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Government | Internet

September 13, 2010

Solving New York's Traffic Problem

Charles Komanoff has figured out how to limit congestion in New York. Now he just has to get everyone on board the congestion pricing bus.

James Curcuru

Charles Komanoff has been trying to advance alternatives to the car-centric transit model for decades. Few American cities have the necessary public-transportation infrastructure to make radically different transportation models immediately feasible, but New York City does. It is no coincidence that this is where Komanoff focuses his efforts.

Among numerous other things, the economist and statistician advocates for congestion pricing programs. Successful pricing programs, such as those in London, Stockholm, and Singapore, discourage motorists from driving at the most heavily-trafficked times of day and funnel them onto public transportation or roads less traveled. These plans reduce congestion, travel times, and pollution, and raise money for governments to maintain transportation infrastructure.

Charles Komanoff
"The politics of congestion pricing are so tricky and sensitive we feel the ground has to be thoroughly prepared to bring potential allies on board."

Charles Komanoff

Over the past few years, Komanoff and his associates have been developing a comprehensive congestion-pricing initiative contoured to the particulars of the city's complex landscape. TheKheel-Komanoff Plan (KKP) would impose tolls on all vehicle traffic entering Manhattan's Central Business District—or anywhere below 60th street—using an electronic device similar to an E-ZPass. It would also add a 30% surcharge to all medallion taxi trips. The net revenue of these tolls would be used to sustain, rehabilitate, and potentially expand the city's true transportation lifeblood: its ailing public transit network.

Komanoff claims that commercial interests would also benefit. "We believe that the enormous benefits to public transit, combined with the impressive driver-time savings, will make for a quantum improvement in economic vitality as well as quality of life for NYC," he says. As any delivery-truck driver idling in traffic will tell you, time wasted is money wasted.

The KKP recommends a one-way toll as high as $9 for all passenger vehicles entering the Central Business District and $18 for commercial traffic. "Higher truck tolls are justified by trucks' larger physical footprint, which translates to greater delay-costs for other road users," says Komanoff.

These rather specific suggestions are derived from the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, a painstakingly detailed Excel spreadsheet designed to allow anyone to come up with their own congestion pricing plan, and see the benefits for themselves.

The BTA has inputs for an almost dizzying array of variables. It allows interested individuals to engage the very same algorithmic applications Komanoff used to determine the specific pricing criteria found in the KKP. Users can substantiate the data behind Komanoff's plan or devise a largely customizable cost-benefit analysis of their own. Using the BTA, "anyone can input his or her own congestion pricing program," says Komanoff. "It has to meet certain parameters, including the Central Business District as the tolled zone. You can input how much the tolls should be, and adjust them for different hours of the day: how much it should be on weekdays versus weekends, as well; as high as they want them to be, all the way down to zero. It also adjusts the time-savings and environmental benefits accordingly."

The intention of the BTA's interactive features is to allow seemingly dry applications of empirical analysis to be experienced in more tangible terms, so that they may take on a more communicative form. A central theme among all of Komanoff's work has been translating hard data, such as is found in the KKP, into more accessible, human terms, or as his wife has put it, "making numbers speak."

Of course, Komanoff is not the only New Yorker to propose a high-profile congestion pricing plan. In April 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a similarly minded traffic-pricing plan that was to charge an $8 toll to enter the CBD. Aside from scoring some high-profile endorsements—including from soon-to-be-disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Spitzer's successor Gov. David Patterson, and eventually President Obama—the Bloomberg administration's efforts to arouse public confidence in the plan mostly didn't succeed. Unable to assure the public of congestion pricing's merits early on, Bloomberg was put on the defensive, and never seemed to secure control of the conversation.

For Komanoff, the failure of Bloomberg's plan showed that good intentions alone don't sell good policy. When the KKP's public-relations campaign is launched in earnest later this year or early next—Facebook, Twitter accounts, and all—"we're going to be proposing ways to apply that revenue stream that are palpable, credible, and reliable. That way we can get public-transit users to not be merely tolerant of the plan, but enthusiastic supporters."

The content of the KKP has long been public, but Komanoff and his associates have decided to remain tight-lipped about the status of the ongoing charm offensive taking place behind closed doors. "What I can say is there is education and outreach, and even a modicum of political organizing," says Komanoff. "The politics are so tricky and sensitive we feel the ground has to be thoroughly prepared to bring potential allies on board." Without political support, the KKP would suffer the same fate as the Bloomberg plan. Komanoff puts more confidence in the power of public opinion, however, and believes that with patience and persistence, dreamy aspirations can indeed bring about change.

Slowly nudging the public outside of its comfort zone, to become more receptive to alternative lines of thought, is something Komanoff has excelled at before. While his main focus is ensuring that the KKP's chances of success are fully realized, he also is deeply devoted to pursuits more corporeal than numbers-crunching. An ardent cyclist, Komanoff has spent a great deal of his life advocating on behalf of a more bike-friendly New York. In the mid-1980s, Komanoff accepted an offer to serve as president of Transportation Alternatives, a public-transit advocacy group that had been languishing at the time. Its commitment was then, as now, to call attention to public transport and bicyclist issues. Today, however, it is not languishing; many of Transportation Alternatives' ideas have found their way into Bloomberg administration policy. Komanoff is no longer a driving force there, but his ties to the organization and its credo remain intact.

Swaying the public to support unorthodox or even unprecedented ideas is a hard sell in any era, and particularly challenging in a trying economy. Komanoff holds his successes promoting cyclist awareness as the achievement he's most proud of. "I got involved in that in the mid-1980s, when to self-identify as a cyclist in NYC or any other city was to risk one's credibility. It was seen as fringe, bizarre." As any random twentysomething in Brooklyn will tell you, those notions are largely a thing of the past, and continue to fade with each passing year. "Now a whole new generation of bike advocates, some of who happen to work for the city, implement policies that we could only dream about 20 or 25 years ago," says Komanoff. "Those successes really give me a lot of hope and staying power for some of the stuff that I'm interested in now."

James Curcuru

James Curcuru is your average post-collegiate wunderkind looking for kicks from the printed word. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Article by James Curcuru

James Curcuru is your average post-collegiate wunderkind looking for kicks from the printed word. He lives in Brooklyn.

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