Sunday, 24 February 2013

Subway fares, gas tax - and why it's too expensive to cycle in New York

There are few New York businesses that command as much of my loyalty as 718 Cyclery, a friendly, specialist bike shop near where I live in Brooklyn. But there’s no question that I’ve handed them a fair amount of my money lately. A quick check through past bank statements suggests that in less than four months since last October 30 I’ve given this deserving business around $270 in spending on my own bicycle, plus another $14 or so on the Invisible Visible Girl’s machine. That’s leaving aside another $30 or so on bicycle maintenance at other bike shops and the $33 I shelled out yesterday for a replacement clip-on light for one that had gone missing. It’s cost me, in other words, around $80 a month over the last four months to keep my bike on the road.
The Invisible Visible Man's Surly Long Haul Trucker:
fun to use - but not that cheap

Some of that spending was certainly making up for a near-absence of spending in the few months before October. But add in the cost of the extra food I guzzle to fuel my nine-miles-there-nine-miles-back commute and the cost of the higher wear and tear on my clothes and it’s not clear I’m doing myself a financial favour by using transport that I don’t pay for daily. At the current basic New York subway fare of $2.25 for a single ride, four weeks’ commuting would cost me $90 – and there are numerous ways of getting the rides cheaper than that. Even a looming – and highly controversial – hike in the basic fare to $2.50 may not put me in the black.

But it’s not the bike shop’s fault I’m getting a relatively raw deal. It’s noticeably cheaper to keep my bike maintained in New York than it was when I lived in London. 718 Cyclery has been more than generous in carrying out free adjustments and calculating its labour charges. I’m at a disadvantage because pretty much every other means of getting about New York City gets a significant explicit or implicit subsidy of some kind.

It’s not a purely New York City problem. Virtually no developed country charges drivers enough in fuel taxes, tolls or car ownership fees to cover the costs that congestion, crashes and pollution impose on everyone else. Nearly every big international city tries to encourage commuters to shift to other transport means by susbidising public transport.

New York is nevertheless an extreme example. According to the Tax Foundation, a think-tank, taxes, tolls and other charges on motorists in New York State cover only 43.8 per cent of spending on the state’s roads. The proportion of the New York subway’s running costs covered by fares is still lower – and the system is visibly crumbling through lack of maintenance and upgrade expenditure. One might think that, along with reducing the appalling death toll on the city’s streets, a comprehensive rethink of charging for and funding of the city’s transport network would be the top subject for debate ahead of this year’s mayoral elections.

Yet there have been only two big transport talking points so far among the likely candidates to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor. One is whether the city should hand over a few more slivers of its vast road network to cyclists or, indeed, start taking out the bike lanes already in place. The other has been whether the city should turn its back permanently on congestion charging – the one policy that any city has shown can tackle problems like New York’s.

The Brooklyn Bridge: majestic - and under repair after
its pounding from all those New Jersey-bound drivers
Those problems, meanwhile, are immediate and practical. While the £10 ($16) congestion charge used to funnel through traffic away from my cycle route to work in central London, New York’s current financing arrangements actually push such traffic towards me. Every morning in TriBeCa, one of the most densely-packed areas of lower Manhattan, I see swarms of New Jersey-registered cars heading from the Brooklyn Bridge towards the Holland Tunnel going to New Jersey. Many seem to be avoiding the $13 toll charged westbound on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge further down New York Habour linking Brooklyn, Staten Island and ultimately New Jersey. Further uptown, the streets east of Central Park swarm with the traffic that pours from Queens across the free Queensboro Bridge to avoid the tolled alternative routes.

Yet it’s hard to imagine persuading men like the motorist I encountered on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn the other day that higher fuel taxes are the answer. Clambering out of his car with a weary look, he cast a wary glance over my bike and said, “Well, you’re certainly saving money on gas, buddy.” Precisely because US motorists pay far lower taxes on fuel than road-users elsewhere, they’ve seen far bigger percentage hikes in costs from recent years’ high oil prices. It’s impossible to imagine any politician persuading a US electorate in the foreseeable future of the case for increased fuel taxes.

The F Train at 57th street: cheap to use - but not much fun
Nor is it easy to imagine any politician raising subway fares to a level close to covering the system’s high costs. Visiting the New York Transit Museum last Tuesday, I read the grim story of how politicians have always struggled to raise fares on the system, first from a nickel to a dime and then gradually upwards. The problem is further exacerbated by the system’s inability to charge different fares for different distances. Most people would surely agree that $2.25 is a bargain to ride from Coney Island to the outer reaches of the Bronx. But start talking about raising fares and people picture themselves paying $3 to ride from Penn Station to 59th street, a different prospect altogether.

