RIP NYC Congestion Charge

This is very sad news. Bloomberg worked hard for a congestion charge, though his political management in Albany was apparently pretty inept; the policy is sound in many ways,;and it’s simply absurd that legislators from beyond the city and its suburbs should have anything to say about it anyway. (I have to admit, having recently spent a few days in New York, that it’s not clear that even the New York transit system has capacity for a large increase in ridership. When I was a kid, most people stood up during two rush hours, but now the crowding is severe at those times, train headways are already quite short, and there are often no seats at midday and well into the evening.)

Still, the planet can’t afford many more of these failures, where good programs go down under an assault of whining demands that no-one should actually have to lift a finger. When did “I’ll do my share…and not a penny more” become a moral principle decent people would admit to? Of course it will cost commuters more money (if they keep on driving) or time (if they find another way); all the people who would rather use transit (or move closer in) at current prices have already done so. Smug, ignorant, selfishness is not a monopoly of westerners who want freedom from government and, of course, water paid for by others. And of course change hurts the poor: that’s what it means to be poor, that you don’t have a lot of options. But poverty should be dealt with reasonably, not by throwing it in the path of everything new (or by a bunch of in-kind subsidies for a zillion thises and thats). Giving the scarce resource of street space free to whoever wants to drive in it must be about the least efficient way to help the poor and the sinking middle class.

One more time: we’re not going to save the planet without enormous investments in infrastructure; not just twiddling with HOV lanes here and there or piddling increases in gas mileage. We need to have the political will to take houses for transit rights-of-way and face down NIMBY whiners, and to tax ourselves really painfully. And we have to live differently from the way we do now, not exactly the same while someone else does something green for us.

Of course, it’s a free-rider problem and a prisoners’ dilemma. Of course it’s not fair that the need to control global warming came along before a couple billion people got to have their few decades in cars and suburbs, and after a few tens of millions invested their wealth in an unsupportable and illusory suburban dream. I just hope it’s a lot of comfort to our grandchildren that we put hundreds of millions of refugees on the road from low places because we couldn’t figure out how to do anything else without inflicting any pain.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.