Home Buses Small steps in solving the bus ridership problem

Small steps in solving the bus ridership problem

by Benjamin Kabak

For years, as our subway system has seen record ridership increases, the bus system has seen something of the opposite. Ridership has steadily declined over the years, and the MTA’s own actions in the form of service cuts have done little to stem the tide away from buses. On the one hand, I don’t blame people for not using local buses. As I’ve written before, they’re slow and unreliable and run entirely at the whims of surface traffic.

But on the other hand, the local bus network is a vital part of the city. Even if buses stop too frequently, they serve neighborhoods not easily connected by subway routes and offer increased mobility options for millions. In a sense, the MTA’s bus woes are entirely due to a lack of trying, and a few new studies underscore how simple changes can have a positive effect on ridership.

Our first glimpse at trends in bus ridership comes from within New York City itself. As BusTime has spread throughout the city, its system-wide deployment has coincided with a modest but steady increase in ridership. As CityLab notes, highlighting a study out of City College, bus ridership has jumped by around 2 percent following the availability of BusTime. It’s not easy to say if this is a situation where correlation and causation are related, and the MTA hasn’t publicly divulged user statistics on BusTime. But real-time information empowers potential riders to make informed and should drive up ridership as more people adapt the technology.

Eric Jaffe sums up the study:

A new study of a real-time bus arrival program in New York City offers an encouraging (if qualified) answer: it does generate new trips, though mostly for high-traffic routes. Candace Brakewood of the City College of New York and collaborators analyzed ridership patterns following the city’s roll-out of its Bus Time website. In a new paper they report a measurable jump in ridership (around 2 percent) that works out to upwards of $6.3 million in new revenue over the three-year study period…

Brakewood and company tracked bus ridership from January 2011 through December 2013. During that time New York launched real-time bus tracking in all of Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan. (The program has since launched in every borough.) The researchers compared pre- and post-launch ridership to get a sense of just how influential Bus Time was in rider decisions. They accounted for key variables such as fare and service changes, seasonal patterns, the opening of the Citi Bike system, and Hurricane Sandy.

On average, across all the bus lines included in the Bus Time scope, real-time information contributed to about 118 new weekday trips—a 1.7 percent bump. The more significant increases only occurred on the most-traveled routes, where real-time info led to 340 new daily trips, or a 2.3 percent spike.

For bus routes that often lose substantial money on a per-rider basis, even these modest gains can go a long way toward staving off potential service cuts. As Jaffe notes, these findings are in line with similar studies conducted in other cities, and a potential barrier to a higher increase is the rate of adaptation. I rarely see people waiting at bus stops checking for real-time information. Perhaps a public awareness campaign on the existence of BusTime may be in order.

Meanwhile, another study highlights a simple way to speed up buses that the MTA uses only on Select Bus Service routes. Examining San Francisco’s bus boarding policies, Muni officials noted that multi-door boarding significantly lowers dwell times. In New York, we’ve seen the practical affects of this finding as the time savings for Select Bus Service routes is due nearly entirely to pre-boarding fare payment and multi-door boarding options.

The key to the San Francisco study lies in the economics of it. Muni notes in the report [pdf] that “transit operations have improved without adverse financial impacts.” The SF agency added a rear-door card reader and increased fare evasion patrols to fight potential jumpers. With a modicum of effort, the MTA could implement something similar, especially along high-volume routes, and could improve bus service in New York without the multi-year rollout and brouhaha that accompanies every single Select Bus Service routes. It’s certainly worth a thought or two.

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Stephen Smith March 16, 2015 - 1:10 am

1.7% average ridership increase, or just 118 new weekday trips? What the hell kind of study is this? I don’t buy the BusTime thing AT ALL. (And why would high ridership routes see ridership rise even faster? Low frequency routes are the ones where you benefit most from realtime bus tracking.)

The Muni study is a lot more interesting to me. The overall time savings weren’t huge, just 1.8% (then again, the proof-of-payment implementation is not complete, and you can still pay with cash at the front if you want), but it was still impressive amidst rising ridership, which slows buses down.

