The Select Bus Service along 1st and 2nd Avenues has been in place for all four days, and already, East Siders are calling it a failure. Egged on by a media that seems to be rooting for failure, bus commuters along these two avenues have shown no patience for the new bus service. “This is awful,” Sarah Schneider said to Pete Donohue of the Daily News as she waited for the bus on Tuesday.
From the get-go, press coverage of the Select Bus Service has been, as I explored earlier this week, highly critical. Instead of examining the benefits of the new bus service, the press has focused only on the hiccups, and the public has picked up on the complaints as well. Someone had to wait a few extra minutes for a bus? They get a quote in the paper. Someone doesn’t understand how to pay before boarding? They get a quote in the paper. Someone thinks Select Bus Service is just too darn complicated? They get a quote in the paper.
Eventually, something has to give, and Mayor Bloomberg this week has lashed out at the media. “I’m sure there’s going to be confusion this morning,” he said to reporters. “I’m sure you’ll write a big exposé that it’s a total failure, and six months from now, you will never write the story that it’s the success that it’s going to be.”
The MTA, who went through similar growing pains before the Select Bus Service in the Bronx became a success, is going to wait out the storm. “There’s much room for improvement,” Transit spokesman Charles Seaton said on Tuesday. “This is our first full day of weekday service. We’re going to keep monitoring and adjusting this service every day until we bring it up to the level that we expect and our customers expect.”
There is but one problem though: The reaction to the Select Bus Service isn’t just your typical response to change from New Yorkers who like their routines. Rather, it is a reaction to the MTA today. The beleaguered authority has lost so much public credibility that it can’t just tell people it’s improving bus service; it has to show them instead. But when New Yorkers grow so apathetic toward transit, showing gets that much tougher.
The idea of Select Bus Service in New York City is not a new one. The plans for this bus network grew out of a series of meetings between transit advocates and local politicians in the early 2000s, and over a series of MTA heads and DOT commissioners, the current Select Bus Service plans were developed. This isn’t, as one critic on Second Ave. Sagas charged, something Jay Walder created.
Meanwhile, the East Side bus routes aren’t the first to enjoy the SBS upgrades. The Bx12 has been a part of the Select Bus Service pilot since mid-2008, and after lane enforcement issues and initial difficulties with the pre-boarding fare payment system, the SBS route has drastically improved bus service. Manhattanites should take a lesson, but they don’t. They didn’t attend the numerous planning meetings and community open houses; they didn’t absorb the news coverage of the bus changes; they didn’t listen to their elected politicians who openly championed improved bus service.
For the MTA, this is but another in a long line of public examples of distrust. When Jay Walder says he won’t cut service again before his term is out in 2015, no one believes him even though the MTA’s 2010 service cuts were the first in a generation. When the authority talks about bringing technology online or replacing the MetroCard, most people question the rationale for these decisions. If it isn’t broke, if the bus moves very slowly but still moves, why change a good thing?
The media of course is willing to pick up on it. It’s far more interesting to find the people who want to complain than those who noticed a ride to work on the M15 that was 20 minutes faster today than it was a week ago. Yet, the MTA hasn’t earned public trust, and the customers doubt this seemingly top-heavy authority can deliver the goods. Until the agency starts showing instead of telling, it will, for better or worse, be left with a credibility gap perpetuated by politicians looking for brownie points and reporters looking to move copies of the paper. That’s life in the age of MTA skepticism.