In the coming days, the United States 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 US Department of Transportation must appreciate that their decision to fund Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s visionary project, called PlaNYC, will determine the quality of air that more than 10 million New Yorkers breathe daily and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the city coughs into the atmosphere.
Already, New York City produces more CO2 emissions than all of Norway. More importantly, officials must realize that their actions will shape 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 US, the urban population has grown from 97 million in 1950 to 222 million in 2000. Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans live 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 powerful disincentives to automobile use. The plan’s proposed congestion charge on automobile use during peak times in certain parts of the city would 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. Vehicles cause nearly a fifth of New York City’s CO2 emissions. 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 implies an annual cost of around $200 billion. Due to congestion, New Yorkers face the longest commutes in the US, and their children have the highest rate of asthma hospitalization.
PlaNYC would impose the congestion charge on the 4.6 percent of New York City residents who drive to work, while its benefits would accrue to everyone. New Yorkers would enjoy cleaner air, shorter average commuting time, and better public transportation. Neither the economy in general, nor the retail sector in particular, should be adversely affected. In fact, service and delivery providers in Manhattan, among others, would benefit from shorter travel times and fewer delays.
However, despite its many advantages, congestion charges face some skepticism. Fortunately, we can learn from other cities such as Stockholm, Singapore, and London, which have successfully implemented them. In all of these cities, CO2 emissions declined sharply and congestion was significantly reduced, with Singapore experiencing an immediate 45 percent drop in traffic.
These cities have also benefited from more efficient public transportation. In London, bus-travel rose by 46 percent. According to an independent report, almost 60% of the businesses in London judged the program’s impact on the economy as positive or neutral.
Automobile dependent countries like America need smart solutions to ensure environmentally sustainable development. Having one of the largest urban populations and the highest per capita CO2 emissions, the US has the responsibility – and the means – to lead the world on this front.
If the US does not act soon, American cities will lag behind not only European capitals, but also developing country cities such as Bogota (Colombia) and Curitiba (Brazil), which are already implementing innovative environmentally friendly solutions. New York City has always been a global leader in finance, the arts, and many other fields. It is an ideal candidate for creating a blueprint for cleaner and more efficient urbanization in the US and the world.
James D. Wolfensohnis a former President of the World Bank and former Special Envoy of the Quartet to the Middle East. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate. (www.project-syndicate.org)