The M86 “SBS” rollout will be interesting. As I recall, it’s PoP and branding, and that’s it – no lanes, no signal priority, no stop reduction (stop spacing is already fine). While I’d prefer a systemwide rollout of PoP, I’d also be happy if they quickly rolled out PoP-only SBS treatment on routes like the B41 (Flatbush Ave.) and B35 (Church Ave.), along with the other cross-park routes in Manhattan and others throughout the city with high ridership but without the abundant street width that the city and MTA deem necessary to take away lanes for buses.

I also hope that the MTA studies whether the time savings of PoP on the M86 pays for the cost of ticket vending machines and bus bulbs or whatever they install.

Desk Jockey March 16, 2015 - 11:41 am

Weren’t the time savings per person per boarding? Looking at it as that, 1.8% adds up quick with a 25 person crowd.

Stephen March 16, 2015 - 4:33 pm

From the PDF:

Faster Trips – From FY 2010-2011 through FY 2013-2014, average bus system speeds (including stops) improved modestly from 8.41 to 8.56 mph (2%). All-Door Boarding has helped keep Muni moving during a period of rapid growth in San Francisco and increasing demand on the transportation system. All-Door Boarding is just one of many tools such as exclusive transit lanes, transit signal priority and parking management that together can help reduce travel time.

8.41 mph to 8.56 mph is a 1.8% increase in speed.

Tower18 March 16, 2015 - 8:38 pm

How does this compare to average speeds of *all traffic* in San Francisco during the same time? In my anecdotal experience (4-5 weeks in SF per year, for the last ~6 years), traffic in SF and the Bay Area has gotten dramatically, dramatically worse.

ajedrez March 16, 2015 - 3:55 am

I would think that the gains would be most significant on the lower-ridership routes. If I know that a particular bus route runs every 30 minutes, but I see a bus is a few blocks away, it’ll make more of an impact in my decision to take that bus, as opposed to a high-frequency route, where if I already knew that the bus ran frequently and wasn’t using it before BusTime, I probably wouldn’t use it now.

Plus, on top of that, the few additional riders added to the low-ridership routes would represent a greater percentage of overall riders (though as they mentioned, statistically, a lower sample size means greater error).

Christopher March 16, 2015 - 5:42 am

SF has the RFID clipper card which speeds up boarding in general. Just tag it as you come into the bus. Their transit system is so dependent on trolley buses, just as DC is quite dependent on MetroBus, they’ve invested in lots of technological improvements over the years: bus time like systems, arrival time displays in the bus shelters, and LED signs about what streets are coming up inside the bus. And of course bike racks. I take MTA buses a lot to get around Brooklyn but I’m always taken with how behind our bus system is compared to other systems. It’s like we just assume no one takes the bus here.

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 9:04 am

As a note – even car crazed L A has implemented a smartcard payment system for it’s transit network called Transit Access Pass or TAP http://www.taptogo.com. If they can do it, we can & with far fewer issues.

If the MTA wants to creat greater bus ridership, they might want to start buying far more articulated & double decker busses. Seattle’s Metro Transit has the largest articulated fleet in the country & yet ridership there keeps growing rapidly.

tacony March 16, 2015 - 9:23 am

Doesn’t basically every major US city except NYC and Philly have RFID cards now? (And it seems that Philly will beat NYC too?)

Larry Littlefield March 16, 2015 - 9:33 am

It’s coming, I believe. The MTA wanted the banks to create the RFID system, rather than taking on another bespoke system from scratch. But the banks held out on investing the money to shift form old fashioned swipe cards.

Now the banks are making the switch.

You may have heard of the bidding war between Amex and Visa for the right to be the sole credit card payment processor for Costco. I’d imagine the MTA would probably look for a similar deal.

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 10:42 am

You would think that NYC being the global banking capital, that open source payment would have taken route here. All you would need is a few demonstration projects to show that it can be done & the rest would naturally fall into place. But nah – it’s to difficult & time consuming, plus it wasn’t invented here.

Larry Littlefield March 16, 2015 - 11:21 am

The plan is to shift to chip technology in the U.S. by October 2015.

The industry plans to hold individual retailers responsible for fraud in non-chip card readers after that date. That would presumably mean the MTA and its metro card machines.

