My initial reaction to Governor Corzine's planting the flag on the congestion pricing issue: tough beans, duder. Price you pay for moving to Jersey. You get good schools, you get good trees, and you get a commute that, if it is city-bound, is going to irritate you no matter how it's undertaken, and when I lived with my parents and trucked into midtown back in the day, I undertook every possible route in an effort to find one that didn't erode my sense of well-being. The only quasi-solution?
Switching off every few days between the NJ Transit rail connection to Hoboken (my hometown has a direct connection to Penn Station now, but back then, while they finished building it, you had to train it to the 'Boken and switch to the PATH, in the company of, seriously, 93% of the working-age people in your town); the Lakeland Bus line (the "station" is a concrete hut with no protection from the weather; the terminus is the Port Authority; it's…a bus); and driving myself (bring your own coffee, control the music and climate, and pay out the ass for parking while contributing a clown shoe as your carbon footprint).
And it sucked, but the town is a Wall Street bedroom community; most folks who work, work in Manhattan. It is what it is. Getting rid of the commute has its price too — smaller living space, noise/higher crime, whatever. Anywhere you live has its price, but Jersey commuters and the politicians who represent them have a history of knee-jerk objections to any price increase of this sort.
But once I thought about it for a minute, I had to admit…well, hold on. I still think Corzine is off base, but I don't think he's drawing the wrong conclusion, necessarily; I think he's looking at the problem from the wrong angle. People do move to Jersey to escape the high cost of living in the city (or some of it, at least — the downright nutty property taxes in God's Little Acre won't always leave homeowners with a net gain), and on top of that, Jerseyans already get clipped at tax time for coming into the city to work; it's basically an infrastructure/"for the privilege of working at Goldman, you can help us maintain the water table" levy, and I don't have a problem with that, up to a point. You spend all day here, you can help us fix the roads.
But the problem with congestion pricing is not the pricing; it's the congestion. Which pricing congestion higher will not solve, because people still need to come to work.
Why do people still need to come to work?
Seriously. Why? Yes, of course many people whose jobs involve hands-on tasks — people who work in retail or custodial support — will still have to make an appearance at work. People will still want to take face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients. You can't sell a car or clean a toilet or handshake-agree on a deal via email; human contact is valuable.
But as much as I liked coming into the TWoP bullpen and shooting the shit with Wing and Alli and Joe about the previous night's programming, I didn't need to do it. I didn't need to come in and preside over a staff; the TWoP staff didn't come in themselves. They live all over the continent. And I didn't so much need to spend 45 minutes each way on an orange-line train that, between 8 and 9:30 AM on weekdays, gets so crammed as to no longer sustain human life, and take longer because of it because people hold the doors, blah blah. Alli came in at 7 a lot of days, to avoid that; I came in at 11; we didn't need to come in at all. The internet is not nine to five-thirty, and my schedule on most weekdays had a burst of activity pre-9 AM, some catch-up work in the morning, dead air after lunch, and another shift from, like, 4 PM to 10 PM. So why exactly do I need to go to the office on a day like that, to rush to get finished and get on a train by 11 AM, and get to the office and have nothing to do for hours? At home, I'd finish my morning tasks, eat a sandwich, and siesta, then get up at 4 and deal from there. Unless I had a meeting, why should I kill an hour and a half round trip?
And it's not unique, that set-up; it's not even unique to me. My first real job out of college, I worked for a company with German ownership, and when the big bosses needed someone on the desk…it's Germany, hello. Six hours ahead. The victim had to get in at 5:30 in the morning to sit on the fax machine; by lunchtime, the big bosses had gone home.
I can think of dozens of industries that either don't require workers to physically appear at all, or could easily get by with telecommuting at least part-time, or split shifting — have employees choose their eight- or nine-hour workday, and come in then. Raising the price of driving is a good idea in theory, and I approve of it in theory, but in practice, if you don't change the congestion part of the equation and the way we as a city culture choose to conduct business, it won't address a damn thing, for two reasons:
1. If you don't want people to drive, you have to make room for them on transit, and based on what I've read the last couple of days — and seen, living here for more than a decade — ain't no more room left to make. Express trains run at max density already, which actually slows them down; the system is full, of trains and people. It makes the commute uncomfortable, and one breakdown will fubar the entire grid for two hours — just one more reason why…
2. People like their cars. Remember that scene in Singles, where the guy is explaining to Campbell Scott that, while his bullet train is beautiful and everything, it's doomed, because people just like to drive? Dead on. The Times article I've just linked to cites a survey in which "the most frequent reasons given by drivers for shunning public transportation were the freedom to come and go as they liked and the ability to avoid dealing with other people."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but: precisely. To get people out of their cars, where they can listen to NPR and not have John Q. Credit Suisse falling asleep on their shoulders, you have to make transit much more appealing; you have to make it likely that they'll get a seat, and you have to get them there much faster and more cheaply than driving would. I'm not saying it's "right"; I'm saying this is how people think, that a lot of people will grumble and bitch and then just pay the extra money because the car has a seat warmer and a CD changer, and the C train doesn't.
Again, I think trying to get people off the road is great. It's good for the environment, it's good for the remaining drivers' stress levels — it's a good idea. But as long as people still have to take their asses into a place of business, it isn't going to have the dramatic effects the government probably expects…and the MTA does not have a proud history of applying budget overages in an intelligent way in the second place, and even if they did, what exactly is the plan here? Buy…more trains? See above. Nowhere to put 'em.
The Holland Tunnel costs twice as much to go through as it did in the mid-nineties, I believe; it didn't do a damn thing to reduce volume that I can see, never has, never will. The people who want to drive will find a way, in their household budgeting, and if your real goal isn't really to get people off the roads but to raise money, I'd propose a selfishness tax on Brooklyn drivers — failure to signal, $250. Double-parking on a non-street-cleaning day, $500 and a boot on the car. You'll have seven new schools built by the end of August.
Tags: city living curmudgeoning