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New York is set to become the first city in the U.S. to adopt congestion pricing. That's a fee for drivers designed to reduce gridlock. Most New Yorkers are opposed to the plan. But if recent history tells us anything, those skeptics might change their minds soon. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Sixtieth Street cuts across the island of Manhattan on either side of Central Park. Right now this is an ordinary street. But in 2021, it will become a dividing line. And anyone who drives south of it will have to pay a hefty fee. The goal is twofold; cut down on traffic and raise money for the struggling subway system. And walking along 60th Street, I found some enthusiastic fans of the policy.
CAROL MEYLAN: The traffic is just horrendous.
DOMONOSKE: This is Carol Meylan.
MEYLAN: So I think people should have to pay for the privilege of driving.
DOMONOSKE: Just how much drivers will have to pay is not yet finalized. But it's expected to be $10 or more. There's a not-so-surprising divide in opinions here. People who drive are less than happy, like Beatrice Carre.
BEATRICE CARRE: I commute into the city from Queens. And I'm paying for tolls already. Yeah, it's enough. We're paying enough.
DOMONOSKE: People who don't drive are all-in. Sam Shainberg says the subway needs the money.
SAM SHAINBERG: Less driving, more public transportation - it's all a positive, really.
DOMONOSKE: OK. So me standing on 60th Street accosting people on the sidewalk is not a very scientific survey. But Quinnipiac University did a real poll. And they found most New York City voters are opposed to congestion pricing. Fifty-four percent are against the plan - for now, anyway. Transportation experts say there's probably a big change in opinion on the way. Jonas Eliasson is a researcher and former transport administrator in Stockholm. Congestion pricing started there in 2006 despite deep opposition.
JONAS ELIASSON: The public were very much against this.
DOMONOSKE: Just 30 percent of city residents were in favor of the plan before it started. But after it was in place, a majority supported it.
ELIASSON: It was absolutely astonishing.
DOMONOSKE: Traffic experts had expected the plan to work.
ELIASSON: It would reduce congestion. We didn't really doubt that. But this huge change in public opinion was something that we hadn't really prepared for.
DOMONOSKE: It was a similar story in London in 2003. And the pattern has been observed in other cities too. People like congestion pricing when it's a vague idea. They're opposed when it's a real thing that's about to kick in. And they support it once it's a reality. One obvious explanation is that people didn't realize it would really work. Then they saw the benefits and believed in them.
ELIASSON: It's actually better than you think. You can actually see that the congestion is reduced.
DOMONOSKE: And maybe they realize it's not as hard as they thought to drive less often. But there's another explanation too.
MARIA BORJESSON: Just inertia - people tend to accept the way it is.
DOMONOSKE: Economist Maria Borjesson looked at congestion pricing in Gothenberg, Sweden, where - you guessed it - support went up after the charges were in place. But people didn't actually change their mind about how effective congestion pricing is.
BORJESSON: So they actually had grasped pretty well what the outcome would be even before. But still, the support increased.
DOMONOSKE: People like the status quo and can adapt pretty quickly to a new one, whether the status quo is gridlock or a fee to keep traffic flowing.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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