Cars shouldn’t be a necessity for living

A cityscape at night, with highways densely clogged with traffic

Once again, my state’s elected leadership has let its people down:

The MTA is pushing “pause” on New York City’s first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan indefinitely, according to an official briefed on the plans. The toll program, years in the making, had been set to roll out later this month.

No new start date has been set.

After years of fighting, New York City was finally about to implement congestion pricing. The plan was to charge a $15 toll to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street during the daytime. All the agreements had been struck, all the technology had been put in place. There were roadside billboards advertising that it was set to begin on June 30.

Then, at the last possible minute, Gov. Kathy Hochul – who’d previously been a supporter of congestion pricing – flip-flopped and pulled the plug on it. She gave no explanation for her sudden change of heart, other than mealy-mouthed excuses about how more studies were needed.

The revenue from congestion pricing had been earmarked for the MTA, New York’s transit agency. The cancellation blows a $15 billion hole in their budget, which Hochul’s plan to fix was… nothing. The legislature convened to debate the problem, but they too threw up their hands and went home without doing anything.

I can’t be the only one who finds driving unpleasant. It’s expensive, tedious, stressful and dangerous. We lose countless hours of our lives to sitting in traffic or circling to look for parking. We spend huge sums of money on car payments, insurance, registration, gas and tolls. Most of us put up with this because we’ve grown up with it and we think of it as normal – but, like many popular assumptions, it pays to question it. There’s a better way to live.

In an ideal world, walking, biking, and mass transit would be the default ways of getting around. We’d live in pleasant, human-scale neighborhoods with dense housing, amenities like shops, restaurants and libraries within easy strolling distance, and public parks and green space for recreation. When we had to travel longer distances, there would be a wealth of clean, quiet, efficient options: electric buses, streetcars, subways and trains on convenient schedules.

Instead, we’ve designed a society where cars are the only feasible way for most people to get around. This causes all the evils of car culture: perpetual traffic jams, impassable highways bisecting neighborhoods, huge swaths of valuable space devoted to parking, huge amounts of precious time lost to commuting, and a steady toll of deaths and injuries in crashes.

And the costs aren’t only borne by drivers. People who live along those gridlocked roads have to breathe the air pollution that’s belched out by cars and trucks idling under their windows. Some neighborhoods in the Bronx are called “Asthma Alley” for their high rates of respiratory disease. And of course, the more cars are on the road, the more damage is done to the climate by burning fossil fuels.

The only way to fix this is to make driving a less attractive option, by raising tolls and parking fees, and make the alternatives more attractive, by investing in mass transit. If the costs of driving are high enough, people will switch to something else. It’s a win-win: less traffic for the people who truly have to drive, less pollution for all of us. This is the reasoning behind congestion pricing.

The problem is the psychological tendency of loss aversion. People get angry when they have to pay for something that used to be “free” – even though driving isn’t free and never was. Arguably, it’s the most expensive means of traveling. But because many of the costs are externalized onto society, individual commuters perceive it as better than mass transit. Naturally, they’ll protest if they perceive the cost of driving as going up (even though it’s not a new cost, it’s the true cost, which congestion pricing would have put on the responsible parties for the first time).

Politicians like Hochul are terrified of that anger, especially from white surburbanites who are shaping up to be a critical swing vote. But if they let fear of backlash drive every decision, nothing will ever change. For the world to improve, someone has to have the imagination to envision how the world could be better, and the courage to fight for that vision and turn it into reality. This debacle shows that even many allegedly liberal politicians lack that imagination and that courage.


  1. says

    Instead, we’ve designed a society where cars are the only feasible way for most people to get around.

    This is really at the core of the problem. To reduce the number of cars, we have to make it realistic for people to manage without and that will require a fundamental restructuring of the entire way we live. It’s going to require rebuilding entire cities, while people are still living in them. It’s going to hurt.

  2. JM says

    I can’t be the only one who finds driving unpleasant.

    I’m sure your not, just remember that there is also a significant portion of the population that enjoy it. From relaxing on a long drive with open road to backing a loaded trailer into an awkwardly placed parking space it can be fun.
    If resources were unlimited my ideal world would spacing the housing far enough apart that you never had to see another person on a day to day basis.

