(New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlines PlaNYC proposals)
In the coming days, the U.S. Government will make a critical decision that has the potential to change America’s standing in the world: whether to approve a $537 million grant that will help make New York City the first environmentally sustainable megacity in the 21st century.
Officials at the Department of Transportation must appreciate that their decision to fund Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s visionary PlaNYC will determine the quality of air that more than 10 million New Yorkers breathe daily and the amount of CO2 emissions the city coughs into the atmosphere.
Already, New York City produces more carbon dioxide emissions than the whole of Norway. More importantly, officials must realize that their actions will determine America’s response to the global challenge of unparalleled urbanization and carbon induced climate change.
This year, for the first time in human history, more people will live in urban areas than rural communities. In the U.S., the urban population has grown from 97 million in 1950 to 222 million in 2000. Today, nearly 80 percent of America lives in urban areas. Such unprecedented and unplanned urbanization wreaks environmental havoc by increasing carbon emissions, since higher population density results in greater automobile and energy use.
PlaNYC encourages the use of public transportation systems by creating real disincentives to automobile use. The proposed congestion charge on automobile use during peak times in select parts of the city will reduce traffic and generate revenue that would go toward improving public transportation.
Mayor Bloomberg’s plan comes at the right time for a city burdened by worsening traffic and pollution problems.
Nearly a fifth of New York City’s carbon dioxide emissions are caused by vehicles. Traffic congestion, in particular, is not only environmentally detrimental; it also imposes substantial time and resource costs on drivers. Americans lose around 3.7 billion hours and 2.3 billion gallons of fuel sitting in traffic jams. This translates to an annual cost of around $200 billion. Due to congestion, New Yorkers face the highest commute time in the nation, and their children have the highest rate of child asthma hospitalization.
The program would charge the 4.6% of New York City residents who drive to work, while its benefits would accrue to everyone.
New Yorkers will enjoy cleaner air, shorter commutes, higher average speed times, and better public transportation. Neither the economy in general, nor the retail sector in particular, should be adversely affected by the plan. In fact service and delivery providers in Manhattan, among others, will benefit from shorter travel times and fewer delays.
However, despite its many advantages congestion pricing faces some skepticism. Fortunately, we can learn from other cities such as Stockholm, Singapore and London which have successfully implemented congestion charges. In all cities, CO2 emissions declined sharply and congestion was significantly reduced, with Singapore experiencing an immediate 45% drop in traffic. These cities have also benefited from more efficient public transportation.
In London, bus-travel rose by 46%. According to an independent report, almost 60% of the businesses in London judged the program’s impact on the economy as positive or neutral.
The bottom line is that in an automobile dependent America needs smart solutions for environmentally sustainable development. Having one of the largest urban population and the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. has the responsibility – and the means – to lead the world on this front.
If we do not act soon, American cities will not only lag behind European capitals but also developing country cities such as Bogota (Colombia) and Curitiba (Brazil), which are already implementing innovative environmentally friendly solutions.
As the largest city in the country, New York is an ideal candidate for creating a blueprint for cleaner and more efficient urbanization in the U.S. and the world.
— James Wolfensohn
James Wolfensohn is founder of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution. He previously served as President of the World Bank and most recently as Special Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East