Commuters in the New York City subway in 2021 (CNS photo/Caitlin Ochs, Reuters).

One of the best New York movies—possibly one of the best movies, period—in recent years is Robot Dreams, now screening in theaters. It tells the dialogue-free story of a friendship between a lonely anthropomorphic dog and the robot he orders from a TV ad (the movie is set in the 1980s). The film is a remarkable depiction of friendship, separation, and the inevitable changes of life. It’s also a subtle ode to a car-free lifestyle; the dog and robot traverse the city by subway and go to the beach by public bus. Otherwise, they walk or roller-skate. It is thus a quintessentially New York story in all its highs, lows, encounters, and near-misses. It is charming, but also realistic. Huge numbers of New Yorkers live this way, and even more could do so with better and more extensive public-transit service.

Congestion pricing was supposed to help bring that better service into being. But in early June, New York governor Kathy Hochul announced a “pause” to the city’s congestion-pricing program just three weeks before it was set to begin. The program would have resulted in tolls ranging from $3.75 to $15 (depending on time) for drivers entering the “central business district” of Manhattan below Sixtieth St., including on bridges that are currently free. Toll proceeds would have allowed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to raise $15 billion in bond money for capital projects including a subway extension, new rolling stock, and accessibility improvements in existing stations (most of which currently lack elevators).

In announcing her pause, Hochul clearly believed she was doing the popular and politically expeditious thing (rumors flew that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn— whose spokespeople insist he is neutral on the issue—had pressured Hochul to try to move the needle for Democratic candidates in suburban districts whose voters disdain congestion pricing). It is clear in all of her public comments and friendly media interviews since then that the possibility of opposition to the decision never crossed her mind.

Hochul’s pause has gained her little support—her approval rating is at an all-time low—and revealed the existence of a broad coalition encompassing establishment Democrats like Rep. Jerry Nadler, leftists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a range of transit and disability advocates, as well as such unlikely bedfellows as the Real Estate Board of New York. This was dramatically demonstrated by the overflow crowd at the MTA Board meeting—an affair that typically generates little public interest—on June 26 to speak in favor of the plan.

Hochul’s pause has gained her little support—her approval rating is at an all-time low—and revealed the existence of a broad coalition.

Congestion pricing illustrates the collective-action problem endemic to solving climate-related issues. Most people of good will (and all insurance companies) understand the threat on some level, whether they admit or not, but concrete action faces opposition from entrenched interests embodied by the institutional Republican Party and various interest groups that power it, as well as the general tendency to accept things the way they are absent massive pressure to do otherwise.

In this case, suburbanites and others (such as the carpenters’ and teachers’ unions) who are used to no-cost driving into Manhattan have opposed congestion pricing through advocacy and lawsuits. Much of this advocacy is in bad faith—and all of it betrays short-term thinking—but it is able to claim working-class credibility in a way that appeals to politicians as cover for actions that are actually driven by the convenience of wealthier constituents.

Advocates of congestion pricing, on the other hand, have had the heavier lift of pointing to future goals. They must also deal with legitimate concerns about cost controls at the MTA, where projects are much more expensive than in cities such as London and Paris. They also face the “popularity valley of death”: it has been demonstrated that in cities where congestion pricing has been successfully implemented, such as London and Stockholm, that it is least popular right before implementation, but that popularity shoots up as soon as the benefits (e.g., less traffic) begin to be realized.

The vociferous reaction to Hochul’s questionably legal decision (which should raise other concerns for Democrats who rightly criticize Donald Trump for undermining the rule of law) may indicate that the tide is turning. While it is unlikely that the pervasive individualism of American society will go away any time soon, many are beginning to question the “common sense” that drivers should be the protagonists even of urban centers. In so doing, they are questioning the normativity of the car-centric lifestyle, particularly in the face of climate disaster.

Suburbanization following World War II and GI bill incentives to single-family home ownership had a perverse impact on New York as it did on most American cities; many of their erstwhile residents relocated to bedroom suburbs, visiting the city for work and cultural activities. High crime rates from the 1960s through the early ’90s deepened suburbanites’ jaundiced views of cities, particularly in places like Detroit, where racial divides are stark and public transportation from suburbs to city is almost nonexistent.

The car-free or car-minimal lifestyle that New York affords might appear exotic to many Americans, but it is the most sustainable way for humans to live in light of climate change. Studies consistently demonstrate that urban living in multifamily housing (e.g. apartment buildings) generates a significantly lower carbon footprint than suburban or exurban living. These facts are undersold in American politics because they run up against what most view as the normative suburban or exurban way of life in the country. (True rural small-town living is also sustainable.)

Leadership on climate requires forward-thinking actions and confidence that doing the right thing even in the face of opposition will pay off in the end. New York’s first-in-the-nation status on congestion pricing is key in this regard. How are other cities to implement similar schemes (in locally appropriate ways) to reduce traffic and improve public transit if even New York can’t carry it off? New York’s intensive urbanism may be an aberration in American culture (though not globally), but it is an example to the millions of tourists from around the country who visit each year. Leadership in this area might inspire other cities to take the political risks; cowardice, on the other hand, only enforces the sense elsewhere that it is impossible to push back against cars.

Congestion pricing promises to make the urban dream exemplified by the dog and robot safer, cleaner, and more accessible for residents and newcomers. The coalition that Kathy Hochul unexpectedly activated has not won anything concrete yet, but it has demonstrated that it is possible to advocate for congestion pricing. Where this story leads in the immediate future is unclear—Hochul appears dug in—but it sets the template for how to advocate for sustainable cities moving forward.

Daniel Rober is associate professor and chair of the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University. He writes and teaches on topics including systematic theology, secularization, politics, urbanism, and film. Follow him on Twitter at @profdanrober.

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