(Bloomberg) -- New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s sudden decision last week to pause New York City’s congestion pricing program, less than a month before it was set to start tolling drivers, will leave disused license-plate readers as a reminder of what could have been: A rare policy that both rapidly curbs planet-warning emissions and becomes popular soon after implementation.

There’s a clear climate upside to the now-shelved program, which would have been the first of its kind in the US. “We know transport is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gasses, and a really good way to address that is getting people to drive less,” said Nicholas Klein, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. “Congestion pricing is an amazing tool to get people to do that.”

The decision to back away reflects the obvious political risks of charging most drivers at least $15 to bring their vehicles into lower Manhattan. Hochul, a Democrat, said the scheme “can break the budget of a working- or middle-class household. It puts the squeeze on the very people who make this city go.” She also reportedly paused the plan in part because of concerns it would hurt politicians from her party running in competitive congressional races. After years of work to create the fare program, an April 2024 Siena poll found 63% of respondents in New York opposed the measure (although 44% of respondents also said they don’t go to Manhattan). 

What’s Congestion Pricing? Why Is NY Delaying It?: QuickTake

But while congestion pricing often faces backlash before implementation, that’s not necessarily the case soon afterwards. It’s one of the few climate policies that works like an on/off switch and delivers immediately apparent change: One day cars clog the streets, and the next there are far fewer. The benefits in improved air quality and more space for those traveling by any means besides private vehicles — the overwhelming majority in Manhattan — are also quickly noticeable. For example, in the first 12 months of London’s congestion pricing program, enacted in 2003, traffic dropped 18% and delays dipped by 30%. 

Keeping the congestion-price switch set to “off” — at least barring a last-second reversal from state lawmakers — would mean the loss of a rare demonstration showing that a climate policy can be popular as well as environmentally beneficial. And that could undercut support for other policies that may take longer to pay dividends.

London’s congestion plan was initially unpopular. So was a similar program in Stockholm. But research has shown transportation policies that lack support can gain it after they go into effect.

Polling last year found that a plurality of Londoners supported expanding its ultra-low emissions zone, the most stringent part of its congestion pricing plan, including a majority of people already living in the zone. In Stockholm, the trial program faced pushback before being approved by a  majority of voters in 2007. By 2011, 70% of residents had a positive view of it. 

In fact, Klein said, the moment before implementation is often the peak of unpopularity. Other examples he cited include bikeshares and the pedestrian-friendly makeover of New York’s Times Square. The former raised concerns about losing parking spaces to bike docks and bike lanes, and the latter caused fretting about more gridlock. In both cases, those fears turned out to be unfounded. Bike docks take up just 2,000 of the city’s 3 million parking spaces, while the Times Square overhaul led to a 35% drop in pedestrian injuries and car travel times actually improved in parts of Midtown.

People’s attitudes shift as they experience benefits such as less clogged streets and they come to accept a new status quo — and those changes happen fast. Limited research so far shows public opinion shifts in just two months, said Bert van Wee, a professor of transport policy at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology.

Congestion pricing is unique among climate policies because of how fast changes occur. With the US Inflation Reduction Act, by comparison, it’s taken nearly two years for some home electrification tax credits to make their way to homeowners. And while installing a heat pump and getting a rebate may make an individual home more comfortable while cutting emissions, the benefits are hiding inside four walls. It’s also a one-by-one process rather than happening all at once, citywide, like congestion pricing. 

The delay or possible demise of congestion pricing could slow down other efforts to reduce carbon emissions from transportation. Without the positive effects of less road traffic and cleaner air, the public might not be as open to measures that encourage biking or transit. “It’s natural for people to be used to the status quo and worried about changes,” Klein said, but “without those examples that people can see and experience, it’s hard to imagine the benefits.”

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.