  3. Allison says

    Not that I disagree with your complaint. I live in the NYC area, and I was disappointed in her decision (though it’s an indication of how New York State is organized that one person has the power to reverse a decision made by a large number of components of the government.)

    But I’m a little perplexed by your choice of photo to illustrate your post — it’s not clear what a picture of heavy traffic in Jakarta (Indonesia) has to do with NYC congestion pricing.

    • says

      I wanted to use a photo of traffic in NYC, but I couldn’t find any good ones that were free to use. Anyway, congestion pricing is a good idea everywhere, not just here!

  4. Katydid says

    Agree 100% about the walkability. There are some efforts in my area, with some success. For example, my son lives in a planned community where there are paved walking trails and sidewalks 20 feet from his door. The community’s central shopping center (100 yards from his place) offers a grocery store, bank, gas station, a number of dining options, an ice cream-and-coffee chain, a liquor store, and some other random shops. He’ll walk to the grocery store if he needs something quick (e.g. eggs or bread) because it’s faster and easier than to drive over and park. He and his wife walk to the restaurants and leave the car in their garage. They ride bikes on the trails on the weekends.

    On the other hand, there’s another planned community 20 minutes away, created in the 1960s, built along the same lines (walking trails, sidewalks, central shopping hub) where the current residents look at you as if you’re insane when you ask why they drove a quarter-mile to the library on a beautiful spring day.

    Where I live, walking or riding a bike means putting your life at risk (literally; there have been a number of bike-car fatalities). The solution is to have bike lanes that start and stop, running about 50 yards before disappearing for another mile. That doesn’t help at all. Public transpotation? I wish! The nearest bus stop is about 20 miles away, and the light rail is on a very prohibitive schedule, with no parking nearby the station.

    We really need to change the mindset

  5. Paul S says

    Well, there’s always going to be pushback from those who insist that these measures are an attack on freedom or the like. Not to mention how cars are held up as symbols of independence, status and pride. These are all very alluring notions that set off feelings of satisfaction and gratification in many and are so very, very hard to shake off. The idea of “You can’t tell me what to do!” really does appeal to some kind of primal urge inside the mind and it’s no wonder why so many are willing to insist upon and fight for this notion, no matter how negative the consequences.

    I’ve been having this conflict internally over the last several months and believe me, it’s rather distressing. It’s a mindset that is very addictive, and like any other addiction it is very hard to overcome. Hoping I can get back to being my old self.

  6. anat says

    Highly recommended: Happy City by Charles Montgomery – all about what is wrong with US cities and suburbs (but not only in the US), how cities in various countries solved such problems, how US suburbs can be healed.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Politicians like Hochul are terrified of that anger, especially from white surburbanites …

    Oil/automotive corporations and their henchcompanies probably also stoke Hochul’s nightmares.


    The Seattle area has been using congestion pricing on one lane of particularly congested stretches of freeway. Pricing throughout the day is flexible, goes up as a way of regulating use. A common public complaint (but not a primary governmental principal) is Why do rich people get to buy their way out of the inconveniences of public spaces?

  9. Bekenstein Bound says

    She gave no explanation for her sudden change of heart

    Undoubtedly the explanation begins with a dollar sign and ends with a bunch of zeroes.

    • says

      That would explain it if she were against congestion pricing all along. But it doesn’t explain why she flip-flopped at the eleventh hour – I can’t imagine that car lobbyists weren’t involved in this from the beginning.

  10. Slinky's Human says

    I recently eavesdropped on a work Teams chat and someone asserted that our town (Lawrence, KS #lfk) is a car culture that just requires driving. I didn’t argue this time, because I’ve made my pitch before, but this person had chosen to live several miles from our office. I’ve intentionally lived within walking or biking distance from work the entire 35ish years I’ve lived here. Currently I live near downtown and although I now work from home and rarely need to, I can walk to our office in 10 minutes. I can also walk to a grocery store, to several brewpubs and other restaurants, to several music venues, to my eye doctor, to my dentist, to my accountant, and to my lawyer. I do drive for big grocery stock up runs, but most months I walk more miles than I drive. I always have to option to user our excellent bus service. Driving is often a choice.

