiful get ensnarled along with ordinary Joes. Wouldn't it be great if there were a superexclusive high-speed lane so Donald Trump would never be late for his important meetings?

Gridlock Sam to the rescue.

Letting swells like The Donald pay their way out of traffic jams would, of course, be only a byproduct of the system that Manhattan traffic consultant Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. Gridlock Sam, is constantly turning over in his mind. The main goal is reducing overall congestion to save time, money and people's lungs.

New technology and old ideas about the lubricating properties of money are starting to give cities like New York hope that their traffic woes can actually be solved.

At the vanguard is London, which is getting impressive early results from a scheme that critics initially denounced as simultaneously harebrained and Big Brotherish.

In February, London imposed a fee of 5 pounds (about $8) on anyone driving a car into the city center. People who live in the zone get a 90% price break.

The fee is enforced by a system of video cameras that read the license plates of cars moving through the center zone and send the numbers to a computer, which checks them against a list of people who have registered and paid their fees. If your number is spotted and you're not on the list, you get a ticket of up to 80 pounds (about $130) in the mail.

The result has been a 20% traffic reduction within the zone and a doubling of average speeds.

All of this is highly encouraging to Schwartz, a private consultant who started as a taxi driver and spent more than 20 years as a traffic engineer and later top deputy commissioner of the New York City Transportation Department. Schwartz and a fellow city engineer coined the term "gridlock."

At public meetings in the 1970s and 1980s, Schwartz often encountered a Columbia University economics professor named William Vickrey. A classic Mr. Chips-type with elbow patches, Vickrey kept trying to sell his strange ideas about using tolls to control traffic. Officials would nod politely and move on to the next speaker.

"I had no idea he would eventually win the Nobel Prize," Schwartz said in a recent interview. The 1996 announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences came three days before Vickrey died at age 82.

The ideas made sense to Mayor Edward I. Koch, who in 1986 proposed imposing new rush-hour tolls on the four main bridges from Manhattan across the East River into Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The plan was not warmly embraced.

"We were practically railroaded out of town," Schwartz said.

But 17 years later, London's bold initiative has New York rethinking the idea. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed an updated East River toll plan this year, but it died a few weeks ago in negotiations with the state Legislature, whose approval is required.

"We're still monitoring London, but we're slowing down," Transportation Department spokesman Tom Cocola said.

Even if such a scheme could win approval from the Legislature, Schwartz estimated it would take a minimum of three years to implement: "One year for environmental impact studies, two years for lawsuits."

Schwartz, however, is thinking much bigger than just East River tolls. He would like to see a comprehensive "congestion-pricing" system throughout southern Manhattan that would charge people based on when and where they drive. The wider arteries along the rivers can accommodate more traffic, so they would cost less; narrower, heavily traveled streets would cost more, especially at peak times of day.

Some combination of cameras, sensors and computers could monitor compliance.

"You want to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza from your car?" said Schwartz. "Fine. It'll cost you $25 to drive that one block as slowly as you want."

This leads to the idea of "platinum" lanes for such well-heeled motorists as Trump. If you set the fees high enough, the traffic clears out magically, Schwartz said. The city could even offer money-back guarantees if it takes more than, say, 10 minutes to cross the island on a designated street.

The Trump example is fun, but Schwartz said congestion pricing isn't just fat-cat friendly; it also has its Robin Hood aspects. The people in cars in Manhattan during the daytime earn, on average, $15,000 more than the folks on the subway, Schwartz says. But the people on the roads after midnight tend to be poorer workers stuck on the late shift. In those low-traffic hours, the bridges, tunnels and streets should be free, he said.

Not everyone is sold. Privacy experts worry about the pervasive monitoring, and merchants in London have complained that less traffic on the streets means less traffic in their shops.

Could such a system work in Los Angeles? L.A. obviously needs congestion relief, but the idea works best where there is dependable and widely available public transportation, Schwartz said. Unlike Los Angeles, in southern Manhattan and in the core of London, a subway or bus stop is seldom more than a five-minute walk.

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