The climate impacts of New York’s newest toll

$15 seems steep to drive in Midtown? Allow us to show you to the subway…


Commuting to work in rush-hour traffic isn’t just bad for your sanity: More so than driving when the streets are clear, sitting in gridlock hurts public health and the planet. To encourage drivers to stay off the roads at peak travel times, locales like Singapore and London have started charging a toll to enter or leave during these hours. Later this spring, New York City is set to become the first city in the U.S. to try it, too.

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These policies, often called congestion pricing, can have dramatic benefits for the environment, infrastructure, and locals’ health, but they have plenty of critics. Here’s what you need to know about congestion pricing, why some people are so opposed to it, and how it’s taking hold in the U.S. and around the globe.

What exactly is congestion pricing?

Congestion pricing is when a city charges a fee for entering or leaving a particularly car-clogged area during peak hours. The aim is to reduce traffic by encouraging drivers to commute at off-peak hours or take public transit, explains Amy Turner, director of the Cities Climate Law Initiative at Columbia University. 

On June 15, New York City is set to become the first U.S. city to implement congestion pricing. Once in effect, cars that enter Manhattan below 61st Street during peak hours will be charged $15. Trucks will be charged between $24 and $36 depending on their size. Money raised from the toll can then go to projects like improving public transit. In New York, congestion pricing is expected to raise at least $1 billion per year for the MTA, the city’s public transit system. 

Does it work? 

In a word, “yes.” From a sheer balance-sheet POV, charging drivers a fee saves commuters time and businesses money. If a person would typically drive 5 miles on the city highway to and from work, congestion pricing would save them a half-hour per day, or 120 hours per year. It also allows businesses to schedule more timely deliveries, which means they won’t have to keep as much expensive backup inventory in stock. 

Additionally, the toll improves the health of nearby communities—which in many cities may contain a disproportionate number of people of color and those with lower incomes. Particulate matter emitted from vehicles increases the risk of heart disease and asthma, and nitrogen oxides in those same fumes can harm the respiratory system. With a congestion tax, fewer cars and accelerations and decelerations in stop-and-go traffic mean less pollutants from vehicles, says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. In Stockholm, for example, congestion pricing reduced childhood asthma attacks by between 5% and 15%. In London, one analysis found that curtailing traffic extended the life expectancy of people living in the city.

Why is it controversial?

The policy in New York has been in the works for decades. It was first proposed and then quashed in the 1970s, Goldstein says. In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg resurfaced it, to no avail. Now, finally, a New York City congestion tax is going to happen…probably.

The obvious and biggest complaint against congestion pricing in New York City is that driving commuters who don’t adapt to the new system will have to pay the toll. A daily $15 fee can add up over time: more than $3,500 per year for a car entering Manhattan on weekdays 48 weeks of the year.

A handful of lawsuits are trying to strike it down. Filed primarily by New Jersey and Staten Island lawmakers, these cases question whether the federally mandated environmental review process for the policy has been followed. At their core, however, the plaintiffs are representing commuters who are mad about the toll, Columbia’s Turner points out. Similarly, Goldstein of the NRDC expects that the program will launch this summer, because “these challenges are basically without legal merit.”

“It’s not as if congestion pricing alone will solve the climate crisis; no single strategy could possibly do that. But the urgency of the global warming challenge requires that everything that can practically and reasonably be done to cut back emissions from all sources needs to be advanced.”

Eric Goldstein, National Resources Defense Council

Some commuters argue that this fee is unfair for low-income people. But census data indicates that the workers who own a car and park in Manhattan are generally high earners, Turner says. Commuters who drive earn more than those who take public transit into the city, and an analysis from antipoverty nonprofit Community Service Society found that only 2% of working poor people living in the outer boroughs would potentially pay the congestion fee. In fact, the report continues, money from the fee will be spent improving public transit, so the toll will benefit many more low-income workers than it harms. Commuters who make less than $50,000 per year will be eligible for a 50% discount on the toll after 10 trips in a month.

What do we know about the climate impacts of congestion pricing?

There are two main climate benefits of congestion pricing, Goldstein says. First, it encourages commuters to take public transit rather than drive, which translates to less emissions from burning fossil fuels. This includes carbon emissions, greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, and other nitrogen oxides, which are generally considered indirect greenhouse gases because they react to create ozone. An environmental assessment estimated that congestion pricing in New York City will reduce total carbon emissions in the city and surrounding areas by 0.8%, but existing programs have seen even bigger cuts over time in city centers. One study found that London saw a 19.5% drop in vehicle emissions within a year, and estimates of reduced emissions in Stockholm are upward of 14%

Secondly, those who shift their schedules to drive at off-peak hours will use less gas, and cause those who do drive in rush hour to also use less gas, given the reduced traffic. One model from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that congestion pricing in L.A. could reduce vehicles’ carbon dioxide emissions along one highway by at least 1.65%—a reduction of 3,247 tons, equal to the emissions from about 257,698 cars. 

All eyes are on New York, as cities like Seattle and Boston consider their own congestion pricing programs. If its policy is a success, that may just be the push other U.S. cities need to roll out their own congestion fees. “It’s not as if congestion pricing alone will solve the climate crisis; no single strategy could possibly do that,” Goldstein says. “But the urgency of the global warming challenge requires that everything that can practically and reasonably be done to cut back emissions from all sources needs to be advanced.”