Central Park: scenic - and a neat northern border
for a charging zone
The only feasible answer, it’s clear, is for the successful mayoral candidate to resurrect plans to charge cars to enter the area where they are least needed and do most damage – Manhattan south of Central Park. The area is well defined, excellently served by public transport and currently blighted by vast quantities of traffic, much of which could go elsewhere. A reasonable charge would not only raise badly-needed revenue but also make a subway fare hike far more politically feasible. Those two manoeuvres together could unclog Manhattan’s streets, increase the incentives for drivers to switch to other modes and actually make it financially advantageous for commuters to switch to walking and cycling – the only modes doing virtually no damage to the city's environment or infrastructure. There’s no mystery about such a policy’s effectiveness. Congestion charging has reduced sharply and continuously the number of cars entering central London since its introduction 10 years ago. New York could surely come up with a more cost-effective charging system than the British capital.

Yet Christine Quinn, the city council speaker and the person many people expect to be elected mayor later this year, earlier this month said she didn’t anticipate congestion pricing’s “coming back around” after an effort she spearheaded to introduce the policy in 2007. That effort died after state-level politicians in Albany vetoed it. She has subsequently recanted slightly, saying she still supports the policy but doubts it can be successfully introduced.

That leaves New York City in a far worse state transport-wise than London before its congestion charge’s introduction. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority spends much of its income servicing its growing burden of debt, rather than improving the subway. New York City’s roads are crumbling under the weight of cars that pay far too little to make the damage good. The incentives for other mugs to join me on a less damaging transport mode remain negligible.

Future generations will look back with amazement at such predicaments in New York and elsewhere, shaking their heads and wondering why no-one had the courage to take the obvious policy steps. Some kind of charge for road use in Manhattan and many other big centres will inevitably come along. The spread of electric or partially electric vehicles – which pay no fuel tax – ensures it. In London’s story we already know it was the unlikely figure of Ken Livingstone – left-wing firebrand and scourge of Margaret Thatcher – who finally had the courage to bring in such a policy. For New York, it remains a mystery which visionary mayor will have his or her picture in the museums as the transport system’s saviour.

The tragedy for New York is that the identity of its transport system's saviour looks set to remain a mystery for many more years - through the whole administration of Christine Quinn or whichever other uninspiring choice next sits in City Hall.


  1. It is ironic that I can buy an annual transit pass for $49 that is subsidized by my company to the tune of several hundred dollars on top of the taxpayer subsidy, but nobody will put in a hundred dollar bike rack.

    1. I hear you, Steve A. When in London, I made several efforts to persuade bosses they ought to pay for business mileage by bike (of which I did a great deal). I saved them money on London's high public transport fares yet never got anything back. The group's head of environment eventually told me they couldn't pay for people to cycle for "health and safety reasons". I didn't really get a reply when I pointed out cyclists were generally safer and healthier than others...

  2. I think I spend about £60 a quarter on maintenance for my 3-mile each way commute. Easily cheaper than taking the bus, and much more convenient, even if I didn't use my bike for anything else, which of course I do.

    Caveat to above is that I try to do maintenance myself. However when I do pay for it, labour is normally a fraction of the bill: it's still mostly paying for the parts.

    But then the public transport round here is neither cheap nor useful. I think walking is actually quicker. Last time I took the bus it was because I had a twisted ankle so could neither walk nor cycle, and I still had to walk further than I could bear at each end.

    Walking would be cheaper, even give wear on shoes, but would cost me about 6 hours a week.

    It's likely I spend more on warm/dry clothing due to travelling by bike. Gloves in particular are a necessity on a bike in winter, whereas they can be shoved in my pockets if I'm walking. Umbrellas work for walking, but not for cycling.

    I did get my bike through cyclescheme (UK government tax incentive to buy commuting bike through payroll, as I'm sure you know, but others may not) but the saving wasn't huge.

    1. Hester,

      Thanks for your comment. The position in the UK is generally more logical (if only because most forms of transport cost far more than in the US). And labour is a relatively small part of what I pay here too. It is mostly parts.

      But even in the UK (as I wrote here - income from motorists falls around £3bn a year short of covering all the external costs of motoring (like congestion and pollution). So the position still has its illogicalities.


