Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Death of the NYC Congestion Charge: Different Views of a Hicksian Pareto Improvement

Economists like policies where the winners win more than the losers lose. But, we often see cases where such "hicksian pareto improvements" do not become policy. Yes, the losers weren't compensated or didn't expect to be compensated or lacked the imagination to forsee that they could have benefited from the new policy.

Here is an interesting set of letters. The relevant urban economics is the belief that the winners from this congestion charge policy would have been rich center city residents (higher speeds, greener city, and diminishing returns to income) while the losers would be "car dependent" middle class suburbanites and outer-borough people.

New York Times Letters
April 9, 2008
The Defeat of Congestion Pricing
To the Editor:

Re “$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Fails in Albany” (front page, April 8):

The defeat of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s revolutionary plan to limit the role of the automobile in the nation’s largest city will mean an annual loss of $13 billion to the city’s economy in lost time and wasted fuel, the loss of $354 million in federal mass transit aid, including 367 new buses, as well as improved air quality.

What has been lost is a cleaner, quieter, quicker city. The plan was unpopular especially outside of Manhattan. The New York State Legislature, unlike the City Council, was apparently unwilling to look at the long-term benefits, but focused instead on the short-term politics.

We have lost a historic opportunity for the people of this city. Who knows when it will come again?

Peter H. Kostmayer
President, Citizens Committee for New York City
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

Bravo to the Assembly for batting down Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. It’s difficult to see this as anything but a tax on the lower-income citizens. If the goal was to reduce traffic in the city, a monetary charge is one of the most inequitable means of achieving it, but I don’t recall any discussion of alternatives.

Mr. Bloomberg began his tenure as mayor with admirable, egalitarian action cutting city expenditures across the board. No group was spared, not even education. But beyond his fiscal sensibilities, the rest of his administration has been marred by changes that seem to cater to his personal ideals — intolerance for smoking, fatty food and now traffic.

This most recent endeavor is the most troubling because it so clearly favors the upper classes (yes, there are classes in America).

Of all the annoyances associated with living in New York City, traffic is already the most avoidable. The alternative is the good old trusty M.T.A. It’s available to all citizens, tourists and business travelers, rich or poor. And if the wealthy would like to keep public transportation beneath them, the helicopter is there to serve.

Aaron D. Ipsa
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

As I waited for the subway in this morning’s rush hour (and had to let three express trains pass before one arrived with enough room for new passengers) and waited for my crosstown bus (the M34, rated among the slowest in the city), I could not help but reflect on the damage wreaked upon our city as a result of the petty egos of members of the New York Assembly.

They claim to care about global warming, pollution, congestion and the residents of New York. What they really care about is open to question. After refusing to vote on this important issue in the open, it is clear that democracy is not among their core beliefs.

Barbara D. Paxton
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

I am deeply troubled by Albany’s standing in the way of New York City’s plan for congestion pricing. But as I rode my bicycle to work this morning across the Brooklyn Bridge, all but flying past commuters trapped in their cars in traffic, I took heart in realizing that the failure of vision in rejecting congestion pricing is the car commuters’ loss more than mine. They remain trapped in a mid-20th-century dream of freedom that has turned into a nightmare.

New York City must push ahead reapportioning its street space for people rather than cars with dedicated bus lanes and bicycle paths separated from traffic running into the core of the business district. Rising gas prices and perhaps a carbon or gas tax as well as more limited parking will have to suffice to discourage driving.

Gary Eckstein
Brooklyn, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Fails in Albany” (front page, April 8) and “Mr. Silver Does It Again” (editorial, April 8):

Yes, congestion pricing would have been good for mass transit and the environment. But instead of pointing fingers and playing the blame game, let’s carry out the good ideas that the mayor and the City Council can agree on without an Albany vote or federal aid.

Let’s send a message to the suburbanites shopping on weekends with higher meter fees and permits for Manhattan residents. Let’s send a message to the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, and introduce car-free weekends in his district on Mott Street and then expand them to other crowded pedestrian destinations like Bleecker Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue. Let’s close enough east-west streets to through traffic to efficiently connect the West and East Side bikeways with each other and the middle.

Big ideas are great, but the accumulation of lots of little traffic-congestion mitigation ideas will be as good or better. It’s the least we can do.

Edward Rosenfeld
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “Bloomberg Tactics Were Highhanded on Traffic Plan, Lawmakers Say” (news article, April 8):

Although there are myriad reasons congestion pricing failed to pass, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s secrecy among the most prominent, the claim that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s attitude was imperious is not without merit. His Honor basically scolded foes of congestion pricing without offering much in the way of inducements.

Mr. Bloomberg might want to learn a lesson his success in business should have taught him: one attracts more with honey than with vinegar.

Adam Stoler
Bronx, April 8, 2008

There is also a hilarious article today about the "costs of density" on the NYC commuter train. Read this:

April 9, 2008
A Noisy Train, a Fed-Up Rider and a Day in Court
All John Clifford wanted was a peaceful ride to work on the 7:39 to Pennsylvania Station. He would get to the Long Island Rail Road station at Long Beach early every weekday morning, board the train, stake out a five-seat section to rest his bad back, and prepare to read his newspaper and eat his breakfast.

