Musings on the role of buses in citiesBy
When the Straphangers Campaign released their latest takedown of the MTA’s bus system last week, something about it bothered me. While the Campaign doled out its usual Pokey and Schleppie awards for, respectively, the slowest and least reliable bus routes, they added a Trekkie, highlighting the MTA’s longest bus routes.
On the surface, the purpose of the Trekkie seemed to be to highlight the inanities of long bus routes. The M4 won the award for a rather circuitous route that runs from Penn Station up Madison Ave. to Fort Tryon in Northern Manhattan. The route is slightly more than 11 miles, and on-time end-to-end trip would take an hour and 50 minutes — or 23 minutes longer than Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service from Penn Station to Philadelphia.
Two items with similar themes that I read over the weekend made me realize the problem with this new award: It doesn’t highlight an understanding of local bus service. First, Andrew left a comment on my original post over the weekend. “I don’t see the point of the Trekkie,” he said. “Nobody rides a long local bus route like the M4 from start to finish. If you want to go from Penn Station to Fort Tryon, take the A train.”
Then, in a Brooklyn Eagle piece in which he tries to verify the Straphangers’ findings, Harold Egeln offers up a critique of the Straphangers’ survey. Although he focuses on the B63, winner of Brooklyn’s borough-specific Pokey Award, his observation is just as valid for the Trekkie:
Slow, yes. But the fact is that the bus serves an economically vibrant route brimming with shops, restaurants, schools and businesses, and directly serves Business Improvement Districts in Bay Ridge, Park Slope, Sunset Park and the proposed Atlantic Avenue BID area.>
That hyperlocal nature of the bus route is what makes the system effective. That ride along the B63 covers approximately 7.3 miles and does so at an average speed of 4.9 miles per hour. By any standard, that is a slow ride, but the point of the bus isn’t to provide end-to-end transportation. For that, a non-physically disabled rider would simply take the R from 95th St. to Atlantic Ave./Pacific St.
Rather, the bus is designed to provide easy access across various commercial strips, BIDs and residential neighborhoods. A properly designed and routed bus system will allow residents from nearby residential areas fast and reliable service to business areas that are just too far to walk. A good bus system will complement a subway system by providing service to those in-between areas. For someone at 60th and Fifth Ave. who wants to go to the Guggenheim, It doesn’t make sense to walk all the way over to Lexington Ave. to take the subway, but it does make sense to wait for that Trekkie M4 bus for a 28-block ride.
New York City’s bus system runs into problems when the bus is viewed not as a complement to the subway but as a replacement. It runs into problems along busy corridors — Fordham Road, 34th St., 2nd Ave. and 1st Ave. all come to mind — across which there is no subway service. Here, where buses are subject to the whims of surface traffic and the subway is just too far away or not an option at all, buses drag. No pre-boarding fare payment options create long load times. Non-preferential signal treatment and no dedicated bus lanes or adequate lane enforcement leaves buses stuck in traffic.
In the end, the Trekkie is a funny idea from the Straphangers Campaign, but it doesn’t work. It highlights the absurdity of long bus rides while ignoring the purpose of long bus routes. To enhance public transit, we need those long local routes. To improve the buses, though, we need a better Bus Rapid Transit plan.