I wonder how they are doing with that deadline?

Tower18 March 16, 2015 - 1:33 pm

I have noticed chip-enabled terminals showing up at even local supermarket chains, after beginning to show up at places like CVS, Duane Reade, etc., a couple years ago.

Also, as my credit cards are reissued, they are coming with chips. Half of my cards now have a chip included.

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 5:07 pm

The US is late to the party on this one. Europe & Israel have had chip based cards for quite a while now & fraud is nearly nonexistent.

Theorem Ox March 16, 2015 - 7:59 pm

U.S. credit card issuers are transitioning to the EMV standard, which uses a contact chip (in lieu of the magnetic stripe). Probably not the kind the MTA had in mind for use in fare payments.

As of contactless chips, it looks like many U.S. card issuers have lost interest in issuing cards with RFID chips embedded in it. I recall there was a brouhaha with the retailers taking exception about interchange fees related to contactless payments not too long ago. That led to some of the larger retailers intentionally disabling acceptance. Issuers have retrenched since. Notably, Chase stopped issuing RFID chipped cards last year when they signed a deal with Visa.

There’s seems to be something of an renewal of interest with the rollout of ApplePay, but issuers seem to be more interested in working to allow their cards to work with that program rather than resume issuing cards with RFID chips again

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 10:27 am

Doesn’t basically every major US city except NYC and Philly have RFID cards now? (And it seems that Philly will beat NYC too?)

Most do, but Las Vegas, Portland OR, Dallas & Charlotte still don’t. In the Portland case, TriMet is building their system as we type http://www.trimet.com. The RTC in LV uses passes that are similar to the Metrocard, but they are flimsier & you slide them in the same way you would enter the subway http://www.rtcsnv.com.

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 10:29 am
Brooklynite March 16, 2015 - 2:45 pm

NYC transportation already has a contactless card – it’s called Smartlink. There are even turnstiles that accept both Smartlink and Metrocard. What’s the problem?

Berk32 March 16, 2015 - 4:32 pm

PATH isn’t the MTA

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 5:12 pm

I think what he ment was that install Smartlink across the MTA region & you solve the problem.

Brooklynite March 16, 2015 - 7:11 pm

Yep – that’s what I meant, sorry for the bad wording. Just install Smartlink readers on subways and buses to start; commuter rail can come later.

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 7:47 pm

You are also forgetting about NJT. Therefore you need to add the railroads in the initial rollout. Our transit system CAN NOT be viewed as city vs suburb or state vs state. It must be looked at as a whole with a fare system to match.

Brooklynite March 16, 2015 - 10:40 pm

I know about NJT, but the easy thing about subways is that there are already turnstiles, as in PATH. Buses are already outfitted with card readers as well, it would just be a matter of putting one on the back door. Commuter RRs are certainly feasible, but there are more hurdles with that.

Berk32 March 16, 2015 - 9:06 pm

PATH = 13 stations….
MTA Subway = 468 stations…

Brooklynite March 16, 2015 - 10:39 pm

So? The technology has been demonstrated to work, on a small-scale pilot such as PATH. Now is the time to take it systemwide.

Alon Levy March 16, 2015 - 12:54 pm

Vancouver’s transitioning to a smartcard system, after much lobbying by Cubic, and it’s a complete disaster. What’s more, this disaster is generating constant bad news for the transit agency, to the point that, in polls about the upcoming referendum for a 0.5% sales tax to fund transit extensions, support has dropped from 55% in December to 33% today.

sonicboy678 March 17, 2015 - 1:35 pm

That’s a symptom of poor execution. The idea to transition to smartcard-based fare payment is not the problem.

Larry Littlefield March 16, 2015 - 7:37 am

There was a long period in the 1970s and 1980s, when bus ridership was high because many people, women in particular, were afraid to use the subway. As the subways started to recover, bus ridership began to fall.

In fact when the free Metrocard transfer was introduced, it was seen as a way to “save the bus system.” What it did was introduce a lot of short trips that people would walk when they had to pay for them.

