Every day, the 8.5 million people who live in New York, along with numerous tourists and others journeying in for work or education or fun, have to get somewhere. We have to get to our jobs and our schools, our grocery stores and our parks, and our museums, plays and baseball stadiums. We take subways and buses, cars and taxis, bikes and boats. On some days, our riders are smoother than others, but by and large this transportation network gets us where we need to be.
It’s not, however, all perfect, and lately cracks in a particularly vital segment have been on full display. New York City’s bus network seems to be hemorrhaging riders at a study clip, and although policy-makers have expressed concern over sharply declining ridership figures, they have not yet taken steps to solve New York City’s bus problems. A solution could require a major reconfiguring of how we prioritize traffic and street space, and current City and MTA officials haven’t been willing to dig in for a fight.
Earlier this week, NYC DOT released a new Mobility Report [pdf], and the colorful document highlights how New York City is more crowded than ever before and traffic speeds, especially in Manhattan’s so-called central business district south of 60th Street, have never been slower. “With record tourism, jobs and population growth, New York City is now experiencing packed subway trains, along with a 300% surge in daily bicycling since 1990,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg noted in a statement. “The report’s conclusions are clear: As we move forward, policy makers will need to redouble efforts to chart a course that supports mass transit and other options to keep a growing and thriving New York City moving.”
If only it were that simple. As the population grows, mobility has slowed, and buses have been the biggest victims of slow speeds. The numbers are stark. In 2000, annual bus ridership hit 699 million, and that number held steady until 2010 when the MTA slashed numerous bus routes and generally reduced service throughout the city. Since then, and despite a rollback of some of the cuts, annual ridership hit 651 million last year, and there is no indication this trend will reverse.
The report discusses the rise of cycling as a popular means of filling in holes in the transit network and solving many people’s last-mile problems, but it seems to lay the blame of the bus decline squarely on the shoulders of speed. Using BusTime data, DOT found that travel speeds in Manhattan, where ridership has sunk the most, are slowest, and in many spots, buses are traveling slower than a healthy adult can walk. For example, a westbound M42 averages 3.2 miles per hour between 2nd Avenue and 6th Avenue between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on a weekday. For many people, it is literally faster to walk.
That bus speeds are so slow is no big surprise, but what can we do to fix it? The report indicates that speeds are the cause for a decline, but it falls short of identifying any cures. Generally, three issues create slow buses. First, the boarding process where riders dip their MetroCards (and often struggle with it) is slow and clunky, creating very long dwell times at stations. Second, buses are subject to the whims of the street. Without dedicated infrastructure, buses get stuck in traffic, and even in places where dedicated lanes do exist, enforcement is spotty. Queue-jumping technology, or signal priortization, was supposed to be a part of the city’s Select Bus Service offerings, but it still hasn’t been rolled out. Add it all up, and you get slow buses.
From where I sit, fixing the buses would involve a massive philosophical change in which pre-board fare payment is the norm rather than a feature of a souped-up express bus. It would involve rethinking the bus network to ensure that buses provide connections between where riders are and where they want to be. It would also require a major push to bring dedicated bus lanes to far more areas of the city. Buses shouldn’t be a secondary mode of transit, subject to congestion; buses should get priority over surface congestion.
Ultimately, if the city is serious about eliminating congestion, especially in Manhattan, the answer will be some form of pricing model, but that will lead to the need to invest in buses. And to do that, the city has to start respecting buses. Otherwise, they will be forever stuck in traffic, inching slowly down their routes, sometimes faster than walking, usually slower than biking, and always a second-class mode of transit.