Easing Gridlock in Gotham

What's ahead for New York's radical plan for relieving traffic.

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Traffic creeping along Seventh Avenue near Times Square.

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The trip from Plainfield, N.J., into lower Manhattan takes McCord Fitzsimmons about 45 minutes on a good day. That's when he can avoid rush-hour traffic, which turns the same commute into a 2½-hour slog. The satellite radio helps, but "the stop-and-go can drive you crazy," he says. Savvy New Yorkers know the subways are the fastest way to get around, but that doesn't help Fitzsimmons, a video technician who needs to drive for his job.

If Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way, however, the drive time for Fitzsimmons and thousands of other commuters may plummet. From a mayor who frequently rides the subway and recently imposed a smoking ban in bars, the plan promises to clean up the air and speed commerce in the Big Apple. It calls for a daytime tax on vehicles—about $8 for cars and $21 for trucks—traveling through most of Manhattan. Fees would go to improve and expand mass transit.

So-called congestion pricing, which was impossible a decade ago because of technological limitations, could solve one of the most vexing issues of modern urban planning. Since the 1920s, the number of vehicles entering downtown Manhattan has grown annually by an average of 8,000 per day. Back then, the only option for cutting the number of cars was to increase tolls on the bridges crossing the East and Hudson rivers, an imprecise tool since cars could simply use alternate routes. Now, more than 800,000 cars and trucks enter Manhattan south of 60th Street every day, many without charge. Studies predict that the system, which uses license plate-scanning cameras along with EZ Pass toll collectors, could reduce the number of vehicles by 40,000 to 100,000 per day. The federal government is closely watching the experiment and has offered the city $354 million if the plan comes to fruition.

Model city. New York is looking at other cities, particularly London, as models. In 2003, London introduced a congestion fee of $14 per car in a large area of downtown. In the first few years, it cut traffic volume by 16 percent. Since then, additional road construction and changing traffic patterns have pushed those commute times back up. Private cars in London now drive fewer miles in the congestion zone, but taxis and buses drive more. New York officials are also trying to anticipate unintended consequences: Additional taxis (exempted from fees) and trucks, for instance, may surge into lower Manhattan.

This month, a state commission will recommend ways to implement the congestion pricing plan, which may also require that taxis stop at designated stands rather than on any corner and limit daytime truck deliveries. Raising the cost of on-street parking is another option. And some experts have called for a system that allows cars to be driven only on certain days; cars with license plate sequences ending with the numeral 5, for example, would not be allowed to drive on days of the month ending with a 5.

Perhaps the biggest problem is how to apportion the burden of the new system. City estimates show that the plan would hit drivers from Queens heaviest, because more of them drive. One New York assemblyman said the plan is unfair to his poor constituents and would "keep out Chevrolets but not the BMWs and Jaguars." Studies, however, show that most people who drive to New York are wealthier than the average mass transit rider, meaning that the costs would be carried mostly by wealthier drivers.