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Like the horse and buggy one hundred years ago, the automobile is no longer viewed so favorably as a means of getting around. It is regarded as nearly as foul and smelly as the horses that at the turn of the century deposited some 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets of New York. In addition to their own waste, horses died and had to be disposed of, posing a significant public health risk. Approximately 15,000 dead horses were removed from the streets of New York each year.
Thus when the car was developed and Henry Ford figured out how to mass- produce them so that more and more Americans could have one, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing. (That is not to say it was embraced immediately or without skepticism. There was, in fact, much resistance to the automobile initially and according to Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, “Equestrians, pedestrians, and carriage riders alike complained that the foul-smelling, noisy cars frightened horses, disrupted the decorum of the carriage parade, and ruined their own retreat to nature.”) We would all be masters of our own universe. No more manure, no more urine, and no more dead horses. But like many improvements, technological or otherwise the automobile has outlived its golden age and is now viewed as a menace, a destructive force responsible for our polluted skies, our crowded streets, and our dystopian suburban landscape, ever widening into mega-regions that connect cities and suburbs in a kind of galactic sprawl.
Just as it was once hailed as a symbol of freedom, mobility, and the future the car is now a symbol of excess (the SUV), entrapment (as embodied by the hours long commute or traffic jam), and the past. Today we criticize India and China for their own auto craze as if they’re living through a historical period that has already passed. And in the enlightened West we’re buying green cars and trying to reconcile our lifestyles with a desire to drive guilt free. The clear answer to the question posed by J.G. Ballard in his1986 essay, “Autopia or Autogeddon?” is the latter. But autopia still exists, if only in a kind of museum like form. It’s the only original attraction still operating at Disney’s Tomorrowland, which opened in 1955 not long before Eisenhower signed the interstate highway act. (Incidentally that was the same year that the Air Pollution Control Act was passed — a piece of legislation that would be instrumental in creating automobile emission standards — and that the Columbia economist and future Nobel Prize winner William Vickrey introduced the idea of congestion pricing in an article entitled, “A Proposal for Revising New York’s Subway Fare Structure.”)
We live in a world dominated by the automobile. The Texas Transportation Institute’s 2007 Urban Mobility Report, which notes that the nationwide cost of traffic congestion is $78 billion, opens ominously with the observation that congestion is “getting worse in regions of all sizes.” And not only in the first world. Although the number of cars per capita in India and China remains far smaller than that of America, it is growing. According to Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, “Assuming that incomes continue to rise, in a few years tens of millions of families [in India and China] will be buying their first cars, and eventually hundreds of millions.” It is projected that by 2020 nearly half of the world’s 1.3 billion cars will clog the streets of poorer countries.
Clearly we’ve reached a breaking point, which may to some degree explain the interest in congestion pricing as a way to reduce traffic, improve air quality, and raise revenue for mass transit. The success of congestion pricing in London has had something of a ripple effect and many other European cities from Berlin to Milan are introducing pricing schemes in an attempt to curb pollution and even modify patterns of consumption. In Germany, emission zones have been created in a number of cities. Vehicles must exhibit an environmental badge in order to drive into certain parts of Berlin, Cologne, and Hanover. If they do not have a badge — and high emission vehicles will not receive one — they will be fined $60. Milan, one of Europe’s most heavily polluted cities, now charges 10 euros to enter what it has dubbed an eco-pass area in the center of the city. Hybrid and electric cars will not be charged and revenue will be invested in mass transit, bicycle paths, and green vehicles. London too has created an emission zone where vehicles will be charged based on how much they pollute.
The United States has been much slower to introduce congestion pricing, as well as smart cars, and in NY the idea has been met with considerable resistance. Last year on Earth Day, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as part of a 30-year development plan for the city, made the case for congestion pricing. The subject has received a disproportionate amount of press coverage considering that it was only one of 127 initiatives but it is far from certain that the city council and state legislature will approve the plan in its current form. In order to receive $350 million in federal funding, the plan must be approved by March 31.
Opponents of the plan, led by Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free, have seized on the argument that congestion pricing is a “tax” on the poor and therefore unfair and that Manhattan will become a playground for the rich, a golden ghetto (they forget that, in many ways, it already is). The automobile is for everyone, they say, and why should residents in the Bronx or Queens have to pay $8 to enter Manhattan. They neglect to mention, however, that most commuters do not drive (roughly 5 percent of the workforce) and that those who do drive earn considerably more on average than bus or subway riders. A study by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that the median annual income of those who drive private cars to work exceeds the earnings of other commuters by 30 percent. According to the study, “these findings largely counter concerns that congestion pricing would disproportionately affect workers less able to afford additional commuting costs.” Thus it would be more accurate to say that congestion pricing imposes a fee on upper middle class and wealthy drivers in an effort to improve public transit, especially buses.
Just a few years ago the mayor, after winning re-election, said that congestion pricing was not on his second term agenda. That it has been raised at all is perhaps a sign of progress. But it is too early to know whether the automobile will go the way of the horse and buggy.
ADAM FEDERMAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org