Road Pricing and Public Transit: The “Virtuous Cycle”

Pricing could un-block the box for buses, and then some.

In an op-ed published yesterday in Metro, MTA chief Lee Sander emphasized the connection between congestion pricing and
improved subway and bus service, which polls continue to suggest is the key to securing public support. Sander’s piece joins reports that officials are working on plans to create a transit "lock box" for pricing revenue.

Making his case, Sander brought to the surface an idea that’s been percolating among policy experts for some time: the "virtuous cycle."

[Congestion pricing] would speed trips for bus riders and make each bus less expensive to operate. Right now, when MTA buses are stuck idling in traffic, we must spend money on excess fuel and overtime for drivers. By decongesting the streets not just in Manhattan but throughout the city, as commuters from all the boroughs leave their cars at home congestion pricing would make travel times for bus riders faster. That leads to a virtuous cycle. As traffic is reduced, buses become faster. Faster buses attract more riders out of their cars, which reduces traffic further.

Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White introduced this concept to New Yorkers last May on the DMI Blog, noting that pricing will improve bus commutes right away:

In removing many of the cars that block buses, and by making it easier to reprogram car lanes into bus lanes (such as the new bus lanes proposed for the Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges), the bus boosting benefits of congestion pricing will be felt immediately. What’s more, speedier buses, as in London [pdf], will set off a "virtuous cycle" of less driving and more bus ridership leading to decreased bus operation costs per rider and in turn encouraging more service, lower fares, more bus riders and fewer drivers getting in their way.

The paper White linked to — Kenneth Small’s "Unnoticed Lessons from London: Road Pricing and Public Transit" (download it) — provides a rigorous academic explanation of the virtuous cycle effect. In a piece of tantalizing extrapolation, Small projects the effect of congestion pricing on bus ridership in a typical American city:

Ridership goes up 31 percent and average user cost falls more than 100 percent of the initial fare. Fares can be
reduced 26 percent, despite a 21 percent increase in service whose fares cover less than average cost; these reduced fares are possible because of higher bus occupancy (due to patronage rising faster than vehicle-miles) and lower driver costs (due to faster trips). 

Photo: joeaverage/Flickr

  • Just curious?

    A close look at the photo reveals that it is the much revered mass transit bus that is causing the problem, not private cars.

  • Dan

    That’s funny. It looks to me like all of those private, probably single passenger cars in the bus’s lane are what’s causing the problem. I bet the 70 bus passengers would agree with me and the 4 drivers would agree with you.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    The first response here really cuts to the chase no? The congestion charge is really just a way to equalize the economy between mass transit uses and sigle occupancy vehicles.One bus with eighty people on board would fill four block, three lanes (twelve lane blocks) with single occupancy vehicles. Pricing is the only way to address the spacial inefficiency of single occupancy vehicles because any other decongestant (for lack of a better social concept) will only cause the emptied space to be filled by other single occupancy vehicles.

  • Congestion Pricing Now

    Is it just me or is that avenue closed (see police barricades), forcing cars to turn right?

    Also, take note that the light is red for both the crosstown street and the avenue (ALL RED in the parlance).

    The REAL problems are the yellow cab and black car turning right after their cycle (yes, they both ran that light).

    The crosstown bus on right is merely from a previous cycle. It wouldn’t be if those pesky cars weren’t there.

    The one on the left, like the taxi on its left, hit the gas even before their green to gain a better position for making it thru the intersection.

  • Congestion Pricing Now

    “….merely stuck from a previous cycle”

  • Jonathan

    It’s the corner of West 14th Street and 6th Avenue, if anybody’s keeping score.

    Today is like Encyclopedia Brown day on Streetsblog, what with the Case of the Previous Cycle on this thread and the Case of the Missing Bollards on the other one.

  • Step one in reducing congestion: Get rid of those damned snake buses.

  • dick shea

    so was this taken from the dick shea dance studio on 14th and 6th?

  • Josh

    I have to be honest, I think I agree with #1 here. It doesn’t matter if the bus is stuck from the previous cycle, if it didn’t have room to get all the way through the intersection then it shouldn’t have started into the intersection in the first place.

  • mork

    Michael1 —

    Good idea. And give each of the 60 people on that bus their own car — that’ll fix everything.

  • I didn’t say get rid of buses. I said get rid of snake buses. They should just be replaced with the new hybrid ones. The snakes are CNG buses, and the best buses out there, in my opinion in terms of acceleration are the new hybrids. The CNGs take a long time to merge into traffic (most of the time needs two travel lanes just to get out of the bus stop) and are constantly blocking intersections, probably because they have no choice; if they leave a gap, cars will cut infront of the bus on the other side of the street. I think the MTA had the right idea, try to pack more on one bus at one time, but I think it makes the overall ride slower, unless you have a BRT infrastructure in place. I think that’s the only way those snake buses will be the most beneficial in terms of mass transit.


  • Not that I’m fully against this “virtuous cycle” but I don’t see it a guaranteed win-win. I see the BRT as having a higher percentage of being a win-win.

  • mork


    Those buses are there because they are highly used routes. Do you think that 2 buses would take up less space than one articulated bus?

  • Mitch

    Instead of double-length “snake” buses, it would be nice to bring back double-decker buses. I remember riding on the top-level of a Fifth Avenue bus when I was a kid, long, long ago. I’ve never understood why they got rid of them.

  • No, snakes buses are pretty much two buses in one.

    I’m betting two normal hyrbid buses can get in and out of the same bus stop a lot better than one snake bus. The key is maneuverability in a congested street, which snakes buses suck at doing.

    Does anybody have stats on gas usage comparing CNGs and the Hybrids?

  • Josh, that bus is not blocking anybody. The street on the right of the picture (as noted by #4 above) is blocked off with police barricades.

  • Ok, I’ll admit it I didn’t see those barricades in the picture, but regardless I was thinking of 2nd Avenue and Lexington Avenue when I was writing.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    No Michael, the key is one less operator.

  • Well, yeah if the street has few cars, then it doesn’t matter what the MTA rolls down. Doubt that’s gonna happen for a while.


Congestion Pricing: Bloomberg Needs to Sweeten the Deal

Webster Avenue and Fordham Road, the Bronx Congestion pricing is in trouble. With just weeks to go before the Traffic Mitigation Commission makes its recommendations to the City Council and State Legislature, public support is waning and opponents appear to have the upper hand. The one sales pitch that scored high in public opinion polls, […]

Paradox, Schmaradox. Congestion Pricing Works.

We’re used to seeing bizarre patterns of thinking on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, but an op-ed in Friday’s Journal took it to a new level: “How Traffic Jams Help the Environment.” Photo: The Wall Street Journal Still more bizarrely, the author was New Yorker writer David Owen, promoter of the commonsensical idea that […]

Gene Russianoff on the MTA’s Day of Reckoning

Gene Russianoff, Senior Attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, has been New York City’s leading transit advocate for decades. Streetsblog recently spoke with Gene about the MTA’s impending fiscal crises and other transit issues. SB: How real is this predicted fiscal crises? How does it compare to past crises? GR: Start with the numbers. They have […]