    • says

      Excellent comment!

      While many American cities are hostile to walking and biking (I live near some Long Island suburbs that don’t even have sidewalks – you pretty much have to have a car just to leave your house), not all of them are. There are often alternatives that habitual drivers are unaware of because they aren’t looking for them.

  11. Katydid says

    @slinky; that depends. Where I live, most of the jobs that pay enough to live on are located in office parks, nowhere near public transportation or anywhere to live. I lived in the city for about 20 years and enjoyed the amenities you described, but I had to drive to work because there was no other way to get there.

  12. says

    She gave no explanation for her sudden change of heart…

    Yeah, she did: she said the extra cost would be a horrible burden to people who were already (and let’s face it, always) financially hurting. So we can all bet she’ll use exactly the same excuse to scuttle ANY other proposal to deal with congestion or improve public transit as well.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve intentionally lived within walking or biking distance from work the entire 35ish years I’ve lived here

    Wow. Dripping privilege. Over the last 35 years I’ve lived in four different places because my job has changed and I’ve had to move with it. My most recent move was to a house a reasonable car commute from the job I moved for, but I’m glad I didn’t move to within walking/biking distance because it only lasted two years. If I wanted a house like the one I’m in now within walking/biking distance of my current job I’d have to find, literally, a million pounds… (I don’t have a million pounds) and that would put me close to only one of the two sites I regularly have to be at.

    I’ve tried using public transport to commute, but that was when I was single. Now I have a wife and kids I’m simply not prepared to sacrifice the additional three to four hours per day it would take.

    I’m all for congestion charging, however – assuming that BEFORE they’re applied the city applying them FIRST sets up cheap, frequent, RELIABLE park-and-ride schemes to get people into the zone from outside it.

    But sharing a car with others? OK… does it come fitted with child seats? I’m in a hurry, I don’t have time to clean up the vomit from the last trip, here you go, have fun. The problem for tree-huggers is I and others have got used to being able to e.g. strap a canoe to the roof, push off to the middle of nowhere, park the car up and paddle away and not come back for three days… typically somewhere where there’s no mobile coverage. Offer me a car that has to be time-consumingly recharged every couple of hundred miles, or less if it’s a bit chilly, then no thanks. Expect me to HIRE a car to do this sort of activity, and inevitably pay ludicrous prices to fix the inevitable bumps and scrapes from getting the boat on and off or whatever, then again, no thanks. Hiring a car is a shitshow as anyone who’s tried to actually do it would know. Electric cars are not (yet) fit for purpose. The public is being bounced into this brave new world without their consent, and it’s not going to be pretty. I’m hanging onto my ICE cars for as long as humanly possible. They’re both still getting over 50mpg, even though they’ve both done over 100,000 miles. Show me an electric car, ANY electric car that’s still capable of its full range after that kind of use, then I’ll consider one. Do make sure it can seat seven, or I won’t be considering it for long, since that’s what it’s replacing.

    I *want* an electric car. I’m just not interested in one that’s objectively worse than my existing one on so many, many factors.

  14. Todd McInroy says

    sonofrojblake, good comment, also if you or your partner have any disability, all non car options are much more dificult. Shopping is also more dificult, needing several trips a week just for groceries, you can only buy what’s close without a long trip. I have long been frustrated by Public Radio shows that one week have an expert telling us that we will all have many jobs in or lives, and the next week a different expert telling us to live close to work and shopping.
    I just bought a 2013 Nissan Leaf but I have the privlege of a house and garage, a place to plug it in and a place for a gasoline car for long range trips. If I still lived in an apartment I probably would have no place to charge it.

  15. anat says

    The two of us have been commuting by bus for the last 13 years or so. It takes me about an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening, but the commute also includes about 3 miles of walking and allows me to read so no time gets wasted. The main reason we still have a car at all is for errands. If Costco did deliveries we would seriously consider doing away with a car altogether. We never owned more than one car at a time, so my kid grew up viewing walking and busing as normal ways to get to places. Now he too commutes by bus.

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