The MTA has developed something of a Millennial fetish over the past few months. These are the young adults of my generation or even younger, the city’s 20-somethings who don’t own apartments or cars. They rent and rely on the subway to get them anywhere at any time, and the MTA, in its twenty-year needs assessment, recognized this cohort as a key driver of transit needs and demands for the next two decades. This focus on one large and important demographic may be overblown, but here we are.
As much as Millennials embrace the subway system (and CitiBike and, yes, taxis), they do not like buses. Can you blame them? New York City buses are hardly a paragon of reliable transit. They’re slow and off-schedule. They run infrequently along routes that are often incomprehensible, and it can sometimes be quicker to walk. Millennials — and New Yorkers of any age group — are in a hurry, and the bus isn’t the thing to take if you’re in a hurry.
Yet, for some reason, buses have emerged as the center piece of the mayoral campaign and a significant component of the MTA’s attempts to expand the transit system. For those vying for Gracie Mansion, buses are an easy improvement to trump. NYC DOT has control over city streets which gives the mayor an opportunity to implement bus plans, and the MTA is willing to go along with just about anything DOT wants when it comes to reallocating street space to buses. They’re cheap and relatively quick to put in place, and they don’t involve digging up entire streets and disrupting life and commerce for nearly a decade as subway construction along Second Ave. does.
This love of buses isn’t a phenomenon unique to the mayoral campaign. The MTA too is pushing buses, and in a talk at NYU’s Rudin Center yesterday, William Wheeler, the MTA’s Director of Planning, spoke at length about getting more Millennials to ride the bus. On the one hand, I’m concerned that the MTA’s focus on buses isn’t completely genuine. Perhaps because subway construction costs are so high in New York, the MTA has decided to punt. Instead of tackling the root causes of high construction costs — a lengthy review process, the potential for protracted litigation, onerous union work rules — the agency can just turn to buses for a low-cost, but also low-capacity, fix. Put some flashing lights on it; require preboard fare payment; and voila, Select Bus Service.
On the other hand, it’s important to build out a bus network where subways right now cannot or will not go, and there’s nothing underhanded or even partly malicious about it. The city should, in fact, demand a better bus route with ridership climbing instead of declining, especially if public transit has lost much of the stigma it used to have. It’s not just for the lower and middle class workers; it’s safe at night; it’s the way to get around.
During his talk, Wheeler spoke at length about the need for the next mayor to fight for bus lanes. The debacles on 34th St. and 125th St. shouldn’t be allowed to happen, according to the planners. But Wheeler also spoke about making buses more attractive to a younger generation of potential riders. He discussed adding wifi to the city buses as though free Internet would somehow be a carrot for a bunch of young people who already all have smartphones that hook up to the next-gen LTE networks. It’s an unnecessary idea.
I think this is a problem with a rather simple solution: If you’d like to attract riders to buses, make it more convenient and quicker. Buses don’t have to stop every two blocks or be beholden to traffic. Fight for dedicated lands, signal prioritization and pre-board fare payment options. Increase service and let people know where buses are and where they’re going. If buses can be faster and just as reliable as subway service — which, for all of our complaints, is pretty reliable — people will ride them. But if buses show up once an hour, not on schedule, and inch their way down an avenue, people who value their time will not ride. Making buses sexier doesn’t require anything more than that.