A Journey to the Center of New York City’s Congestion Zone

The first fifteen minutes of Max Katsov’s daily commute, from Rockland County to One Police Plaza, are unfailingly pleasant—the Palisades Parkway, a bagel with cream cheese. Whatever hellscape 1010 WINS is forecasting is hard to reconcile with the sun-dappled river views at a steady fifty-five m.p.h. Then, near the Mobil station in Englewood Cliffs, the cars start to back up behind the George Washington Bridge, and “my day of stress,” as Katsov put it recently, begins. This was Thursday morning, around nine. On Tuesday, he had filed retirement papers, to take effect next month. He’d logged twenty-one years on the job, and made detective, third grade. There were a couple of reasons for his chosen timing: the end of the school year (he has three kids) and the looming introduction of congestion pricing, which, in the interest of reducing emissions, among other progressive goals, would cost him fifteen dollars for the indulgence of piloting his Lexus S.U.V. into the central business district, below Sixtieth Street. Seventy-five bucks a week. Nearly four grand a year. But, on Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul made a surprising announcement that she was attempting to postpone the program indefinitely, and Katsov started to waver. “As soon as I got into work, everybody was, like, ‘Oh, so you’re pulling your papers?’ ” he said. “The joke was, like, ‘She knew that Max put in his papers, and now she’s going to repeal the congestion pricing.’ So they’re all trying to talk me into staying.”

He was still debating it, amid braking on the helix and a barrage of texts from his wife, Carissa, about their elderly mini Yorkie, who had just begun wearing a diaper. (“It’s kind of sad,” Katsov said.) Google Maps showed a solid red bar across the bridge and onto the F.D.R. Drive. The female voice in his phone piped up to reassure him that, in spite of the “eleven-minute slowdown,” he was still on the best route. The West Side Highway would offer no relief. “But, then again, I have to figure out what I’m going to do with my kids for the summertime,” Katsov said. Carissa works full time, as a nurse in Westchester. “Andrew’s going to basketball camp. It’s three hours. What is that? That’s not camp. It’s a clinic.”

Katsov wasn’t insensitive to the lofty goals of congestion pricing—who could argue with less traffic?—but he was dubious about its efficacy (he predicted gridlock just north of Sixtieth) and brought a detective’s, rather than an economist’s, mind-set to the challenge of altering behavior. “My whole theory is that what the city should have done is limit delivery trucks from six to six,” he said. “And that would alleviate half the traffic.” It wouldn’t alleviate what he was seeing on the far side of the bridge, however. “Sometimes I don’t understand the choke points that happen here,” he went on. “People just slow down. They’re not sure of themselves. I mean, driving into the city for the past twenty years, I’m convinced drivers have gotten considerably worse at driving.”

Another common choke point lay ahead, in the run-up to the R.F.K. Bridge (fourteen-minute slowdown). Katsov overruled the algorithm’s recommendation that he exit the highway for a few blocks only to return, which seemed like unnecessary stress for minimal gain. A couple of scofflaw motorcyclists sneaked by, between lanes—no fair. “I can’t even do my usual shoulder drive here,” he said later, noting the absence of a breakdown lane as he passed at a crawl underneath Carl Schurz Park. “Not that I would,” he added.

By midtown, he was cruising again, and free to mourn the Rangers’ aborted playoff run, a different source of agitation (“a lot of turnovers”). At last, a little more than an hour since he’d begun, Katsov arrived at the Brooklyn Bridge exit and veered off—and into a brief standstill, accompanied by honking, as an S.U.V. turned perpendicular to the flow, in a panicked attempt to avoid crossing the East River. “My God,” Katsov exclaimed.

As if on cue, the news on the radio turned to the subject at hand. He adjusted the volume to hear Governor Hochul’s rationale for abandoning the plan. As New York rebounds from the pandemic, she said, “I cannot add another burden to working- and middle-class New Yorkers or create another obstacle to our continued recovery.” Katsov nodded, feeling understood. “So she’s pandering to the middle class because she wants that vote,” he said.

It was ten o’clock, late enough that none of the spaces in the department’s lot would be available. In the past, Katsov might have circled for street parking (congestion!), but recently his boss had rewarded him with a coveted spot in the underground garage. He pulled an orange permit from a sun visor, flashed his I.D., and was off the city grid no sooner than he’d entered it. “At the end of my career, I get all these perks,” he said. ♦

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