NYC congestion pricing needs a transit plan. Here’s one for the buses.

By Annie Weinstock and Walter Hook

On the same day in 2003 that London kicked off its congestion charge, Transport for London (TfL) put 300 new buses on its streets, began running several new bus routes into the congestion zone, and upped the frequency on some existing routes. Within the first year, they were seeing 29,000 new bus passengers entering the congestion zone during each morning rush. London understood that if they were going to charge people to drive, they would have to give something meaningful in return.

London increased its bus service into the congestion zone as part of its congestion charging package. Photo by mariordo59/Flickr

Congestion pricing in New York City finally appears to be moving. But so far, its all stick and no carrot. While the chances of it succeeding are better than ever, there remain substantial risks that politicians will lose their nerve, or that exemptions will be handed out like placards.

Congestion pricing must go hand-in-hand with transit improvements

In a 2019 report, the Regional Plan Association began calling for better transit options as part of the congestion pricing launch. Streetsblog, and many of the NYC transit advocates, echoed this alarm shortly thereafter, concerned that it was already late in the game to be thinking about it. That was almost a year and a half ago.

Of course, Covid has changed things. While transit ridership is returning, subways are only at 40% of their pre-pandemic ridership, buses are at about 50%, and commuter rail is down to 30%, while traffic on the East River bridges is nearly back to normal. Nobody knows when or if office workers will return to Midtown in the same numbers. While the federal rescue package has averted the nightmare scenario of 40% service cuts, the MTA still faces ongoing financial risk.

Without a capacity-driven imperative, the MTA is not yet focused on transit improvements into the zone. MTA recently announced plans to hire five new managers to help oversee the congestion pricing program. But, as far as it seems, none of them would be responsible for rolling out coordinated transit improvements.

Politically, this is a mistake. People are likely to be more open to congestion pricing if they know they are getting something cool in exchange. It is not exciting enough to use the money to simply bail out the MTA’s debt. The MTA should be planning, and immediately sharing its plans, for transit improvements into the zone.

We think it’s important to consider both bus routing and bus priority as winning solutions.* Given the void, here are some bus-related ideas we think MTA should consider.

Bus routes across the East River into the Congestion Zone

With less traffic congestion, the prospect of buses on the bridges gets brighter. They will go faster and could provide more direct options for certain origin-destination pairs. Adding more bus service over the East River bridges will also make the transit network much more resilient in the event of another Sandy or major repairs on the subway.

Today, the only local bus route between Brooklyn and Manhattan is the B39 which, pre-Covid shuttled only 218 daily passengers from the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, over the bridge, to the Delancey Street F/J/M/Z subway stop. This route is strangely short and has very low demand. While Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn suggested cutting it or leaving it at its current low frequency in their Brooklyn bus redesign proposal, we think a better option is to replace it with a better, higher frequency Brooklyn-Manhattan route.

The Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges do not have any bus routes.

Current Brooklyn-Manhattan connections are limited to the B39 over the Williamsburg Bridge and express bus routes through the Hugh Carey Tunnel.

On the Manhattan side of the East River bridges, there are no frequent crosstown transit services — bus or subway — in Manhattan below 14th Street.

There is very little crosstown bus service in lower Manhattan.

We propose extending several bus routes (as below) from Brooklyn and across the East River bridges. Once in Manhattan, the routes should continue crosstown.

Extending these routes crosstown would provide a more direct trip from many origins in Brooklyn and Queens across Manhattan, where most of the subways come up through the financial district or turn north at Broadway. It would also strengthen missing or weak bus connections within Manhattan.

Our proposal to extend the B38, B41, B44-SBS, and Q59-Ltd across the East River and crosstown

Today’s B44-SBS, on Bedford and Nostrand Avenues, could be extended across the Williamsburg Bridge, turn up Allen to Houston to provide a clean transfer to the M15 SBS, and then go crosstown on Houston where the M21 is very infrequent. The B39 over the Williamsburg, instead of cutting it, might instead be connected to the Q59, turned into a limited to speed up the trip, and extended across Delancey.

The B41, a highly popular route with 22,500 pre-pandemic daily passengers, runs down the entirety of Flatbush until turning onto the Fulton Street Mall. It might instead continue on Flatbush over the Manhattan Bridge and provide the first crosstown bus service on Canal Street.

The B38 could continue over the Brooklyn Bridge and go crosstown on Chambers Street. A Hugh Carey Tunnel route might also be considered though traffic in that tunnel may increase due to a more equal distribution of pricing on the East River bridges.

Finally, the Q60 already traverses the Queensboro Bridge to bring passengers from Jamaica to Midtown. However, it terminates at 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. The Queens Bus Network Redesign proposes cutting it to terminate in Long Island City and never crossing the Queensboro Bridge. We recommend instead extending it further across Manhattan to connect with more subways.

The express buses also have an important role to play for people living in parts of the city with weak subway connections into Manhattan. This will be addressed in a later blog.

BRT, busways, and bridge lanes

Extending these routes will save some passengers time by giving them a one-seat ride to certain popular destinations. Yes, they would become longer and irregularity may become an issue. But the solution to this is not to terminate the route just before the congestion zone, but rather to address the bottlenecks along the route that cause the bus bunching.

That’s why NYCDOT should be planning right now to grab some road real estate for buses (and bikes!) as part of the congestion pricing launch. It should be done on Day 1 when traffic is at its lowest and people are already expecting big changes.

With less traffic, dedicated bus or HOV lanes on East River bridges should be easier to implement. This is certainly the case on the Manhattan Bridge, which is already well over capacity with 3 more inbound lanes than outbound lanes even today. Converting lanes to bus-only on the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges should also be easier if done on Day 1 of congestion pricing.

Canal Street is one of the most dangerous streets in the city: so much so that Transportation Alternatives has a campaign called Fix Canal: Manhattan’s Boulevard of Death. But the current pricing structure on the City’s bridges has, for years, led Canal to be a highly traversed through street, particularly for trucks, something which congestion pricing should largely mitigate.

Canal Street could be so much safer and congestion pricing is an opportunity to make the street safer and more attractive, while also providing a great bus connection from Brooklyn to Manhattan. B41 BRT on Canal Street is an exciting option.

B41 BRT for Canal Street, assuming much wider sidewalks than today, a loading zone on each side and one through lane in each direction. Bike lanes could be included with some trade-offs.

Of course, the B41 currently travels on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Flatbush, as any cyclist knows, is by far the most direct route across much of Brooklyn, but it is currently a slow and dangerous thoroughfare. So slow, in fact, that in 2019, TransitCenter gave it a failing grade of F and the Transit Workers Union led a campaign called Restore the B41.

The congestion charge makes a full BRT and bike boulevard on Flatbush leading over the Manhattan Bridge possible. It would be an extremely fast interborough trip for buses and cyclists alike that would help restore the ridership that was seeping from that route between 2014 and 2019.

Many of these treatments could initially be done with quicker, more tactical median-aligned bus lanes and busways, limited to congested stretches of the routes. At this point, this might be the best way to ensure they are implemented on Day 1. However, plans should be set in place immediately to design and build them out with more permanent materials within the first few years.

*We covered bus route changes in this piece because that is our area of expertise. Subway improvements may also needed.

Reorientations is a blog by the staff of People-Oriented Cities. Each post provides a novel idea for “reorienting” cities away from cars and towards people.