Congestion Pricing and a Bus Turnaround: Two Great Policies That Go Great Together

Bus service got a boost from congestion pricing in London, Stockholm, and Singapore.

With the congestion charge, more people are traveling to central London by bus, and fewer by car. Photo: Dun.can/Twitter
With the congestion charge, more people are traveling to central London by bus, and fewer by car. Photo: Dun.can/Twitter

There’s a symbiotic relationship between road pricing and better bus service. Congestion pricing can speed up buses and reverse the decade-plus decline in bus ridership in New York. At the same time, other bus service improvements should complement congestion pricing to make transit more effective for people who leave their cars at home.

In a new paper, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign looks at how London, Stockholm, and Singapore rolled out congestion pricing systems and what New York can learn from each city. A common thread is the addition of bus service in tandem with the introduction of a congestion fee.

In New York, the sustained drop in bus ridership is the most alarming transportation trend in the city. The biggest drops have been in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where congestion pricing would do the most to relieve the traffic bottlenecks that slow down buses. To make the transition to a congestion charge as smooth as possible — and to get more value out of the reduction in traffic — New York will have to invest in better bus service and transit-priority treatments on the streets.

That’s what London did before and after Mayor Ken Livingstone implemented a congestion charge in 2003, Tri-State reports.

The day that the fee took effect, London put 300 new buses into service, increasing frequency and capacity. The number of buses crossing the congestion charge cordon increased by 23 percent. The city also updated and extended bus routes, and carved out new bus priority lanes to bypass traffic.

The autumn after the congestion charge went live, bus ridership within the cordon zone increased 38 percent compared to the previous year.

For officials in Stockholm and Singapore, improving transit was not a primary goal of congestion pricing. Still, to meet growing ridership demand, both cities took steps to increase bus frequency and service quality. Stockholm purchased 197 new buses and added 16 new bus routes, according to Tri-State. Singapore officials increased bus frequency and added high-occupancy vehicle lanes to prioritize buses and vans.

“The key lesson of congestion pricing is that in order to get drivers of all socioeconomic groups out of private or for-hire vehicles, affordable, accessible transportation options are necessary,” Tri-State writes.

These steps were implemented both in preparation for a congestion charge and as a result of its effects. London, for instance, continued to carve out street space for bus lanes and bike lanes after the reduction in traffic made those changes more politically palatable.

The deplorable state of subway service is getting a lot of attention in New York, as it should. But in addition to upgraded subway signals, Tri-State argues that congestion pricing should be used to accelerate surface transit improvements: new bus lanes, fare technology that enables all-door boarding, signal priority for buses at intersections, better bus stops, and electric buses to reduce pollution.

These are, not coincidentally, many of the same recommendations that advocates with the Bus Turnaround Coalition have been urging the MTA and NYC DOT to adopt since 2016.

If Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio decide to put some political muscle into transit this year, they can use congestion pricing in tandem with bus improvements to make New York’s car-jammed streets work better for everyone.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Start with this. Governor Cuomo proposed a ($30 billion at current prices?) tunnel to extend the #1 train just one stop to Red Hook, Brooklyn. Pie in the sky if not implanted, worse if it is.

    But before the recession, someone had the great idea to run buses traveling through Red Hook into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to a terminal in Lower Manhattan, where a change could be made to subways to a wide variety of destinations. It was a great idea that impressed me quite a bit.

    But instead, bus service was cut severely.

    With F service going to hell in a handbasket, why not extend the B61 — from both directions — through the tunnel, and perhaps the B5 besides?

  • William D. Blasio

    I’m sorry, but all those rich people taking the bus would hold up the poor working stiffs driving by themselves to Manhattan.

  • AnoNYC

    I agree. Why stop buses at borough borders?

    I wonder what other bus lines could be extended to serve as reasonable options into the Manhattan CBD. How about extending the SBS M15 to take over the Bx15 route?

  • Vooch

    $30 billion would build 60,000 miles of Protected Bike Lanes

    Sixty Thousand Miles – that more miles than the Interstate System

  • kevd

    How many buses even cross the rivers into manhattan now?
    Why not extend SBS routes (of which we need abot 5x more) into manhattan over bridges with bus only (or HOV4+) lanes?

  • Scott Voolker

    This was a great article. Just one little quibble: I wish that Streetsblog would not mimic other publications in equating traffic with cars. So instead of saying that “carved out bus lanes to bypass traffic,” it would be more accurate to say that “carved out bus lanes that allow the majority of the people who travel by bus to bypass the much smaller number who block road space with their giant metal boxes.”

  • kevd

    they don’t get paid by the word around here, buddy.

  • Joe R.

    “carved out bus lanes to bypass the minority driving automobiles” says the same thing in much fewer words.