  3. This is a great post, but I'd challenge you on one thing. (You may have even meant it sarcastically, so forgive me if I read it wrong.)

    It's a myth, and one that is frequently used to discredit the environmental benefits of cyclists, that people who ride bikes consume extra food. On a personal, anecdotal level, I probably eat less overall due to the health benefits I accrue from cycling and certainly have less of an appetite for junk food. Look at major cycling cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam and the lack of obesity in those places - it's not because the Danes and the Dutch eat as much as Americans yet cycle more. They eat less junk, consume less processed food, and have a healthier society in general.

    The energy expended to walk one mile is about the same as the energy expended to cycle three. For most "cyclists," there would be only a marginal amount of additional calories needed to fuel a three- or four-mile casual bike ride to work or school.

    And besides, if I need an extra banana here or there, that's far better for the earth and my wallet than extra visits to the doctor. I know lots of fat drivers who eat more in a day than I could in a week!

    1. Doug,

      Thank you so much for your comment. There were lots of aspects of the post on which I could have expanded more - and the food thing is one of them.

      It's true that I regulate my eating far better when I cycle regularly than I used to in the few life stages when I didn't cycle much. There was a summer when I did 80 or more mile rides several times a week and I became really quite thin.

      But I'm afraid I do definitely get hungrier as a result of cycling - and I think lots of other cyclists do too. When I get home in the evening having raced home as fast as I can over nine miles, my appetite is really fairly voracious. If I undertake a longer or more strenuous ride, I notice a definite increase in my appetite.

      On top of that, the energy for cycling has to come from somewhere. Some of it can come from running down one's body fat (I've definitely got marginally thinner since moving to New York and having a longer commute). But ultimately one can't undertake any physical activity without burning energy from somewhere and, for cyclists, that ultimately must be from food.

      It's true that many non-cyclists eat excessively and very unhealthily and put on weight as a result. But ultimately it's a bit of a zero-sum game - the food energy goes into activity or fat. People with low activity levels will gradually get fatter if they eat too much. Cyclists are likely to be better at matching their food intake to their energy output.

      I'll make one other anecdotal point. Both now in New York and when I worked in London I tended to notice that the office cyclists, while never very fat, were often not that thin. I remember several mentioning that it reflected how hungry they got from cycling and that they wolfed food down on getting home in the evening.

      So, long story short, no - I did mean it seriously.

      On the other hand, I definitely don't think cyclists' food consumption destroys the environmental case for biking. I made that point here:

      All the best,


  4. I find it incredibly dispiriting to read accounts like this of other cities and countries dealing with cycling as cackhandedly as our own (The UK, that is).

    What kind of cataclysmic event will it take to shake our society at large and politicians in particular out of our overreliance on fossil fuels and the motor car?

    Your post on the externalities of motor car use ( was very interesting. So many people point blank refuse to accept that our priority should be on making motor vehicle use more expensive and difficult, not less so.

    1. David,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think in many ways the US is dealing with this issue rather worse than the UK, albeit some pockets of the US are beginning to take cycling promotion and so on more seriously.

      There's a problem pretty much everywhere with persuading people to pay realistic prices for transport. It's an unpopular view, but I used to get upset with the whingeing about rail fares in the UK. Around 70 per cent of UK rail journeys begin or end in greater London - and a very high percentage are commuter journeys into central London. But it was regarded as axiomatic that train travel should remain heavily subsidised, with taxpayers paying around 50 per cent of the cost of each journey. I always struggled to understand why bus drivers in Bradford or some other place poorly served by rail were meant to pay for the commutes of stockbrokers from Hampshire.

      The issue with persuading American motorists that taxes need to go up is much the same issue, writ hundreds of times larger.

      My worry, meanwhile, is not particularly about oil. Cars are using less and less oil as time goes on and I suspect that reduction will continue. I am more concerned about how the private motor vehicle blights many communities with noise, accidents and congestion. Hybrid and other economical cars represent just as big a congestion menace - and a charging system based on fuel taxes is becoming ever less adept at coping with it.

      All the best,


  5. I agree that we need to make motoring more expensive in NYC for a variety of reasons.

    That said, I'm surprised by how much you spend on bike maintenance. How much of those $80/month over the last few months are truly "expendables", and how much "capital investments"? (For example, if you happened to spend $80 last month on a new pump which will last you many years, it's hardly an "$80/month" expense.)

