For the MTA, it’s BusTime vs. Countdown ClocksBy
As we know, New York City buses are slow and unreliable. Delayed by the vagaries of surface traffic, the city’s buses rarely stay on schedule and inch along surface streets. Buses are underutilized and often looked down upon by even their own riders. Few advances in the way we treat buses represent lost opportunities to move New Yorkers quickly and efficiently.
Over the past few years, as bus-tracking technology has swept the globe, New York has slowly embraced it. An expensive pilot program along 34th St. brought proprietary technology and countdown clocks to the heavily-trafficked corridor, but when the MTA searched for a system-wide solution, the agency instead went with a distance-based tracking system and no countdown clocks. BusTime is an open-source solution with flexibility for growth and real cost savings over closed systems.
BusTime, of course, isn’t perfect. It requires the user to possess a smart phone or texting capabilities and actually know that the technology is in place. It is a distance-based system, and for a bus to travel 1.3 miles depends upon the route, the time of day and the traffic in front of it. New Yorkers like to know time in minutes, not miles. (For a succinct summary of the MTA’s failed countdown clock efforts, check out this Daily News overview.)
Now, though, some politicians and advocates aren’t happy. Noting how countdown clocks make subway waits more tolerable and empower riders, they want countdown clocks, and they wait them now. Earlier this week, Council Member Brad Lander announced a new initiative aimed at convincing the MTA to install countdown clocks on bus shelters. Lander is leading the way with a piece of legislation that “calls upon the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of Transportation, and Cemusa to work together to install bus arrival time displays in bus shelters using data from the MTA’s Bus Time technology.”
Streetsblog had more from the press conference:
With countdown clocks already available in many subway stations, Lander and advocates say bus riders deserve the same convenience, and that not everyone has access to a cell phone or the Internet before catching a bus…Lander’s office estimates that the counters cost between $4,000 and $6,000 to purchase and between $1,000 and $1,600 to maintain each year, based on figures from other cities with bus countdown clocks, including Washington, DC, Boston, Albany and Syracuse.
The MTA has argued that countdown clocks at bus stops provide marginal benefit to riders at relatively high costs, and is focused on rolling out its BusTime program citywide by the end of next year. By that time, Lander would like a plan for bringing countdown clocks to the city’s 3,300 bus shelters. The route to achieving that goal is murky; Lander introduced the resolution to start the discussion.
Lander said that, ideally, revenue from advertising on countdown screens would fund the installation and maintenance of the clocks. If advertising could not cover all costs, he suggested they could be borne in part by Business Improvement Districts, council member discretionary funds or other local partners interested in bringing clocks to their areas. Lander added that bus countdown clocks were a popular idea during the last round of participatory budgeting in his district.
I have a simple challenge for Brad Lander: He feels it will cost up to $20 million to install countdown clocks that can use the BusTime API to pull data (although reliably converting distance to time is another issue). He believes it will cost around $5.28 million for maintenance each year. Instead of passing a symbolic resolution urging a solution, simply find a way to pay for the clocks. The $20 million outlay is hardly a huge expense, but it’s one the MTA doesn’t want to and cannot fund right now. Lander could.
It’s easy to talk about countdown clocks, but there’s been a concerted and logical effort to adopt a tracking system for a reasonable amount of money that doesn’t use clocks. Ideally, timers would be prevalent, but they are less reliable than GPS-based distance measurements. Now, though, a group of politicians want transit improvements at a concrete cost. Deliver the funding, and the clocks could become a reality.