The Divide: Health benefits found in congestion pricing study

The Divide: Health benefits found in congestion pricing study

In the 1970s, New York City was found to be in violation of the Clean Air Act. One way to bring the city into compliance was to limit vehicle congestion thus lessening air pollution. The proposal was for NYC to impose congestion pricing or a congestion tax on vehicles entering Manhattan. This idea was not popular then, so it was never implemented. However, with extreme weather events associated with climate change wreaking havoc in every country and causing billions of dollars in damages every year (the cost for extreme weather events in the U.S. in 2017 was $306 billion according to Truthout), perhaps the time has come to close the economic divide between our actions that add to an unhealthy environment and paying the cost for the damage we create by those same actions.

Congestion pricing, according to Wikipedia, “is a concept from market economics regarding the use of pricing mechanisms to charge the users of public goods for the negative externalities” they generate. In other words, taxing drivers for the deleterious effects motor vehicles have on the environment. The overall objective is to make drivers more aware of the costs that they have upon climate change. The hoped for result being that drivers will switch from using private vehicles to using public transport, thus both avoiding paying the tax and helping to decrease air pollution.

New York City’s political leaders have been weighing the implementation of congestion pricing, no elected official wants the use the “T” word (tax), since that first violation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. The officials know that the best way to decrease air contamination is to limit the number of vehicles in the city. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg proposed a congestion pricing plan, but it needed state legislative approval, and the legislature never brought the proposal to the floor for a vote. In 2017, Governor Cuomo proposed a congestion pricing policy for NYC. And, just this past week, Alex Matthiessen, director of the MoveNY campaign, called for NYC to institute congestion pricing. But, Mayor de Blasio is opposed to the idea.   

While we don’t have congestion pricing in any city in the United States, some states have programs where there’s a toll for one person vehicles if they use high occupancy vehicle lanes. This high occupancy toll (HOT), in my opinion, is a far-distant cousin to congestion pricing, and doesn’t really have the desired effect congestion pricing has had in cities around the world that have implemented the tax. These cities include: Rome, London, Stockholm, Singapore, and Milan.

There have been many studies on the positive effects congestion pricing has on reducing the number of vehicles in highly congested urban centers and the associated reduction in air pollutants from vehicle exhaust. However, there had not been an investigative study on the effect congestion pricing has on health, until 2017. Last year, an unpublished report entitled, “Congestion Pricing, Air Pollution and Children’s Health” was completed by three university professors. The subject city of the report was Stockholm, Sweden. (NOTE: I was given permission by one of the authors of the report, Dr. Emilia Simeonova of Johns Hopkins University, to cite the findings of the report.)

I first heard about the report when Dr. Simeonova was the guest professor on a recent Academic Minute segment on radio station WAMC. The study concentrated on Stockholm’s congestion pricing zone (CPZ) and compared air pollution and asthma rates of children under age 6 living in the CPZ to the numbers prior to implementation of the congestion pricing program. The results of the study showed that not only did nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) decrease after congestion pricing was implemented, but urgent asthma-related hospital care visits by children under age 6 also decreased dramatically. It should also be noted that Sweden has a much lower ambient air pollution level than most other countries, and “well below” U.S. regulatory standards. Thus, the Stockholm study’s results are from a city that has much less air pollution to start with, than urban centers in America, making the study’s findings relating asthma rates to air pollution levels even more significant.

The study compared Stockholm to 102 other Swedish cities between 2004 and 2010.  Environmental data came from each city’s Environmental Agency and health data was obtained from official inpatient and outpatient registries. Stockholm, prior to congestion pricing, had an asthma rate for children age 0 to 5 of 18.7 cases per 10,000 children. For comparison sake–and this is not completely accurate because the statistic is based on the total city population, not just children–the city of Albany (population of 97,000) had 382 emergency room visits by children age 0 to 4 per 10,000 population between the years 2011 to 2013. Definitely not a good number for Albany.

The professors broke the Stockholm study into three time periods: pre-congestion pricing; the trial period (Stockholm did a 7-month trial before making the program permanent); and the post-permanent period. As stated above, the pre-congestion pricing asthma hospitalization rate was 18.7. That number was reduced by 12.3 percent during the trial period, and by a whopping 46.5 percent (8.7 cases) when the congestion pricing program was made permanent!

The Stockholm study’s findings confirmed that air pollution has a direct adverse effect on lung development and lung health in young children. The study, for the first time, showed that congestion pricing not only reduces the number of vehicles driving through the designated zone (around 25 percent less vehicles in Stockholm’s CPZ), thus reducing air pollution, but has the additional positive result of decreasing the asthma-related urgent hospital care visits of children age 0 to 4.

Perhaps, if NYC remains opposed to congestion pricing, and Gov. Cuomo and the state Department of Transportation continue to refuse to re-route truck traffic from South Pearl St., Albany could be the test city for congestion pricing. We could locate the toll readers at the southern entrance to Albany and at Exit 2 of I787 and tax the heavy trucks and buses that have helped to push the asthma rate of Ezra residents off the charts. As Katie Cusack reported in The Alt, the residents of Ezra want something done now. Congestion pricing may be the way to solve both problems: decreasing truck traffic on South Pearl Street and improving the health of the residents of Ezra Prentice Homes.  

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