William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Chad Hughes


Poor air quality in New York City is a public health emergency that disproportionately harms the city’s most vulnerable populations. Recent studies have found that exposure to particulate matter pollution previously thought “safe” causes significant damage to perhaps every organ of the human body. While New York City has reduced particulate matter exposure over the last decade, progress has stalled. In fact, climate change, the shift in the automobile market from sedans to SUVs and “light” trucks, and the federal pullback of environmental enforcement under Trump suggest that air pollution in New York City is likely to worsen.

While the City has little control over global climate change, the federal government, or the automobile market, it has sweeping powers over its streets. Furthermore, New York City is set to become the first American city with a congestion tolling system. The pending implementation of congestion pricing offers policymakers the opportunity to rethink the access of private automobiles to New York’s core.

This Article argues that the Metropolitan Transportation Administration should implement a variable congestion toll that is based, in part, on measures of local air quality. Furthermore, the City should act unilaterally to reduce automobile access to the core when local air quality reaches particularly dangerous levels. The Introduction presents these recommendations and evaluates the stalled progress on air quality in New York City. Part I reviews the alarming literature on the public health impact of air pollution with a particular focus on PM2.5. Part II provides a discussion of the legal authority and potential legal roadblocks for New York State to implement a variable congestion toll tied to air quality, and for the City to unilaterally ban certain private automobiles from the central business district during air quality emergencies.