  • Lewis

    “Singapore officials increased bus frequency and added high-occupancy vehicle lanes to prioritize buses and vans.”

    I feel like a dork nitpicking this, but the Tri-State writers have mixed up info about Singapore a little bit. I don’t blame them, as the Singapore system is confusing.

    This is from a line in the report “There were many complementary measures put
    in place to restrain car use in addition to the ERP scheme. Parking fees inside the restriction zone increased, the number of buses and bus frequency were increased, HOV+4 lanes were established, and over 15,000 park-and-ride spaces were established.”

    This part of the report is about Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing system, established in 1998, but these measures (parking fees, new bus services, park-and-ride) were implemented as part of Singapore’s earlier, manually-enforced Area License Scheme (ALS), also described in the report.

    Also, I don’t think they have ever had HOV lanes in Singapore. For example, here is an article in which the writer proposes that Singapore copy America’s HOV lanes

    What they did do, for the launch of ALS, was exempt carpools with 4+ occupants from the charge between 1975 and 1989. After 1989, those vehicles were charged, since the metro had been built a few years before and much better bus service was available. A couple years earlier, Singapore also had a big campaign to encourage carpooling, especially for public sector workers.

    If anyone is interested, I wrote up a history of downtown congestion pricing a few months ago. Now I am almost done cleaning it up for academic publication, with a lot more info and peer review.

  • Patrick

    We could eliminate 90% of the busses and make the streets a more pleasant environment for cyclists and pedestrians by implementing an electric scooter system similar to citibike. The busses that remain should be electric. As a NYC cyclist, I notice that most busses are empty, they needlessly run at all hours, and the drivers are some of the rudest and most dangerous on nyc streets. Down with the empty, black smoke-spewing monstrosities ruining the streets for the majority of nyc residents who will never set foot on a bus and suffocating the cyclists who get stuck behind these empty canisters of death.

  • Terrible take.

    Yes, buses should be electric. But even gas-powered buses are preferable to individual automobiles. Streets such as Myrtle Avenue, Jamaica Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, etc. should have nothing but buses and bicycles.

    Also, while there are some notable instances of MTA bus drivers behaving dangerously, in the main they are a lot more considerate than truckers. A bicyclist needs to remember to stay visible in a bus’s mirrors and, the driver will see you and accommodate you — unlike those nose-picking, cigarette-smoking dirtbags who drive trucks with a criminal obliviousness.

    An MTA bus driver once honked at me vocieferously and asked me to approach his vehicle. I rode over there with great curiosity, and I was pleasantly surprised to receive effusive thanks to me about my riding style, by which I waited behind the bus as it was about to pull out from a stop, rather than passing it on the left only to have it overtake me seconds later.

    All bicyclists should be enthusiastic supporters of mass transit.

  • patrick

    I’m in support of mass transit and yes there seems to be no depth to the depravity of certain truck drivers in nyc. But here’s the thing…

    I’d bet if you were to count the total number of people on the next ten buses you see while riding your bike (not counting the person driving the bus), you’d be hard pressed to reach ten. These buses are empty most the time. That’s not mass transit…it’s waste and senseless pollution. We must improve mass transit, but empty, hazardous, black smoke-spewing buses aren’t the solution.

  • I don’ t know where you live. But in Woodhaven, the Q53, the Q11, and the Q56 are definitely not empty most of the time. They are extensively used, at all times of day.

    If any given bus line is underutilised, that’s an argument for altering its route or even discontinuing it. There are places where the demand for bus service is not being met, a phenomenon which has given rise to the dangerous pirates known as “dollar vans”. Better to shift any underused buses over to southeastern Queens and other locations that are underserved, and recoup for our public agency the revenue that is currently being lost as it goes into the pockets of the unlicenced maniacs who pilot those ramshackle “dollar vans”.

    There is no excuse for making a broad denunciation of buses. Buses not only count as mass transit, but they are the most efficient form of mass transit. New subway lines are prohibitively expensive, and require more than any single person’s lifetime to construct. Whereas new bus lines can be put into place literally overnight. With sensible rules to prioritise buses on the streets, they would work even better.

  • I ride a lot of buses and I bike too, especially in a part of NYC without bike lanes. Have you ever seen a city with high cycling ridership that does not have quality public transportation? Buses need to be a part of that picture. There’s a lot of myths about who can/cannot ride bikes, but it’s still not going to be for absolutely everyone. Buses fill in that gap. Proper design, including real bus prioritization and legitimate separation of cyclists from all other traffic, will do the trick. Those buses are empty probably because they come every 20 minutes or more and move at walking speed; not a service many people want to count on.

    And adding to what Ferdinand said before me, fossil fuel buses are still way more efficient per person, and the industry has taken steps to make sure the air is as clean as it can be. Not clean enough, but even in that aspect, still preferable to single-occupancy vehicles.


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