Congestion Pricing Ignites an Old Rift: Drivers vs. Transit Riders

In 2010, Filolaos Kefalas, an electrical engineer, drove a black Corvette into Manhattan for his first date with Lisa Daglian, a transit advocate. She was not impressed.

“You know you can take the train,” Ms. Daglian, 61, recalled saying.

To this day, the couple continues to quibble over Mr. Kefalas’s car use. But Mr. Kefalas has his reasons for driving, he said. He works in Bayside, Queens, which has limited transit options, and he enjoys driving.

“Time is money,” Mr. Kefalas, also 61, said. “I try to go the quickest way possible.”

The rift between Ms. Daglian, who now leads the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Mr. Kefalas did not derail their romance — they are married. But it is an example of the perennial debate between two entrenched groups of New Yorkers: car users, many from outside Manhattan and some with deeply personal ties to driving, and transit loyalists, who believe mass transit is not only the cheapest and fastest travel option but also a moral choice.

The divide has grown recently as the city prepares for the introduction of a congestion pricing program that is the first of its kind in the United States. The program, which is scheduled to start on June 30, seeks to ease traffic and raise money for the authority — the state agency that operates the city’s transit system — by charging most motorists $15 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street.

Transit leaders have said they hope congestion pricing, which has been successfully introduced in major European and Asian cities, convinces some commuters who drive to switch to mass transit. The tolling program is expected to reduce traffic in Manhattan’s core by about 17 percent, or about 120,000 vehicles a day.

Some 1.87 million New York City residents commute to work by public transit, and roughly 1.06 million drive alone or in a car pool, the latest census data shows. More than 700,000 vehicles from across the region enter the congestion pricing zone on an average weekday, the authority has estimated.

Citywide, households with a car have an average income of $110,000 compared to $87,000 for transit users, said Replica, a transportation data and analytics firm.

From its limited parking and numerous tolls to the gridlocked traffic that lasts most of the day, the city is a notoriously hard place for motorists.

But some people who live outside Manhattan do not consider mass transit a viable option because they live at the system’s fringes. Many of them defiantly say they will continue to drive into the city’s core despite the new toll.

Helen Keier, an administrator for online learning at John Jay College, said she believed she had no choice but to drive to work. She lives in the Locust Point neighborhood of the Bronx and commutes to her office on 59th Street in Manhattan several times a week.

“For me to even get to the subway, it’s a 20-30-minute bus ride to the 6,” Ms. Keier, 57, said.

Ms. Keier, hobbled by severe osteoarthritis, struggles to navigate subway stations. The M.T.A. is working to make the subway fully accessible, but only about 32 percent of the system currently is, the authority said.

Exemptions for drivers with disabilities will be available under the congestion pricing program. Ms. Keier said she planned to apply for one and keep driving.

Although he drives regularly into what will soon be the congestion pricing zone, Julius Johnson, a home care nurse practitioner from Brooklyn, is also not interested in tossing his car keys.

“Driving in New York is a status symbol for someone who grows up in low-income neighborhoods because you don’t have to rely on the train,” said Mr. Johnson, 40, who also teaches in New York University’s nursing program, which is in the toll zone.

He bought his first car in 2005, a cream-colored Ford Explorer. He had recently graduated from nursing school but only felt that he had made it when he got behind the wheel of his new car.

He said that as a health care worker, he could appreciate the possible improvement in air quality that congestion pricing could yield. But he does not want to pay the added cost to drive.

Driving has “been amended into the American dream,” said Sarah Kaufman, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. “Car ownership, homeownership and driving around so that you can have control of your domain, regardless of the negative externalities you may be causing,” are all part of achieving status, she said.

There are eight lawsuits pending in New Jersey and New York filed against congestion pricing. The program has angered critics, including the governor of New Jersey, a trucking association and some residents of Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan.

Proponents say congestion pricing will alleviate some of the worst traffic in the country, improve air quality and provide a lifeline to the city’s public transportation network. The M.T.A. is expected to collect about $1 billion a year in tolls, which will be used to secure $15 billion in bond financing to help pay for much-needed improvements to the city’s subway, bus and commuter rail systems.

The nearly 120-year-old subway system is among the city’s defining features. The vast, 472-station network was a moonshot of civic engineering that wove five boroughs together into the modern city.

“The bottom line is: no subway, no New York,” said Rachel Weinberger, the director of research strategy at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Ms. Weinberger said that congestion pricing would help pay for crucial repairs to mass transit. But, she added, it could also make driving more pleasant.

Motorists like to complain, but congestion pricing will open up the roads, Ms. Weinberger said. “Transit is absolutely a huge benefit to car drivers,” she said.

From December to March, the transportation authority held an open comment period to gather the public’s opinions about congestion pricing. Most of the more than 25,000 comments were in support, according to the M.T.A.

“The great news for transit users is that funding from congestion pricing directly benefits them,” John J. McCarthy, the authority’s chief of policy and external relations, said. “There will be new subway cars, electric buses, more accessible stations, more reliability from modern signaling on lines like the C train in Brooklyn.”

For many New Yorkers, using transit is often a matter of choosing the least expensive, most available option for getting around.

For those who cannot afford to drive, turning to the subway is often a case of economic necessity, said Nicholas J. Klein, an assistant professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department.

But there are New Yorkers, he added, who identify with the transit system, and take pride in their specific train, bus or ferry. For others, transit represents an environmentally conscious choice.

Sproule Love, an executive for a company that operates independent and assisted-living communities, is among those with a soft spot for the subway even though he owns a car.

Leaving a friend’s apartment in Lower Manhattan late one night in 2000, Mr. Love, 52, could not find a cab home and decided to take the subway. Waiting on the platform, he said he realized that it was the only time he had “experienced a New York where no one has their guard up.”

“Everyone is so tired and resigned to waiting 40 minutes for an F train,” he added.

Mr. Love, who lives in Harlem, is a vocal supporter of congestion pricing. Though learning to drive a car is a life skill, he said, using one to commute into one of the biggest cities in North America is absurd.

Many critics of mass transit highlight what they perceive as the risk of crime in the subway, while many transit supporters say that driving presents the greater risk.

“I feel much safer in mass transit,” said Emily Rose Prats, a 36-year-old from Crown Heights in Brooklyn. A 2022 New York Times analysis of M.T.A. and police statistics showed that the possibility of being the victim of violent crime in the subway was relatively remote.

Although she is a proponent of congestion pricing, Ms. Daglian, the transit advocate, recognizes why people like her husband, who work or live in areas with limited access to public transportation, use their cars.

“I understand why people drive,” she said. But it does not mean she likes it, even close to home.

“The conflict hasn’t ended,” she said. “We still have pointed conversations.”

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