    I know that I'm on the cheap end of the scale, but I'm pretty sure I spend less than $80 per _year_ on my bike. I make most repairs myself, but even if I added the time I spend, which is not much, multiplied by my hourly rate, it would still be very inexpensive. (Most repairs are fairly quick, and going to the shop also takes time. And I prefer to think of that time as "hobby time".)

    In my particular case, given the length of my commute, and the price of the alternative (MTA), I estimate that I save about $0.40 per mile when I ride my bike. (Obviously, the longer your commute, the smaller the per-mile savings when the alternative is a single MTA fare.) I admit I haven't included wear and tear of clothes and excess food consumption in this calculation, but I tend to buy cheap clothes too...

    Also consider that some people save time and money that they would have spent on a gym by exercising during their bike commute. :)

    1. Unknown,

      Thanks for your comment. I share your surprise at my expenditure.

      A fair amount of the recent expenditure is capital spending that will last for a while - and it comes after a while when the bike was running fine and I was simply giving it the occasional degrease and clean. The biggest expenditure was a single slug of $128 for a new chain, rear cassette and chain ring. They should all last a while (particularly if I remember to replace the chain in good time). Most of the rest has been on things like replacing gear and brake cables and tyres mainly. In one frustrating case, I had a job done so badly at one bike shop I had to take it to another to have it redone. So it's a spike in spending and some of the expenditure will last a while.

      That said, I'm riding 18 miles a day - more some days - and I'm big and heavy. That's a punishing schedule for the poor bike. And you're certainly correct that it's the length of the commute that makes it such a bad deal by comparison with the subway.

      All the best,


  6. You'll save a considerable amount learning to do your own repairs and buying the necessary tools. Just a spoke wrench, cassette tool, and chain tool will cover most of what you need, and all three can be had for well under $50. As for parts, look on eBay first before going to brick-and-mortar stores which invariably charge more. I know it's nice to support your local bike shop (if you have one), but if you have an unlucky week those repairs can add up fast. I don't have a local bike ship anyway. The closest one is over 2 miles away, and they rarely have what I need.

    Try airless tires. That avoids the single most common bike repair, and it also avoids being stranded with a flat. They're not as bad as they used to be. Some ride nearly as good as pneumatics, and roll nearly as good also. My tires cost me about 1.5 to 2 mph off my average speed but for utility cycling, or even recreational riding like I mostly do, this really doesn't matter-I'll get there just the same whether I average 15.5 mph or 17 mph. They also seem to last a lot longer. I was lucky to get 3000 or so miles out of air tires, but I have over 8000 miles and counting on my airless ones (the rear looks like it'll be done by the 10,000 mark, the front will probably be good until it hits 20,000).

    By my own best estimates my maintenance costs are coming in under 5 cents per mile. I don't include the purchase price of the bike here. Last year I bought a titanium Airborne on eBay for $1325 shipped. That purchase price will be amortized over probably at least 50,000 miles, perhaps twice that, which puts it well under the repair costs. Even if we call it 5 cents per mile, then that's ten cents per mile total, or $1.80 per day for your particular commute. I'll bet a person getting a cheap beater bike and doing all their own repairs could keep it on the road for under 3 cents per mile.

    All that said, for a 9 mile commute I would probably opt for the subway unless I worked off hours. The distance is well within my ability, but I hate riding in the heavy traffic I would see going to work during normal business hours. It probably would take more time than the subway besides. I can usually get to Manhattan in 35 or 40 minutes with a combination of the bus to the subway and the E/F train. I couldn't ride those 11 or so miles in that amount of time except maybe between 8 PM and 5 AM.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your kind advice. I already do most of my maintenance myself. I replace brake blocks and so on myself, adjust gears and so on. The sums mentioned here were for fairly major work. For example, I'd had a wheel built in a hurry - and badly - by a bad bike shop. It was entirely out of dish and consequently it was impossible to get anything adjusted properly. The other issue is a simple time one. I'm in work for around 9am in the evening and am lucky to be home at 9pm at night. It would be nice to have time to scan eBay for spares - but I'm short of time for eating and sleeping most of the time.

      As for tyres, I warmly recommend Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres (one of the expenditures included above was a new pair). They essentially never get punctures - although I can easily repair them myself.