As I’ve noted before, I think the answer is to turn the NYC bus system over the the City of New York, and have the MTA concentrate exclusively on rail, among other things as a way of having the city contribute to the MTA capital plan back door. NYC is the only place in the MTA service area where the MTA provides surface transit.


In addition, with the city of New York in charge the city’s local politicos might be less likely to treat bus riders like serfs and then blame the “unaccountable MTA.”

anon_coward March 16, 2015 - 9:10 am

for the outer boroughs the problem with the bus system is that unless you are taking the bus to the subway or the express bus it’s not worth the hassle to transfer. you might as well drive than take 2 or 3 buses if you want to go somewhere that’s not close to the subway

Chris March 16, 2015 - 11:15 am

We should just start over from scratch with some of the bus routes. Other cities have done this and have found out how to successfully connect neighborhoods with buses and promote bus ridership. *See DC Circulator. Our buses are slow, and not necessarily helpful. Particularly where they mimic the subway patterns beneath them. They could be focused on going through neighborhoods (yes, even residential ones) without excellent access to the subway and not just provide access to the subway, but also to neighborhood services. If done correctly, a bus can be a great economic development engine and it can be a “cool” way to increase mobility around previously disconnected parts of the City.

Michael March 16, 2015 - 11:44 am

Very often in discussions about subways and buses, there’s the often expressed idea of somehow changing bus routes that mimic or follow a subway route. Often not-expressed directly but hinted at is the idea that the subway can substitute for the bus.

One idea that even if a bus route does follow the subway route for a portion of its journey, is that bus and the subway service different transit needs. Buses often easily serve the elderly, the not-quite handicapped, and the handicapped, shoppers or those making short trips whereas using the subway might be more of a hassle for those riders.

Just a thought to keep in mind. Buses can and do serve many needs, an there are plenty of examples where the various services (subway, bus, SBS, express bus, etc.) complement each other to service the needs of the riders.


Chris March 16, 2015 - 11:50 am


You are 100% correct; I failed to recognize that in my post. Thank you. That is an important role that should absolutely not be eliminated. Those New Yorkers require reliable and direct transit as much as the rest of us. I continue to believe the bus network in general can be rethought however, to better connect neighborhoods with more local circulators leading to direct express/SBS buses (maybe those being the ones that don’t directly mimic the subways.) I am absolute not qualified to even begin to say I am an authority on transit, specifically busses, but I feel as if newer, more transportation progressive cities have done a better job in the last few years building out their bus network to more than supplement their subways, but rather to connect and provide entirely new routes within the Cities. This has had the ancillary benefit of changing the perception of buses, as well.

Eric March 16, 2015 - 11:57 am

So why do we need to spend billions on ADA accessibility, seriously decreasing the available money for all other capital improvements, when there are already parallel bus routes to serve the same population?

Bolwerk March 16, 2015 - 12:51 pm

He said they complement each other, not that they substitute for each other. He’s probably right.

Only a fraction of stations have or are slated to have ADA access, and some of them are bus-subway transfer points.

SEAN March 16, 2015 - 5:02 pm

So why do we need to spend billions on ADA accessibility, seriously decreasing the available money for all other capital improvements, when there are already parallel bus routes to serve the same population?

1. Busses aren’t a substitute for rapid transit.
2. The ADA is a federal regulation that prohibits exclusion of services including transit for those who are disabled. do to issues in making stations accessible, both the MTA & SEPTA were granted ADA wavors. These wavors included an extention of a decade to make key stations accessible. Even when the key station work ends, only about 25% of subway stations will meet ADA requirements. In the future, stations will get ADA treatments as they come up for renovation.

Alon Levy March 16, 2015 - 12:58 pm

Circulators are a bad idea. High bus ridership doesn’t come from them, but from linear routes that complement the subway. In DC, that’s the 14th/16th Street corridor, and the H Street corridor. In Los Angeles, that’s the Wilshire-Whittier, Vermont, Western, and Olympic corridors, and not the downtown circulators. And so on.

