Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The symbolism of congestion pricing

Congestion pricing readers on the FDR Drive at 60th Street

Since Governor Hochul announced her "indefinite pause" on congestion pricing on June 7, I've been one of several people who pointed out that it would have improved almost everyone's lives. The people who currently walk, bike or ride transit would have a lot less cars to deal with, and a lot more funding for the transportation modes they use. The people who would pay the toll would spend a lot less time stuck in traffic than they do now. The people who wouldn't pay the toll would have a better commute by transit than their crappy current driving commute. And people who don't commute would benefit from cleaner air, less noise, less carnage and less wasted space.

So it's kind of puzzling why there's a group of people who really hate the idea of congestion pricing. And they're not all just upset about losing their discounted trip at taxpayer expense. Some of them are intensely, viscerally offended by the very idea, and desperate to stop it at almost any cost.

The people who are intensely offended are completely immune to reason on this. You and I may know that their business would save money by not having its workers stuck in traffic. We may know that the subway is way less violent than the highways. We may know that everyone's long term prosperity will be much greater if we're not wasting money, space and fossil fuels transporting three-ton easy chairs around with every individual. But they won't hear it.

They are intensely offended by the idea that they should pay extra every time they want to bring a large, heavy piece of machinery with them into Manhattan, just as they are offended by the idea that they should pay to leave that vehicle on the street overnight, that they should not be allowed to leave the vehicle in the middle of the street blocking a bus, or on the sidewalk, that sometimes a bus full of people or a person on a bicycle might be moving faster than them.

Why are they so offended? Because they were taught for years that cars are a mechanism for prosperity. Not only that by buying a car they raised themselves up in the social hierarchy, but that our government, and in fact all of our society, is aimed at helping them to prosper through their cars.

For these drivers, the government raises them up through free parking, or at least cheap parking. Powerful government figures give them free parking on holidays, free parking on residential streets, in the suburbs, at their country houses. These patrons do what they can to keep the tolls cheap, gas prices cheap, and parking cheap when it isn't free. They provide parking placards to hardworking civil servants and to people who do favors for them. And they look the other way when drivers double park, park on the sidewalk, go faster than the speed limit, and maybe even kill somebody once in a while. Because these drivers were just trying to take care of themselves and their families.

This free parking, cheap parking, cheap gas, cheap tolls, free sidewalk parking, and the occasional free killing are all aimed at lifting people up. Not lifting everyone up, but just the people who deserve it. And they know who deserves it because those people have bought into the system by buying a car and busting their asses to make the car payments, insurance payments, repair bills, gas, tolls, tickets.

Of course that's all bullshit. Of all the possible ways you could lift people up and generate prosperity, subsidizing driving is one of the most dangerous and destructive, and in a lot of ways it's just fucking mean. The fact that someone owns a car doesn't make them any more deserving of anything. The way cars enable people to bully other people is hugely problematic. See the entire rest of this blog for details.

And this is why a certain group of people is so deeply offended by congestion pricing. It calls them on this bullshit. Like bus lanes, bike lanes, open streets and pedestrian plazas, congestion pricing says that there is nothing about owning and using a car that makes a person any more deserving; in fact, they're causing damage, destruction and death everywhere they pilot the thing. And so many of them have built their lives around owning a car as their ticket to prosperity.

Congestion pricing offends drivers the same way that tearing down Confederate statues offends my cousins in Texas. The same way that providing decent housing and food for people who just got here from South America offends some people.vCongestion pricing is an official recognition by the government of the State of New York that driving is an antisocial activity. And that's why it would be such a victory for humanity, decency and compassion if it happens, and such a setback if it doesn't.

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