      As for the nine-mile commute, it does take a while - but I ride four of the miles up the Hudson River Greenway, which is traffic free, and have another mile-and-a-half over the Brooklyn Bridge. The bits through TriBeCa, mid-town and downtown Brooklyn aren't great. But they're eminently survivable.

      All the best,


    2. OK, it sounds like you have a handle on the situation but just had a bad week as far as bike repairs go. It happens to all of us. I only bike commuted to one of my jobs, which was about 3 miles away. For the rest the subway was just faster and more convenient. Now my "commute" takes 30 seconds from my bedroom to my downstairs electronics workshop. 5.5 of your 9 miles doesn't sound too bad. Since you mentioned the Hudson River Greenway, the city needs a lot more of that type of infrastructure, both in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. A more direct route into Manhattan from where I live would probably be about 9 miles or so. On bike roads without cars where I wouldn't need to stop that's an easy 30 minute ride, maybe even less on days I'm feeling good. That could get me to stop using the subway altogether.

  7. I really feel that I cannot afford to not ride a bike.
    About 5 years ago my bike was stolen from inside a building while I was working on the outside of the building. The co-op board (my clients) offered to buy me a new bike, and so I had to give them the cost of the bike, and its parts. The bike had originally cost me about $25 (bike rescued from friend's cellar) with new wheels, good kevlar tires, probably a better saddle, might have added better brakes, a rack, the lights, etc. After tallying the total, it was still less than $400. This bike however represented lots of time and effort on my part, much more so than outright cost. So I added the cost of keeping my sanity in this great city...priceless. The board magnanimously gave me $500 for a new bike. I was able to buy a fab cyclocross racing bike as my new commuter, although it now sits forlornly in my hall while I ferry my kids to school on my cargo bike. I more or less feel subsidized.

    As for food, I eat a lot. My husband eats more. One joy of biking around this city, is that I can easily pick up fresh fish on my way home, or bread, or fruit, or whatever, wherever, and feel that I am eating what I bought, with little to no waste. Since 99% of all my shopping is done on the bike, this makes me very efficient with what I buy. When I did have a car, I would ultimately throw out food that went off, as I got more than we could eat. That happens much less now.

    And finally, time wasted is lost money. My job requires me to travel to different parts of the city, and except for a few trips (East New York to Midtown) I am faster on my bike, and I can get more site visits in. I work hard to be on time even between meetings, and if not, I am above ground to call and let someone know my meeting is running late. Plus I can actually make up time on my bike if I am running late. The best sprint workout is pushing it to the time limit to pick up the kids on time at the end of the day. Getting door to door midtown to a Brooklyn PS in 30 minutes is going to be hard any other way -thanks to the Hudson path and a good tail wind. I will keep an eye out for your Surly!

    1. Hilda,

      Thank you so much for that comment. I fully agree with you about the joy of getting about between meetings by bike. When we lived in London, I used to go to all my meetings by bike. When I had to go somewhere outside London, I'd often put my bike on a train and ride from the station. There was a real satisfaction in working out routes and getting to know the city well in a way one doesn't on mass transit.

      I am very impressed, meanwhile, with your midtown to Brooklyn time.

      All the best,


  8. Thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough article.

    In thinking about the cost-benefit of my ~3 mile commute within Mahnattan (mostly crosstown). I compare the cost of riding to the cost of a comparable cab ride. Considering that these are roughly equal time-wise, and that the snail-like crosstown buses are just too slow for me, I feel pretty confident that I come out well in the black by riding. The $10-15 saved relative to a cab make it pretty easy for me to justify the maintenance that my bike needs to keep me safe and speedy. The right products (Marathons and Gatorskins, a single speed drive-train, and kool-stop brake pads) are leading to longer and longer intervals between maintenance to boot.

    Now if only everyone's commute could involve 4 miles a day in Central Park, we'd have a much happier city.

    1. Jonathan,

      I must confess - being a limey newcomer to the city - that I hadn't thought of comparing bike commuting costs against New York City cab fares. But you have brought to mind how many people I see along Clinton Street in Brooklyn every morning, hands raised, waiting for a cab. It's obviously a significant way of getting to work in New York.

      By comparison with the taxi over the distance you mention, yes: you're definitely saving money. I should also point out that over the last three days since subway fares and the tolls on the tolled MTA bridges went up, traffic in Manhattan has grown far worse (triumphantly proving my point about undercharging for road use).

      On top of that, you're getting to commute every morning through possibly the world's most magnificent urban park. You're very fortunate. Enjoy it.

      All the best,



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