But all around him, there would be chaos. One woman putting on full makeup while listening to her iPod and talking to friends. Another inviting guests to a barbecue and talking about personal problems. Men chatting on cellphones. They were treating the ride as a social situation, he testified in court on Tuesday, forming cliques and getting to know each other by name.

He asked the passengers to keep it down, but the chatter continued. In March 2007, Mr. Clifford had had enough. He shouted an obscenity at a passenger talking on his cellphone and slapped the hand of another, and was arrested. On Tuesday, he found himself in Manhattan Criminal Court, telling his tale.

“I stand up for my right to be let alone,” Mr. Clifford, a retired New York City police sergeant, declared from the witness stand at his nonjury trial on charges including harassment and assault.

To his accusers, Mr. Clifford, 60, was a bully who hogged five seats and had told one passenger, Donna DeCurtis, who had talked loudly, that he knew her name and where she lived, and that “I can make your life hell.” He had been arrested before, the prosecutor said, though, until now, the charges had always been dropped.

After one of those arrests, Ms. DeCurtis testified on Tuesday, “everybody just stood up and applauded.”

But Mr. Clifford testified that, deep down, many of his fellow passengers were grateful, but were too scared to speak up. “When I sit on the train it’s quiet,” he said. “I get up, people come over and shake my hand. They say: ‘Thank you. I wanted to rip her throat out.’ ”

Outside court, he compared himself to Rosa Parks, fighting for his right to sit where he wanted in peace.

“Look what happened to her,” he said, pointing out that Parks was punished for her stand against discrimination. In court, however, he sometimes sounded like the Miss Manners of the railroad, blaming the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the railroad’s parent agency, for not enforcing its own etiquette rules, which restrict noise to 70 decibels under some circumstances.

He had bought a noise meter and found that the train alone measured 70 decibels. “When you’re talking across the car it goes to 80 decibels,” he testified.

Although he seemed like a perfect client for a civil rights lawyer, he chose to represent himself. He has a law degree.

Dressed in a blue Oxford shirt, wearing glasses, and with close-cropped gray hair, he looked lawyerly as he was sworn in to testify. Mr. Clifford said that he routinely took up a section of five facing seats because he was 6-foot-4 and suffered from backaches. It was, he said, the only place where he could cross his legs to ease the pain. He offered to show his scar from a back operation to Judge Larry Stephen, who declined.

“Do I admit to being domineering?” he testified. “Yeah.”

He described his usual routine on the 7:39 or the 8:03 from Long Beach to his job as a private investigator in Manhattan: “I eat. I mind my own business. I read my paper. I get to work.” Interfering with that routine, he said, was “this clique that think it’s their absolute right to talk as long and as loud as they like.”

Only one clique? the prosecutor asked.

“There are different cliques throughout the train,” he replied. “Throughout every train.”

He said that in October 2006, Ms. DeCurtis deliberately provoked him by talking to one of her friends across the aisle.

“They’re talking from one side of the train to the other,” he testified. “That aggravates me. I can’t concentrate. I can’t catch up on current events, and it gives me a headache, so I tell them off.”

Judge Stephen gently interjected, “You can move to another car, can’t you?”

“The problem is, Your Honor, there are no seats,” Mr. Clifford replied.

He admitted that he had threatened to make Ms. DeCurtis’s life hell, but said he knew personal details about her only because she had talked about them so loudly to her friends.

“But you have to realize some of your conduct is inappropriate?” the judge asked.

“Your Honor, it only becomes inappropriate when people themselves won’t behave,” he said.

Mr. Clifford faced charges of misdemeanor assault, attempted petit larceny, harassment and disorderly conduct.

He admitted that he had cursed at a passenger, Nicholas Bender, who was talking on his cellphone, then slapped the hand of another passenger, Lydia Klein, as she tried to give her business card to Mr. Bender — but only after she slapped his hand first. The prosecutor said Mr. Clifford was trying to steal the information on the card, hence the larceny charge.

“He is not a white knight, he’s Darth Vader,” said Mary Weisgerber, the prosecutor, in her closing argument.

But after it was all done, Judge Stephen acquitted Mr. Clifford of all charges. The judge said he had discounted most of the testimony against Mr. Clifford because all but one of the witnesses had “an ax to grind.”

“While the court does not condone the defendant’s manner of getting people to remain quiet or silent on the Long Island Rail Road,” Judge Stephen said, “I see no crimes having been committed beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Railroad officials said they were disappointed. “Some of our customers feel as if they have been abused by Mr. Clifford’s behavior,” said Joe Calderone, a spokesman for the railroad. “We will not tolerate aggressive behavior by Mr. Clifford if he seeks to impose his own standards of conduct on others. We will not hesitate in the future to call on police if necessary to protect the safety of our customers and employees.”

As Mr. Clifford left the courtroom and stepped outside to light a celebratory cigar, he pronounced the judge “excellent” and even complimented the prosecutor for finding one neutral witness.

On Tuesday evening, he took the A train to the Grant Avenue-Pitkin Avenue station in Brooklyn, where he picked up his car for the drive home to Long Beach — not because he was afraid to take the commuter railroad, but because the subway was more convenient, he said. He celebrated at Shines bar.

“Believe me,” Mr. Clifford said, “I am no hero. Rosa Parks is a hero. I’m just a knucklehead.”

Al Baker and C. J. Hughes contributed reporting.