When the MTA cut service last year, they made subway travel slightly less convenient. Waits were a minute or two longer as trains were somewhat more crowded, but by and large, other than those who took the M to lower Manhattan or relied upon it along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn, the subway cuts went largely unnoticed. In fact, ridership has continued to climb despite the service reductions.
The bus cuts, on the other hand, produced some rather dramatic results. Take a look below at the chart showing bus ridership since March 2009. This is not a trend which we should be applauding.
On the most basic level, the cause of this slowdown in bus ridership can be traced to the service cuts. The MTA eliminated numerous high-cost routes that, despite low ridership levels, served a good number of people in the aggregate, and it cut back other service on nights and weekends. If there are fewer buses, there will be fewer bus riders. That’s just a basic lesson in transit economics.
Yet, on a more advanced level, the MTA says more is at work here. That bus ridership declined by 13.2 percent while subway ridership increased by 12.6 percent can’t just be explained by the service cuts, and in the Wall Street Journal this week, Andrew Grossman tried to find out just what’s going on here. The authority is blaming everything from the economy and socioeconomic makeup of bus riders to increased surface congestion. “We don’t know exactly why, but we’re seeing a decline in the inner portions of the boroughs,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said to The Journal. “One thing that is contributing to that is traffic congestion. The buses just are not traveling at optimal speeds. Other than that, we can’t really pinpoint why ridership is declining on portions of these routes.”
Grossman pinpoints a number of other potential causes:
Some of the decline is by design. When the MTA eliminated dozens of bus routes last summer to save money, it focused on places where buses ran along subway lines. The B39, for example, used to run over the Williamsburg Bridge—right next to the J, M and Z trains. The authority also reduced the frequency of certain bus routes. At the same time, subways have gotten some high-profile improvements, such as digital clocks that tell straphangers when the next train is coming…
Another factor: Buses are breaking down more often. MTA data show the average distance a bus travels before it needs repair has been decreasing as the bus fleet ages…Then there’s a city economy in which some neighborhoods are thriving while others struggle. That’s one of the causes MTA Chairman Jay Walder pointed to when asked about the decline Wednesday. “Some of it may also have to do with the ways in which the economic recovery is taking hold and the ridership in different parts of the city,” he said.
Neighborhood farthest from subway routes have some of the city’s worst joblessness, according to data compiled by the James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank. In places such as Flatlands and East Flatbush in southern Brooklyn, which have subway lines only at their edges, the unemployment rate was around 13% in the third quarter of 2010, Mr. Parrott said. People without jobs have fewer reasons to travel. Meanwhile, they have to pay more for trips they do take since the fare went up at the end of 2010.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t sound as though the situation is going to improve any time soon. With the onslaught of 328 new articulated buses, the MTA will scale back bus service even further in the coming years. It might just be the perfect storm of economic factors, service cuts and unreliable service. Maybe the buses will gain in popularity when the MTA’s BusTime tracking program has spread throughout the city. But maybe, if the authority doesn’t support bus service, ridership will continue to bleed away from an important piece of the surface transportation puzzle.