Chris March 16, 2015 - 1:02 pm

I’m not suggesting circulators only, or even for high ridership. They could be much smaller buses. Fairfax City in VA uses CUE to get people to and from a metro station, successfully. I am suggesting though, that we have a more useful bus system, that takes residents from neighborhood to neighborhood. Not simply tracing Columbus Avenue. In NE Queens there are no subways; The Port Washington Branch of the LIRR is surprisingly effective as a subway substitute and could easily be connected with under-served neighborhoods with better Bus connections.

Chris March 16, 2015 - 1:04 pm

Of course this then also raises the issue of subsidizing City Ticket for City residents on weekdays (LIRR) and single fare payment mechanisms. Look what I’ve started… Sorry!

adirondacker12800 March 16, 2015 - 2:02 pm

What kind of better bus connections?


Bus lines that run every 10 or 12 minutes all day long and every 15 on Sunday are pretty good for low density suburban service.

David Alexander March 18, 2015 - 8:16 pm

Bus lines that run every 10 or 12 minutes all day long and every 15 on Sunday are pretty good for low density suburban service.

The problem is that in the time it takes for the bus to show up for my trip, I’m already at my destination in some cases.

adirondacker12800 March 18, 2015 - 10:37 pm

Lucky you!

Bolwerk March 16, 2015 - 12:21 pm

The drop in bus usage could just reflect demographic change. Much of the appeal to living in NYC is subway access, so newcomers probably site themselves near subways if they can. This is especially important in outer boroughs, where buses don’t bring you to Manhattan jobs. If you want bus dependency, you can get that in any medium sized city.

Walder’s service cuts are the closest thing to a recent negative change buses have experienced, and they’re about 5 years old now. People could be slowly moving, changing jobs, altering where their lifestyle choices (e.g., go to a different school) based on those service cuts.

Ralfff March 16, 2015 - 1:29 pm

Anecdotal observation on Staten Island is that on the S48 at least, the suburbanization of poverty (or maybe impoverishment of the suburbs) has taken a toll—more people than ever at stops which used to be rarely used slow the bus to a crawl. There are more traffic lights than ever, and the resultant slow service has driven everyone with means to seek alternatives, including driving, worsening overall traffic.

aestrivex March 16, 2015 - 3:57 pm

When I first arrived in Boston, coming from New York, I didn’t use the buses at all because I didn’t realize that real-time bus schedules were available and when I tried to use them they were very late. Now that I realize the real-time data exists, it has become absolutely essential to my commute; the shortest commute usually involves two buses instead of taking the T.

I agree that the bus system in New York has an image problem of sorts, but it’s not a problem that can’t be overcome.

Rob March 16, 2015 - 4:11 pm

“I rarely see people waiting at bus stops checking for real-time information.” — why is that surprising? In some cases you have a reasonable alternative to a longer wait, but in many cases not. As hillary clinton would say, “what difference does it make?”

Spendmor Wastemor March 16, 2015 - 9:37 pm

In Manhattan the main routes (up/down) (usually) stop every five hundred feet.
Crosstown doesn’t move, you can walk as fast.

Thus we’re paying for these things to sit and block traffic, then we complain they’re stuck in traffic.

Theorem Ox March 16, 2015 - 9:54 pm

I’d like to add that Zero Vision seems to have done more harm than good for surface transit overall. (At least from my observations in my neighborhood in Western Queens).

The city planners must have thought that if they take away driving space (drawing extra lines on the road, installing bollards and bumps) and screwing around with traffic light timings, all the cars and trucks would magically go away and pedestrian casualties drop to zero. All this in a city that’s still growing in population, very reliant on street-running motor vehicles for supply chain logistics and public transportation (much less rapid transit) that is less than comprehensive and reliable city-wide.

I’m being optimistic here, but the only way I see Zero Vision having a legitimate shot at working out as intended is when NYC experiences mass depopulation. Or could it be that is the intention after all? “We never saw it coming…”

Spendmor Wastemor March 17, 2015 - 8:49 am

In 1940 Superman had Super-Vision. Instead of holding the Kawasaki-made B train at stone still at a station, the force of Super-Vision fought for the USA.
In 1950 we had a vision of year 2100, when there would be peace in the solar system and we’d have beach resorts on Mars.
In 1960 we had a vision of 2000, with flying cars and instant food.
Today we have Vision of Zero.

Your theorem is spot on.


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