Prime visual story-telling
Adjust, and adjust some more

Excess delay

The hot topic in New York at the moment is congestion pricing for vehicles entering Manhattan, which is set to debut during the month of June. I found this chart (link) that purports to prove the effectiveness of London's similar scheme introduced a while back.


This is a case of the visual fighting against the data. The visual feels very busy and yet the story lying beneath the data isn't that complex.

This chart was probably designed to accompany some text which isn't available free from that link so I haven't seen it. The reader's expectation is to compare the periods before and after the introduction of congestion charges. But even the task of figuring out the pre- and post-period is taking more time than necessary. In particular, "WEZ" is not defined. (I looked this up, it's "Western Extension Zone" so presumably they expanded the area in which charges were applied when the travel rates went back to pre-charging levels.)

The one element of the graphic that raises eyebrows is the legend which screams to be read.


Why are there four colors for two items? The legend is not self-sufficient. The reader has to look at the chart itself and realize that purple is the pre-charging period while green (and blue) is the post-charging period (ignoring the distinction between CCZ and WEZ).

While we are solving this puzzle, we also notice that the bottom two colors are used to represent an unchanging quantity - which is the definition of "no congestion". This no-congestion travel rate is a constant throughout the chart and yet a lot of ink of two colors have been spilled on it. The real story is in the excess delay, which the congestion charging scheme was supposed to reduce.

The excess on the chart isn't harmless. The excess delay on the roads has been transferred to the chart reader. It actually distracts from the story the analyst is wanting to tell. Presumably, the story is that the excess delays dropped quite a bit after congestion charging was introduced. About four years later, the travel rates had creeped back to pre-charging levels, whereupon the authorities responded by extending the charging zone to WEZ (which as of the time of the chart, wasn't apparently bringing the travel rate down.)

Instead of that story, the excess of the chart makes me wonder... the roads are still highly congested with travel rates far above the level required to achieve no congestion, even after the charging scheme was introduced.


I started removing some of the excess from the chart. Here's the first cut:


This is better but it is still very busy. One problem is the choice of columns, even though the data are found strictly on the top of each column. (Besides, when I chop off the unchanging sections of the columns, I created a start-not-from-zero problem.) Also, the labeling of the months leaves much to be desired, there are too many grid lines, etc.


Here is the version I landed on. Instead of columns, I use lines. When lines are used, there is no need for month labels since we can assume a reader knows the structure of months within a year.


A priniciple I hold dear is not to have legends unless it is absolutely required. In this case, there is no need to have a legend. I also brought back the notion of a uncongested travel speed, with a single line (and annotation).


The chart raises several questions about the underlying analysis. I'd interested in learning more about "moving car observer surveys". What are those? Are they reliable?

Further, for evidence of efficacy, I think the pre-charging period must be expanded to multiple years. Was 2002 a particularly bad year?

Thirdly, assuming WEZ indicates the expansion of the program to a new geographical area, I'm not sure whether the data prior to its introduction represents the travel rate that includes the WEZ (despite no charging) or excludes it. Arguments can be made for each case so the key from a dataviz perspective is to clarify what was actually done.


P.S. [6-6-24] On the day I posted this, NY State Governer decided to cancel the congestion pricing scheme that was set to start at the end of June.


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