“Congestion pricing is just one of many tools that will help tame some of the city street chaos a generation of car-centric planning left us with. And one of the primary benefactors of congestion pricing will be automobile drivers themselves.”

42nd Street and 6th Avenues in Manhattan.

Adi Talwar

Friday evening traffic near Times Square.

Hundreds of supporters and critics of the city’s proposed congestion pricing tolling plan sounded off at a final public hearing with MTA officials on March 4 in lower Manhattan.

Among the critics was New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who phoned in a claim that congestion pricing was not about congestion or the environment, but instead a means to solve the MTA’s deficit. The toll would be “backbreaking” for New Jersey commuters and would displace pollution from Manhattan to parts of New Jersey, the governor said.

Displace pollution from Manhattan to New Jersey? Cry me a carbon-free river.

Three to four days each week, I commute from Brooklyn to my job in lower Manhattan by bicycle. The route to the Brooklyn bridge takes me north from where I live in Carroll Gardens along a narrow, unprotected bike lane on Clinton Street to downtown Brooklyn and the entrance onto the bridge’s two-way bike path, which by the way, is right next to the car lanes headed into Manhattan. Along the way, I pass what seems like hundreds of cars, most of them oversized SUVs, inching slowly along like a crowded herd of angry hippos.

More than 90 percent of the time, the number of individuals inside those cars, both big and small, is just one.  I’d wager the same is true for the scores of private cars heading in from New Jersey and beyond.

This being New York City, the demand for real estate will always outweigh supply—and that includes space on our city streets, which in Manhattan’s case, are filled to capacity with big, loud, carbon-belching automobiles. Considering the toll they take on the rest of us, automobile drivers have been getting an absurdly generous deal for that valuable space.

Streets are our largest public spaces. Yet, with 19,000 lane miles and three million street parking spots, New York City surrenders an astonishing amount of these precious public assets to automobiles, free of charge. Our streets should be valued by imposing monetary costs on the automobile drivers who crowd onto them each day.

Like the majority of city residents, I don’t have a car. I’ve not owned a car since I moved to New York City from the car-loving deep south more than three decades ago. I never really wanted the burden of owning, driving and storing a car. Besides that, I’ve always been a bicycling or public transit commuter.

New Yorkers own fewer than a third as many cars per capita as the average U.S. urban resident (about 23 per 100 residents compared to about 77 per 100 in most urban areas). Across the five boroughs, around 45 percent of residents own a car but only a fraction of those individuals commute by car to work in Manhattan each day.  The Traffic Mobility Review Board has said 150,000 people travel by car into Manhattan for work, while nearly 1 million take public transit.

And that makes Gov. Murphy’s whining about the burdens a tolling system will place on a tiny yet very vocal group of New Jersey drivers all the more grating.

In addition to our city tax dollars paying for the constant repairs to damage done to our infrastructure caused by congestion, we should also call out the mental and physical health toll automobiles wreak on pedestrians, cyclists and city residents.

Cars rattle our nerves and they inflict bone crushing, life changing and crippling injuries upon thousands of New Yorkers each year. Cars kill cats, birds and dogs. More heartbreaking, we lost nearly 100 pedestrians to auto violence in 2023 and a record number of cyclists were killed by drivers as well. Vision Zero is still just a vision today because of irresponsible and often entitled automobile drivers.

That sense of entitlement has its roots in the decades of destructive, car-centric urban planning from the likes of highway-happy power broker Robert Moses, who for all his accomplishments was inexcusably hostile to public transportation. It’s through no fault of our own, that no matter what part of the United States we come from, we’re conditioned early on to believe streets and roads were created solely for the automobile’s use.

Congestion pricing is just one of many tools that will help tame some of the city street chaos a generation of car-centric planning left us with. And, one of the primary benefactors of congestion pricing will be automobile drivers themselves.  

In 10 years, New Yorkers will probably look back on the days of toll-free driving in Manhattan’s central business district—and, hopefully someday too, at the absurdity of free on street parking—with bemusement.

Congestion pricing is a step forward into the sort of city I want to live in; a city with an even more extensive, fast moving and reliable transit system, a city where riding a bicycle or other micro-mobility device is not only safe, but seen as the norm.

I also want to live in a city where pedestrians don’t have to spend so much time worrying about dodging aggressive drivers, who are understandably angry after being stuck in Manhattan congestion for hours at a time. 

Cody Lyon is a former journalist and a Manhattan Community Board 1 member.